Date of Award
Open Access Dissertation
David E. Drew
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
John B. Rae
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
© 1984 Francis J. Baker
In an interview aired over the Public Broadcasting System in 1980 , aircraft manufacturer John K. Northrop made a stunning charge. Referring to the Air Force's 1949 cancellation of his Flying Wing aircraft, Mr. Northrop alleged that the cancellation was not the result of any valid concerns about the aircraft itself, but rather was a retaliation for his refusal to agree to an improper demand by the Air Force . Specifically, Mr. Northrop charged that then-Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington ordered him to merge his firm with Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation, and that when he refused, an 88 million dollar contract for the Flying Wings was cancelled. Mr. Northrop also admitted that in 1949 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, he had perjured himself by denying that Mr . Symington had ever threatened or retaliated against Northrop Aircraft, Incorporated .
This dissertation began as a study of ethics and decision- making in the military procurement process. However, in-depth research revealed no improprieties in the Air Force ' s Flying Wing acquisition program. Research techniques included careful study of voluminous Air Force records , most housed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and at the Air Force Historical Research Center in Montgomery , Alabama . These documents, once secret but now declassified, showed that military decision- makers were never satisfied with the Northrop plane, and regularly made their position clear to Northrop . The author's document searches were augmented by a series of interviews held with as many of the surviving participants as possible: Senator Symington, who vehemently denied any impropriety; Gen. Curtis E . LeMay, then Commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), who readily admitted that he never wanted the Northrop plane and argued against it (and for the competing B-36 bomber) before a board of senior Air Force officers just before the cancellation; Gen. Lauris O. Norstad, the sole surviving member of that senior officer's board, who vigorously rejected any suggestion of improper behavior by Senator Symington in this or any other procurement decision. An interview with the current Chairman of the Board of Northrop corporation, Thomas V. Jones, generally supported Senator Symington, and clarified the stand of today's Northrop management . In addition, the author interviewed and corresponded with the two Air Force chief test pilots on the Flying Wing; both men gave valuable insights into the technical performance of the Northrop aircraft. If political manipulation was not the cause of the 1949 cancellation, what was? The research uncovered four factors that were involved . First was the substantial improvement in the competing B- 36, which made great strides in late 1948. Second was the assignment of General LeMay as SAC commander in October 1948; unlike his predecessor, General LeMay was a strong backer of the B-36, and was willing to give up other weapon systems (like the Flying Wings) to get more of the Consolidated-Vultee B-36s. Third was President Truman's cuts in the Fiscal Year 1950 defense budget, which caused the Air Force to not only defer the addition of eleven planned combat units, but also to eliminate eleven others (of a total of fifty-nine) already in existence. Finally, the shortcomings of the Flying Wing were certainly numerous and significant enough to argue against its production and procurement.
After refuting a number of the allegations made in the 1980 broadcast, the dissertation concludes with some implicationsfor management . Chief among these is the need to maintain a marketing orientation, that is, the requirement to emphasize what the customer requires , rather than what the producer wants to build . The Flying Wing was Mr . Northrop ' s lifelong dream, and the author argues that its production was more related to what Mr . Northrop wanted to build than to what the Air Force needed to acquire .
Baker, Francis J.. (1984). The Death of the Flying Wing : The Real Reasons Behind the 1949 Cancellation of Northrop Aircraft's RB-49. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 74. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/74. doi: 10.5642/cguetd/74