Flying Wing Shot Down by Truman Era Corruption?


One is hardly ever likely to see a more serious indictment of U.S. government corruption than that depicted in the 28-minute YouTube presentation, “Flying Wings – John K. Northrop’s Final Interview.”  According to Northrop, his revolutionary B-49 flying wing, having demonstrated its superiority to its primary rival, the B-36, had already been selected by the Air Force as the strategic bomber successor to the B-29, when he was called to a meeting in June 1948 with Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington.  At that meeting, Symington, he said, ordered Northrop to merge his company with Consolidated Vultee (later named Convair), the manufacturer of the B-36. 


Northrop and his company duly entered into negotiations with Floyd Odlum, Consolidated’s primary stockholder, but the terms offered by Odlum were, according to Northrop, completely one-sided and prejudicial toward his company and he refused the merger.  At that point, Symington gave the strategic bomber contract to Consolidated and its B-36 and ordered the destruction of all seven of the B-49s that had been made or were in the final stages of production.  Later, in Congressional testimony, Northrop says he “committed one of the finest jobs of perjury that you have ever heard” by saying that no undue pressure had been brought to bear upon him or his company by the government.


The program as seen on YouTube, produced by reporter Clete Roberts, was put together in October of 1979 but did not air until December of 1980.  It appeared on Los Angeles public television station KCET but apparently was not shown nationally and received little publicity.  The program is well summarized by a December 8, 1980, article in the Los Angeles Times in which its reporter, Ken Gepfert, pursued the story further:

Northrop's story was corroborated by Richard W. Millar, 81, who witnessed the drama as chairman of the Hawthorne-based aerospace company at the time and who still serves as Northrop vice chairman. But Millar, also interviewed by Roberts, has refused to respond to other questions since the broadcast, saying only that his taped statements "provide an accurate account" of the Flying Wing cancellation.

The Air Force secretary accused of issuing the merger order, former Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), 79; refused to be interviewed by Roberts. Repeated attempts by The Times to reach both the elder Symington and his son, also a former congressman, were unsuccessful. Most of the other witnesses to events surrounding the Flying Wing cancellation are dead.

The case at least for the concept of the flying wing has become considerably stronger with the passage of time.  Gepfert also looked further into the question of whether, as Northrop averred, the flying wing concept was being pursued by NASA and found that they had seriously considered it but had finally concluded that it was not quite suitable for their purposes.   We now know that the idea is embodied almost completely by the Air Force’s most advanced strategic bomber, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit (Stealth Bomber), even down to the same 172 ft. wingspan.  We can only wonder how much aircraft development was set back by the decision in 1949 not to go forward with Jack Northrop’s brainchild.  


On the corruption front, Gepfert of the LA Times, manages to sneak in a little gem that went right past me the first time I read the article: 


Noting that his was "a very strange story and perhaps difficult to believe," Northrop told KCET reporter Roberts that Symington launched into a "lengthy diatribe" about how the Air Force did not want to sponsor any new aircraft companies because the Pentagon could not afford to support them with continuing business on declining post-war budgets. Then, Northrop said, Symington demanded that Northrop Corp. merge with Convair.


At that point, Northrop recalled, Brig. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, commander of the Air Materiel Command and subsequently president of Convair said, "Oh, Mr. Secretary, you don't mean that the way it sounds." (Emphasis added)


It might have helped at that point had he reminded us that Convair was the maker of the B-36.  Northrop, in the interview, mistakenly calls General McNarney the Air Force Chief of Staff.  He and his interviewer Roberts seem to be unaware of McNarney’s future employment or they would have surely mentioned it.  Wikipedia and the official Air Force biography of McNarney thinly disguise the apparent corruption by saying blandly that in retirement he “held executive positions with General Dynamics.” That defense-contracting giant had swallowed up Convair, which became one of its many divisions.


The Louis Johnson Disaster


All of that sounds really bad, but it was actually worse than that.  The following quote is from “B-36: Bomber at the Crossroads,” in the April 1996 issue of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine: 


In the spring of 1949, the country got a new secretary of defense: Louis Johnson, a wealthy lawyer, aspiring politician, and former official with the Convair Corporation, which was a longtime supplier of U.S. military aircraft. That last connection, which today would seem a scandal worthy of a special prosecutor, was common at the time. Who knew more about weapons than the men who built them? (emphasis added)

On page 551 of The Forrestal Diaries we are told, in corroboration, that Johnson “had been a director of the company manufacturing B-36s.”


