Famed Flying Wing Joins Collection

Horten Flying Wing

There is a new shape in the skies of the San Diego Air & Space Museum; a dark and ominous reminder of the menacing Nazi Luftwaffe has been raised in the shadows above our WWII P-51 "Mustang" - the last "secret weapon" of Hitler's Germany, the remarkable Horten Ho-229 jet-powered flying wing.

Built by the same technical team that created the modern day B-2 Stealth bomber, this 1:1 scale reproduction of the wartime Nazi prototype aircraft was donated to our Museum by the Northrop Grumman Corporation following its use in a National Geographic Special presentation, called Hitler's Stealth Fighter.

Aeronautical Engineer Alexander Lippisch began a slow-burning revolution in aviation design in 1921, when he began building an all-wing glider for sport use. By 1924, several of these abbreviated aircraft were flying in Europe. Lippisch's early designs evolved into the remarkable and dangerous Messerschmitt Me 163, the only rocket-powered fighter to see service.

Across the Atlantic, Lippisch's American contemporary, Jack Northrop, wrote in 1929 that a flying wing aircraft would out-perform conventional designs with wings, fuselage, and tail assembly. Jack Northrop's company went on to build the giant XB-49 jet bomber as a flying wing in the late 1940s.

The Horten brothers (Reimar and Walter) of Germany reached the same conclusion and for the rest of their lives these men's fates were tied to their beloved flying wings. The Hortens, following the lead of Lippisch, created functional tail-less designs of their own, culminating in an amazing and unexpectedly advanced prototype fighter in the last year of WWII, the Horten Ho-229.

As wartime fortunes for Germany waned, Reichmarschall Hermann Goering issued a 1943 demand for an all new combat aircraft, capable of flying 1000 km per hour over a range of 1000 kilometers, with a one-ton bombload. At the time, these criteria could not be met by any aircraft in production anywhere on Earth.

The Hortens seized this opportunity to present a flying wing concept that could easily be developed to fill all three of these engineering benchmarks. The blueprints evolved quickly from the elegant gliders of the H I to H IV series into the amazing jet Ho-9. Three of these aircraft were completed, a glider and two jet-powered machines. The glider flew well and after the delayed delivery of Jumo 004 jet engines, testing began on the second aircraft. Tragically, an engine failure caused a fatal crash on its second flight.

The third aircraft, now known as the Ho-229 V-3, was nearly complete at that time. As Germany collapsed, the V-3 (Versuchs, or Test Aircraft 3) was never finished and remains so to this day. A set of wings that may well have been intended for the V-3 were found amid the devastation of the Nazi war machine. For a short time after the war, these wings were modified to fit the center section during an exposition of captured German and Japanese warplanes. In time, the aircraft was discarded - coming to rest among dozens of similarly unheralded warplanes in storage at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

In 2008, engineers at Northrop were heavily involved with building the massive B-2 "Spirit" bomber and other stealth projects. The B-2 flying wing, with almost exactly the same dimensions as Jack Northrop's earlier XB-49, has proven his theories were both viable and prescient. His designers, engineers, and technicians spent decades overcoming the challenges of all-wing aircraft so it is not surprising that these professionals were aware of the earlier Horten project, languishing in the Smithsonian's Silver Hill collection.

The team that built the super-secret B-2 turned their attention to recreating the Ho-9 (also known as the Ho-229) in full scale, to investigate the stealth properties of the WWII prototype. Their efforts were detailed in a June 2009 National Geographic presentation, Hitler's Stealth Figher.

Although minimizing radar detection range was not a consideration by the Hortens during the war, several details of their Ho-229 V-3 displayed an inherent, if unintended, stealthiness. The wings blend into its body; the exhaust ducts are shielded and buried, hiding the exhaust from below; and finally, wood was used to a great extent in the construction. These factors would have given the Horten flying wing an RCS, or Radar Cross Section, that was calculated to be 20% smaller than the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, although it was almost triple its size.

Stealthy by design or accident, the Ho-229 was so futuristic for its day that it remains a lightning rod for researchers and aircraft developers. In its new home at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Horten will continue to astound visitors and remind them of the dangerous enemies we overcame in 1945. As a testament to Alexander Lippisch, Jack Northrop, and the Horten brothers, our Ho-229 serves as an example of the most distinctive aircraft to ever take to the air, the flying wing.

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