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Did Third Reich design pioneering stealth jet?
Northrop in El Segundo tests `flying wing'
By Muhammed El-Hasan, Staff Writer
Posted: 06/24/2009 06:43:53 PM PDT
Could Nazi Germany have altered the course of World War II - or at least withstood the Allied onslaught longer - by deploying a secret aircraft that was technologically decades ahead of its time?
That question may never be answered.
But engineers and technicians at Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector in El Segundo recently were able to shine some light on a Nazi aircraft that never was deployed.
At 9p.m. Sunday, the National Geographic Channel will premiere "Hitler's Stealth Fighter," a documentary about the Horten 229, a jet-powered "flying wing" designed by Germany during the war.
A flying wing has no fuselage and in many cases no vertical tail, an innovative aircraft design that provides stealth, the ability to at least partially evade radar detection.
"When I first saw this airplane, I was pretty astonished there was this jet-powered flying wing with swastikas on it," said Mike Jorgensen, the film's producer and director. "There was a lot of opinions about whether it was a stealth aircraft. I thought this was a great opportunity to find out. And the only people who could do it were the people who build stealth flying wings."
That led the Canadian documentarian to Northrop, which has been working on flying wings and other low-observable aircraft technology for decades. The most famous flying wing is Northrop's B-2 Spirit, which has been used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In the spring of last year, Jorgensen approached the aerospace giant with his request for assistance in determining the stealthiness of the Horten 229.
In the early 1940s, the Third Reich started a secret construction project to develop the Horten 229, named for its designers, brothers Walter and Reimar Horten.
The aircraft was jet-powered. During the war, the only other jet-powered plane was Germany's Messerschmitt 262.
The Horten 229 was briefly flight tested, but the war ended before it could be deployed.
It is unclear how the combination of a jet engine and ability to evade radar might have affected Germany's performance in the war.
But was the aircraft truly stealthy?
A team of Northrop engineers and other staff visited the only existing Horten 229, at a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Maryland, to observe and measure the plane.
From late September to mid-December, the team designed and built the replica at a high-tech model shop in El Segundo.
"Anytime we build models like this, we want them to replicate real articles as closely as possible," said Tom Dobrenz, one of Northrop's directors in the special technologies area. "So a lot of the techniques we have today will be able to make things, whether it's wood or plastic or fiber plastic, accurate down to hundredths and tenths of an inch."
The automation in Northrop's model shop allowed some production tasks that would have taken months to do by hand to be completed in several days, Dobrenz said.
The full-scale replica was 55 feet long and weighed 2,000 to 3,000 pounds, much lighter than the original.
Some parts, like the engine, were recreated in plastic and coated with metallic paint "to make it look like an engine to the radar," Dobrenz said. "So we can have light plastic parts that are built as a model and represent very large metallic parts."
In January, the Northrop team tested the replica's ability to evade radar at the company's test range in the Mojave Desert. For the tests, the model was lifted 50 feet off the ground, but was not flown.
Northrop's production and testing process is featured in Jorgensen's documentary.
The team concluded that the plane indeed was stealthy.
"The big wow moment for me was Northrop has solved what I think was one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II," Jorgensen said. "This was the most advanced technology that the Germans had at the end of the war, and Northrop solved the question of how stealthy it was and its performance against Allied radar at the time. It's significantly better than anything flying operationally probably until the 1960s."
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