It is very hard to imagine a less worthy person to succeed the extraordinarily competent and dedicated public servant, James Forrestal, as Secretary of Defense than Louis Johnson.  The following excerpt is from part 1 of my “Who Killed James Forrestal?  I am talking about Forrestal’s period of confinement at Bethesda Naval Hospital before he met his death from a plunge from a 16th floor window:


At the same time that Forrestal was being prevented visits by those he most wanted and needed to see, unwanted guests were being allowed in. These included his successor as Secretary of Defense, a man whom, according to Hoopes and Brinkley, he held in very low regard:


[Louis] Johnson was not an attractive figure physically, intellectually, or socially. As Assistant Secretary of War in the late 1930s, he quarreled with his superior, Harry Woodring, and was soon marked as a nakedly ambitious troublemaker. FDR fired him without tears. [Forrestal aide] John Kenney thought him “a miserable creature, driven to live in an atmosphere of strife and discord of his own making.” Forrestal regarded him with contempt and found degrading the idea that he might be displaced by such a man. “He is incompetent,” he told Kenney. (p. 431)


Interestingly, The New York Times of May 23, 1949, alongside its articles about Forrestal’s death is the headline, “Johnson Took Post on Forrestal Plea.” That article reported that on May 17 Louis Johnson had addressed a group called the Post Mortem Club and had told them at that time that he was reluctant to accept the post, but Forrestal had pleaded with him to take over the job from him. One might wonder if Johnson knew at that time that Forrestal would never be able to contradict him, although what is more likely is that Johnson knew that Forrestal was too big a man to do such a petty thing as to contradict him publicly over such an ultimately small matter.


One can apparently add dishonesty to the list of Johnson’s many shortcomings.  His main qualifications for the job seems to have been that he was the chief fundraiser for President Truman in the latter’s come-from-behind upset victory in 1948 and, in spite of his protestations, he wanted the Defense Secretary job very badly.  In consideration of the man’s character, one must wonder what promises, explicit or implied, he might have made for the funds that he raised.


Here is how Truman biographer David McCullough describes him on pp. 741-742:


Where Forrestal had been small, introverted, and apolitical almost to a fault, Johnson was a great boisterous bear of a man who shouted to make his point to an admiral or general, and exuded such overt political ambition, stirred such speculation as to his true motives, that he felt obliged after only a few months on the job to state publicly several times that he was not running for President.  The press quoted an unnamed high official who said Johnson was making two enemies for every dollar he saved.


As was becoming rapidly apparent, Louis Johnson was possibly the worst appointment Truman ever made.  In a little more than a year, many who worked with him, including Truman and [Secretary of State] Dean Acheson, would conclude that Johnson was mentally unbalanced.


Johnson would last in the job only a few days short of a year and a half.  His support of Symington in shooting down the flying wing in favor of the B-36 probably made him fewer enemies than the fact that his support of the eventually ill-fated B-36 also came at the expense of the Navy’s role in strategic bombing.  Aircraft historian Joe Baugher gives us this account: 


On April 23, 1949, Secretary Johnson abruptly cancelled the large aircraft carrier, the United States, and went ahead with plans for a fleet of B-36D long-range strategic bombers. Secretary Johnson had formerly been a director at Convair, and since the B-36 had been one of the few survivors of the mass cancellations of early 1949, anonymous reports began to circulate charging that Secretary Johnson, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington, and financier Floyd Odlum had all been involved in undue favoritism and corruption in the awarding of the B-36 contract


This whole episode, according to Baugher, probably played an important part in shortening Johnson’s term of office:


The Navy was still enraged at the cancellation of its supercarrier, and Admiral Arthur W. Radford, CIC of the Pacific Fleet, denounced the B-36 as a "billion dollar blunder". Although there were still doubts about the B-36’s ability to survive enemy fighter attack, the Air Force's B-36 program survived uncut.


