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The field of aviation has produced some interesting designs since it began over a century ago. In addition to monoplanes, jet-aircraft, rocket-propelled planes, and high-altitude interceptors and spy craft, there is also the variety of tailless fixed-wing craft that are known as the Flying Wing. By definition, a flying wing is an aircraft which has no definite fuselage, with most of the crew, payload and equipment being housed inside the main wing structure. From the top, a flying wing looks like a chevron, with the wings constituting its outer edges and the front middle serving as the cockpit or pilot’s seat. They come in many varieties, ranging from the jet fighter/bomber to hand gliders and sailplanes.
Tailless craft have been around since the time of the Wright Brothers. But it was not until after World War I, thanks to extensive wartime developments with monoplanes, that a craft with no true fuselage became feasible. An early enthusiast was Hugo Junkers who patented the idea for a wing-only air transport in 1910. Unfortunately, restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on German aviation meant that his vision wasn’t realized until 1931 with the Junker’s G38. This design, though revolutionary, still required a short fuselage and a tail section in order to be aerodynamically possible.
Flying wing designs were experimented with extensively in the 30’s and 40’s, especially in the US and Germany. In France, Britain and the US, many designs were produced, though most were gliders. However, there were exceptions, like the Northrop N1M, a prototype all-wing plane and the far more impressive Horten Ho 229, the first jet-powered flying wing that served as a fighter/bomber for the German air force in WWII. This aircraft was part of a long series of experimental aircraft produced by Nazi Germany, and was also the first craft to incorporate technology that made it harder to detect on radar – aka. Stealth technology.
After WWII, this plane inspired several generations of experimental aircraft. The most notable of these are the YB-49 long-range bomber, the A-12 Avenger II, the B-2 Stealth Bomber (otherwise known as the Spirit), and a host of delta-winged aircraft, such as Canada’s own Avro-105, also known as the Avro Arrow. A clean flying wing is theoretically the most aerodynamically efficient (lowest drag) design configuration for a fixed wing aircraft. It also offers high structural efficiency for a given wing depth, leading to light weight and high fuel efficiency.
We’ve also recorded many related episodes of Astronomy Cast. Listen here, Episode 100: Rockets.