The first jet-powered flying wing aircraft performed its maiden flight in the closing stages of the WWII, almost four decades before F-117 Nighthawk. It was the German Horten Ho 229 bomber, aka Ho IX, aka Gotha Go 229. But unlike the F-117, it wasn’t a stealth aircraft.
Although by the sheer virtue of its shape the Ho 229’s definitely had a smaller radar cross-section than other contemporary bombers, its design was driven by other considerations, primarily the effort toward reducing the drag. Still, even without a real stealth capability, it was a groundbreaking plane for its time.
From gliders to bombers
The Ho-229 was created by Horten brothers, Walter and Reimar. Both experienced pilots and aviation enthusiasts, they had long been advocates of the flying wing concept. Since 1933 they had built a series of tailless gliders, including four Horten H.IV built between 1941 and 1943. So, when the Air Ministry announced the need for a new bomber capable of delivering efficient strikes on Britain, the brothers saw it as an opportunity for further realization of their concept.
The ministry had the “three 1000” requirement: the new plane had to have a range of 1000 km (620 mi), a speed of 1000 km/h (620 mph), and a 1000 kg (2200 lb) bomb load. Obviously, the speed requirement could only be fulfilled with the use of the emerging jet technology.
However, early jet engines consumed huge amounts of fuel, which made the range requirement unattainable. The Horten brothers’ design employing the flying wing scheme presented a reasonable solution to the problem owing to its superb aerodynamic efficiency. The Luftwaffe leadership greenlighted their project, providing money and production facilities at the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a railroad car manufacturer also producing Bf 110 night fighters.
A wooden jet wing
The Ho IX’s airframe was not much different from the H.IV glider. It was 24 ft long, with wings having a total area of 568 sq ft and spanning 55 ft. The center pod was made of welded steel tubing, while other parts of the airframe made extensive use of plywood.
The pilot exercised control of the aircraft using a combination of elevons and spoilers. The Ho 229 was powered by two Junkers Jumo 004B-2 turbojets buried in the wing root. There were also plans to equip the Ho 229s with 30 mm cannons in order to use them in the fighter role against Allied long-range bombers.
The surviving specimen
A total of three airframes were built as part of the Ho 229 project: V1, V2, and V3. The first one was yet another unpowered research glider. The second one, built in late 1944, was the only powered prototype that actually flew. It was lost in a fatal crash caused by engine failure during its third flight.
The V3 never got into the air due to Germany’s defeat in the war. It was, however, salvaged by the Allies and examined first by British and then by American aircraft designers. Today this half-completed specimen can be found in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, recently out of their restoration facility.
Ho 229 in the broader stealth and flying wing context
Walter and Reimar Horten had ambitious plans of creating a whole family of aircraft, all featuring the flying wing design scheme. These would include the H.VII, a trainer aircraft with two pusher propellers, and H.XVIII, a huge jet-powered intercontinental bomber.
Reimar also claimed in his 1983 memoir that they had intended to use glue mixed with radar-absorbing charcoal in the production Ho 229s, vesting it with some real stealth capability. That’s hard to prove. At least, tests done by the Smithsonian’s restoration facility showed no presence of carbon or charcoal impregnation of the glue.
Horten brothers were not the only ones obsessed with the flying wing idea. Some three years later the YB-49, Jack Northrop’s giant strategic bomber employing the flying wing scheme rose into the air. It never got beyond the prototype stage either. The age of stealthy flying wings came decades later, with the F-117 Nighthawk, B-2 Spirit, and now the B-21 Raider coming on stage.