The committee's final report was issued in March of 1950. It criticized Secretary Johnson's handling of the supercarrier cancellation, and urged that there be less rigidity when dealing with interservice issues. Greater effort should be made in joint planning and training to increase military effectiveness and to overcome interservice rivalries. Partly because of all of the controversy surrounding these hearings, Secretary Johnson resigned as Secretary of Defense in September of 1950.


Flying Wing Shortcomings


Concerning the cancellation of the flying wing, Baugher is aware of the charges made by Northrop, but in his article entitled “Conspiracy?” he also suggests that there were legitimate reasons not to go forward with it at the time: 


The reasons for the abrupt cancellation of the B-49 project remain uncertain even today, and many of the details are still classified. The chronic stability problems, plus the series of accidents that seem[ed] to dog the project at every step along the way certainly must have played a role. In addition, the YB-49 carried its bomb load in a series of bomb bay cells, each of which was too small to accommodate the Mk III and Mk 4 atomic bombs of the day, which were 5 feet in diameter, 10 feet long, and weighed 10,000 pounds. In contrast, the weapons bay in the B-36 was cavernous and could carry almost anything.


In the final analysis, the bigger scandal than the shooting down of the flying wing was the adoption of the B-36 as the preferred means to drop bombs at locations far distant from the United States.  As we learn from the one hour and thirty-eight minute Discovery Channel program, “The Wing Will Fly,” both the B-49 and the B-36 received government encouragement during the early stages of World War II when there was a serious concern that Britain would fall to the Germans and a long-distance bomber would be needed to attack Germany from bases in the United States.  The B-49 experienced many problems with its propeller-driven propulsion system and in the late 1940s converted to the new jet propulsion system.  The result was a great improvement in speed and performance, but because of the much greater consumption of fuel by the jet engines, the flying wing’s range was so greatly reduced that it could no longer be called a long-range bomber.  Furthermore, as a medium-range bomber, the B-49 was a good deal slower than the new jet-propelled B-47, an airplane of more conventional design. 


For its part, the B-36 with its propeller-driven propulsion at the dawn of the jet age, was virtually obsolete when the first one came across the assembly line.  It was as slow as a snail and with so much of the world within the U.S. orbit after World War II, and with the improvement of mid-air refueling techniques, its one big advantage, tremendous range, had lost its importance.  The hugely expensive airplane, produced at a time of general cutbacks in military spending, was soon mothballed without ever having dropped the first bomb on an enemy target.  During the Korean War, the sort of high altitude bombing for which it was designed was performed by WW-II vintage B-29s.  One can watch a 56-minute rationalization for the airplane on YouTube entitled “Cold War Peacemaker: The Story of the B-36,” but it hardly conceals the fact that the B-36 was one of the biggest military boondoggles in this nation’s history.


Something Sinister


The things that were done to further the success of the B-36 might have been even more deeply criminal than simply the buying off of government officials.  Beginning at the 1:10 mark of the Discovery Channel program one can hear some very strong evidence that the B-49 had been the victim of sabotage on at least one and possibly two occasions.  That is followed by a historian who plays down the possibility because he can’t seem to think of anyone who might have a motive to sabotage the B-49.  If that’s the best argument that anyone can mount against sabotage then I think the charge should be taken seriously.


If someone would go to such lengths to further the interests of Convair and the B-36, then we might also have a brand new suspect among those who would have an interest in permanently silencing James Forrestal.  The anonymous writer using the pen name “Cornell Simpson,” in his book, The Death of James Forrestal, has argued that the Communists were behind it.  My belief is the evidence is much stronger that the Zionists were behind it.  Others have claimed that Forrestal’s knowledge of UFOs and the Roswell incident is what did him in. 


Forrestal was a long-time bureaucratic opponent of Stuart Symington, particularly over the role of the Navy versus the Air Force in strategic weaponry.  As one can read in part one of “Who Killed James Forrestal?” it was immediately after Forrestal had ridden back to his Pentagon office from Capitol Hill in the company of Symington and at Symington’s request, that Forrestal went into the strange funk that eventually resulted in his being confined to Bethesda Naval Hospital on the 16th floor.  Symington is the clear villain in John K. Northrop’s final interview, and he is hardly a good guy in the story of the death of James Forrestal.


David Martin

July 24, 2017





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