Key point: The plane never reached the point of mass production.
Northrop Grumman revealed this year it is developing a second flying wing stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, to succeed its B-2 Spirit. However, it was a pair of German brothers in the service of Nazi Germany that developed the first jet-powered flying wing—which has been dubbed, debatably, “Hitler’s stealth fighter.”
But maximizing speed and range, not stealth, was the primary motivation behind the bat-shaped jet plane.
Walter Horten was an ace fighter pilot in the German Luftwaffe, having scored seven kills flying as wingman of the legendary Adolf Galland during the Battle of Britain. His brother Reimar was an airplane designer lacking a formal aeronautical education. In their youth, the pair had designed a series of innovative tail-less manned gliders.
In 1943, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering laid out the so-called 3x1000 specification for a plane that could fly one thousand kilometers an hour carrying one thousand kilograms of bombs with fuel enough to travel one thousand kilometers and back—while still retaining a third of the fuel supply for use in combat. Such an airplane could strike targets in Britain while outrunning any fighters sent to intercept it.
Clearly, the new turbojet engines Germany had developed would be required for an airplane to attain such high speeds. But jet engines burned through their fuel very quickly, making raids on more distant targets impossible. The Horten brothers’ idea was to use a flying wing design—a tail-less plane so aerodynamically clean it generated almost no drag at all. Such an airframe would require less engine power to attain higher speeds, and therefore consume less fuel.
Flying wing designs were not an entirely new idea and had been used before in both gliders and powered aircraft. During World War II, Northrop developed its own high-performing XB-35 flying wing bomber for the U.S. military, though it failed to enter mass production. Despite the aerodynamic advantages, the lack of a tail tended to make fly wing aircraft prone to uncontrolled yaws and stalls.