Posts Tagged ‘North American Aviation’

In the fall of 1940, the British were withstanding the Blitz, and Adolf Hitler had already said goodbye to his old love (Operation Sealion…the invasion of Britain) and was flirting with a new interest…the invasion of the Soviet Union.  This, to a small degree, gave the island redoubt a bit of rest from her labors and a chance to evaluate her situation…which wasn’t too good.

All alone in Western Europe, she was besting the German onslaught, aided by the strength of her people, the will of her Prime Minister, the tenacity of her pilots, and the quality of the Supermarine Spitfire.  But taking the fight to the enemy would require more of all of them, particularly the airplanes.  The Spitfires, fighting over Britain, were able to mask the only real shortcoming they had: very short range.  Going on the offensive, however, would require more than just defending the homeland.

As improved (read: longer-range) versions of the Spitfire hit the drawing boards, the British turned to America for help.  The closest fighter to the Spitfire in the U.S. inventory was the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, an extremely maneuverable but rather slow aircraft.  But asking Curtiss to build more Warhawks was impossible as their factory was already at capacity, so the British turned to North American Aviation and asked them to build Warhawks.

North American president James Kindelberger knew an opportunity when he saw one, and responded that he could build a better plane than the P-40 in less time than it took to re-tool to Warhawk production.  The British took the bet and ordered more than 300.  In an amazing feat of speed and manufacturing prowess, the NA-73X Project (as it was called) produced its first prototype just 117 days after the order was placed.  Two months later, on October 26, 1940, that prototype would take to the skies for the first time.

With smooth handling, good maneuverability, and outstanding range, the plane was faster than the Warhawk at all altitudes.  What’s more, the advanced aerodynamics of the new mark actually made it faster than the Spitfires at medium altitude, despite a distinct horsepower disadvantage caused by use of the Warhawk’s Allison engine.  The British couldn’t help but be pleased that such a quality product could be delivered in such a short time frame.  They began taking delivery of the aircraft, giving it the name Mustang.  The U.S. Army Air Corps would also purchase a few Mustangs, as their terrific low-level performance made them ideal for ground-attack and reconnaisance roles.

October 26th was a good day for North American Aviation.  But the Mustang’s rise was only just beginning and, as we’ll see in the future, developments would turn this “Warhawk replacement” into the finest piston-engined fighter of World War II…and one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane (somebody needs to donate one to me).  This book does it justice.

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I think the North American XB-70 Valkyrie is one of the coolest airplanes to never enter military service.  First flown in 1964, the aircraft had its roots in design and feasibility studies from the mid 1950’s.  At that time, the Strategic Air Command had Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress as its primary heavy bomber.  It carried an enormous payload for long distances, but it was a slow subsonic aircraft.  SAC also had Convair’s B-58 Hustler coming online (it entered service in 1960), and it was a relatively small, supersonic “dash-and-blast” bomber.  It set all kinds of speed records in its day, but didn’t have good range or payload capacity.

The XB-70 was designed to be the best of both, combining Mach 3 speed with huge range and payload capacity.  North American Aviation, already famous for the P-51 Mustang (and the F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre), was selected for the project.  Every possible bit of technology was utilized to make the monstrous B-70 a reality, but the neatest was the use of compression lift.  Designers built the outer wingtips to tilt down at supersonic speeds, which trapped the shock waves between the wingtips and engine nacelle, providing even more lift.

The first prototype was beset with problems, mostly due to the advanced designs being implemented and exotic materials being used, but many of them were fixed in the 2nd prototype, which first flew in 1965.  And fly it did!!  In 1966, it flew at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) on several occasions, maintaining that speed on May 19th for more than 30 minutes.  The XB-70 achieved its top speed of Mach 3.05 on June 6th.

But just two days later, on June 8, 1966, disaster struck.  The XB-70 was flying in close formation with several other planes in a photoshoot for General Electric (the Valkyrie used six massive GE engines in a “six-pack” configuration), when an F-104 Starfighter flying behind it rolled over the top of bomber, clipping its wing and destroying the rudders.  The 104 exploded (killing its pilot) and the XB-70 spun out of control and crashed, and while the pilot was able to eject, the co-pilot could not and was killed as well.  The photo to the left was taken just after the mid-air collision.

But it was the mid-60s now, and missile technology had advanced to the point that even a bomber flying at 70,000 feet could be shot down, and the B-70’s prodigous cost couldn’t be justified.  The program was cancelled with just the one aircraft (prototype 1) remaining.  It flew tests for NASA for several years and was then retired.

I think the XB-70 Valkyrie was, without question, one of the most beautiful and unique aircraft ever to lift off.  If you ever get a chance, see the remaining XB-70 at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio.  I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.

Recommended Reading: North American XB-70 Valkyrie – A Photo Chronicle – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve leafed through my copy.  This plane continues to fascinate me.

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