Jack Northrop

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Jack Northrop with N-1M "Flying Wing".[1]

John Knudsen Northrop(1895-1981), known more widely as Jack, was born in Newark, New Jersey. He was an aviation engineer and designer, and also founder of Northrop Cooperation (now know as Northrop Grumman), a leading provider of military aircraft, and armaments. Northrop is probably best known for his work in the creation of the B-2 Spirit bomber. Former company partner and pioneer aviation engineer, David Douglas Sr., stated when remembering Northrop achievements, “Every Major airplane in the skies today has some Jack Northrop in it."



A young Jack Northrop.

Jack Northrop was born into a poor family in New Jersey in 1895. His family moved first to Nebraska, and then in 1904 to Santa Barbara, California.[2] His formal education consisted a high school diploma that he received well living in Santa Barbara, California. In school he enjoyed studying aviation, chemistry, math and mechanical drawing. Through his classes and time spent practicing, he learned to be an architectural draftsmen. In 1916, Northrop's town become home to the flying enthusiasts Allan and Malcolm Loughead, who were the founders of Alco Hydro-Aeroplane, an aviation company. The brothers were looking to hire a draftsman for their company and at the age of twenty Northrop took the job.


Five years after Northrop joined, the Loughead brothers company went bankrupt. After this, Northrop worked at home for his father. He began work for a company owned by David Douglas Sr., a pioneer aircraft engineer. It was here that he started to experiment with aircraft parts and designing as he worked to eliminate the problems that he had seen in the current aircraft structures, such as their heavy weight. During this time he also took part in the design of plane that would latter be known as the Spirit of St. Louis. When Alco Hydro-Aeroplane company re-emerged, Northrop went back to his old job. While working at the company he began work on the Lockheed Vega, a plane that Amelia Earhart would later use to fly across the Atlantic. In 1932, Northrop began a new company with Douglas, who held 51 percent of the stock over the company.[3] It was in the middle of the Great Depression and the toll on businesses was devastating. Northrop went through depressing times and bitterness. He was forced to sell his part of the company to Douglas because of his financial situation. Cutting the business resulted in 1,400 jobs lost. Months later, using the money he received, he formed his own company, Northrop Aircraft. During World War 2, Northrop's company was busy building airplanes and weapons for the fight against the Germans.He developed the N-3 patrol bomber, which he sold to Norway. This was followed by a $17-million-contract to co-produce the "Vengeance" dive bomber, designed for Great Britain. The United States ordered more the 700 of Northrop-designed P-61 "Black Widow".[4] His company provided 1,088 aircraft in all during the war.


A line of "Flying Wings" in various stages of completion outside the Northrop plant

The war gave Northrop's company a great start and huge financial benefits. Northrop began working on a project that he had dreamed of for years, the Flying Wing. The military, looking to buy bombers with improved range, hired Northrop's company to do the job. In 1946, after much time of improvements and testing, the B-35 bomber was flown.[5] Although Northrop had achieved much, the plane still needed more improvement. In 1947 the military canceled his 88 million dollar contract. He was personally devastated by the cancellation and destruction of his project. Jerry Huben, project engineer for what is now Northrop Grumman stated that, "[The cancellation] was a serious blow to Jack, and he didn't think it would happen." The reason for the cancellation remains unknown because of the confidentiality of the issue.[6] Almost three decades after he retired,in 1980, Northrop's dream was achieved as the military revealed the new B-2 Spirit. This new bomber was based after Northrop's "Flying Wing" B-35, and is the biggest stealth aircraft used by the military. When Northrop saw the new plan unveiled in 1980 he stated that, "Now I know why God has kept me alive for the last twenty-five years." Northrop lived for one more year and in 1981 he died in Glendale, California. In 1994, after his passing, Northrop's company acquired Grumman Aircraft to form Northrop-Grumman. In a separate merger, Northrop Grumman also acquired Vought Aircraft. Northrop Grumman, is one the leading provider of the military armory today.The National Academy of Engineers wrote,

"[Jack Northrop] was an engineer in the finest tradition of the profession, an innovator, inventor leader and organizer of engineering teams, industrialist and master of art of science and design."

Flying Wing's Controversy

After the death of Jack Northrop in 1981, people began to wonder as to the cause of the military cancellation of the project. For many decades rumors had spread. Aviation experts suspected that the cancellations were motivated more by politics than by technical shortcomings.[7] A congressional investigation in 1949 seemed to take away the blame from the airforce. Northrop himself testified in defense of the Air Force leadership, saying he was not pressured to do anything. But in 1979, Northrop claimed that he had in fact been improperly pressured. Newly released documents, and troubles seen with the modern B2-bomber, seem to show that the Air Force did have at least a reason to stopping the program.[8]


  • Helped in the construction of the Spirit of St. Lewis and Lockheed Vega.
  • Founder of Northrop Cooperations, now Northrop-Grumman, a leading military armament provider.
  • Supplied allied forces with aircraft designed by his company.
  • Built the original "Flying Wing", which latter became known as the B2 stealth bomber.
  • Awarded more than thirty patents during his thirty-year career.