The Northrop XP-79 Flying Ram was a rocket- and jet-powered flying-wing fighter designed during the Second World War for the US Army Air Forces. The aircraft had some unique elements, among them its welded magnesium monocoque structure and the fact the pilot needed to man it from a prone position. What’s more, it was developed to ram enemy bombers in mid-air.
Coming up with the idea for the Northrop XP-79
The Northrop XP-79 was conceived by aircraft engineer Jack Northrop in 1942. After pitching his “high-speed rocket-powered flying-wing fighter” to the US Army Air Forces, a contract for two prototypes was given in January 1943, with the aim being to develop an aircraft capable of “ramming” enemy bombers from the sky.
Initially, the aircraft was to feature two Aerojet XCALR-2000A-1 liquid-fueled rocket engines, each producing 2,000 pounds of thrust. These ultimately proved unsatisfactory and the decision was made to, instead, install two Westinghouse 19B turbojets.
Testing the unique design
The US Army Air Forces contracted Northrop for three gliders to test the design. These were dubbed the MX-324 when referring to the secret aspects of its powerplant and the MX-334 when it was operated as a true glider. The first, MX-334 No. 1, was tested in the wind tunnel at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Research Center, and the results led to a vertical stabilizer being added for stability at high speeds.
The No. 2 glider participated in the first flight attempts; it was towed by a Cadillac car for takeoffs, landings and low-level flights. While these proved unsuccessful, subsequent tows with a truck and, later, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning proved more successful.
In early 1944, the No. 2 glider was modified with the Aerojet XCAL-200 rocket. The first flight took place on July 5, with the MX-324 becoming the first American-made, rocket-powered aircraft to fly. After flight testing was finished, the other two gliders were discarded.
Northrop XP-79 specs
The Northrop XP-79 had an overall length of 13.98 feet, a wingspan of 37.99 feet and a height of 7.58 feet. Its overall design resembled a flying wing, similar to the YB-49, and it featured a welded magnesium monocoque structure, as opposed to the typical riveted aluminum. At the “nose” was a central cockpit, which the pilot operated in a prone position, helping them to withstand more g-forces than they could in a seated position.
There were two air intakes on either side for the two engines. With its two Westinghouse 19B axial-flow turbojets producing 1,150 pounds of thrust each, the XP-79 could hit a maximum speed of 547 MPH and maintain a cruising speed of 480 MPH. It also had a range of 993 miles and a fuel capacity of 300 gallons, allowing for an endurance of almost two and a half hours.
As aforementioned, the XP-79 was developed to “ram” into enemy bombers. To do this without injuring the pilot or damaging the aircraft mid-flight, armored glass mounting was used in the cockpit and armor plating was added to reinforce the wings. When it became clear such a concept wouldn’t succeed, the aircraft was equipped with four Browning M2 machine guns.
A fatal test flight leads to the Northrop XP-79’s cancellation
The Northrop XP-79B made its first-ever proper flight on September 12, 1945. Concerns over the aircraft’s tires and brakes during taxiing trials at the Muroc Dry Lake (today Rogers Dry Lake) had previously delayed this.
Only 15 minutes into the flight, test pilot Harry Crosby lost control while performing a slow roll. The Xp-79B then began to spiral downward from an altitude of 10,000 feet, flying into the ground. Crosby attempted to bail out, but was hit by part of the aircraft and killed.
Following the crash, the XP-79 was canceled and all work stopped on constructing a second prototype.