Airborne Awesomosity

When In Doubt Just Ram Them! The XP-79

Northrop XP-79

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Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes. In this case that would lead to some very unusual design decisions and ultimately another prototype for the pile.



Messerschmitt ME 163 Komet

[image credit – @2011 Wayne Moyer]

Towards the end of World War Two several rocket powered fighters made an appearance. The most notable was the ME-163 Komet, that would serve as an excellent point defense fighter except for a few problems such as it’s ability to kill its own crew nearly as well as the enemies. The American military watched this from afar with great interest and decided that they needed one of these for their very own.


Northrop XP-79 showing its unusual control devices

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In a time of war the US Military knew there were two safe bets to look towards. First was Howard Hughes but he was off having his own issues with the Spruce Goose which left one other. Jack Northrop was a brilliant engineer who was fascinated by flying wings and throwing away everything in the book that was thought to work.  He would truly start with a blank sheet of paper and build up from there.


Note the seating position for the pilot

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At this point in the war the various armies understood the need for a point defense fighter. Where an interceptor or bomber destroyer are designed to spend some time loitering around looking for their target this one did not. The fuel endurance of the ME-163 was around six minutes at which point it would become a glider and a wonderful target for the planes who it just embarrassed.

Understand that it could get to 30,000 feet in one minute from the time of launching.  When a bomber stream surprises you, time is not a luxury you have. So time to target is very important. The Russians and Japanese both had rocket fighters in development whose job was the same as the little Komet’s.  Neither of these were ever put into production since this was on the bleeding edge of technology of the time.


Northrop XP-79

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Which leads to the contract being handed over to Northrop in 1942 for a rocket powered point defense interceptor. It was to powered by new engine called a rotojet but this engine never made it past the prototype stage itself. In 1934 the XP-79 was converted to use two new Westinghouse jet engines of 1150 pounds thrust each. The little fighter weighed in at less then two tons and this would be plenty of encouragement for it to get to speed.

Of note are several features of this design. First is that it was built using a magnesium structure to reduce it’s weight. This gave the little aircraft an unusually strong set of wings. The next unusual feature was  placing the pilot in the prone position using a tiller instead of a normal flight stick. This would allow him to withstand 20g’s instead of the normal nine or so that a sitting pilot can withstand.

Next up you will see the bellows on the wing tips. These were boosted and replaced the standard ailerons for the aircraft. Last is the unusual four point landing gear which was necessitated by the size of the aircraft and the placement of the pilot. All of these together led to one of the most advanced and unusual aircraft of it’s time.  One last point here that will answer the title of this article. When the pilot ran out of his fifty caliber ammunition he was to be instructed to use the XP-79 as a battering ram to remove the tail of an enemy aircraft. It was believed that the plane was strong enough for this. This design feature was never tested.




Not quite the same happy face as a Dodge Neon is it?

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During an early test flight a pilot was killed while ejecting from the aircraft. The cause of the accident was never found and it was cancelled pretty quickly thereafter. In the time of war many unusual designs are tested and funded with most of them failing. There is always that chance that you will bat one out of the park and Northrop would try that here and with the B-35 Flying Wing. Unfortunately, also in a time of war, new and untested never usually fares well because to many corners are cut.

The idea of a point defense fighter would end after the second World War. Its premise was sound and very quickly it was found that that missiles would be able to do the same job. There were several attempts at reviving the concept but the time was over and the surface to air missile would be king.

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