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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Northrop's High-Flying Early Days

March 08, 1998|Cecilia Rasmussen

As the economic realities of the post-Cold War world continue to force the consolidation of aerospace companies into a handful of international giants, it is easy to forget that only a few decades ago, Southern California's aircraft business looked a lot like today's hot new growth sector--the computer industry.

In those days, a little luck and a lot of demand for a world-changing new technology transformed a handful of driven backyard tinkerers and visionary mavericks into millionaire captains of industry virtually overnight.

One of them was Jack Northrop, and now one of his creations--a rare and fascinating artifact of Los Angeles' aeronautical era--is being painstakingly restored in a museum in Reading, Pa.

Although he only had a high school education, Northrop was almost single-handedly responsible for developing one of World War II's most innovative high-performance planes, the P-61 Black Widow.

Until recently, only three of the top-secret "night fighters" were known to exist. Then a fourth was discovered in the mire of a New Guinea jungle. When its restoration by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum is complete, Northrop's work of deadly genius will once again take wing.

The other remains of Northrop's solitary vision are being taken over by Lockheed Martin Corp., now the world's largest aerospace firm, completing a circle that began with Jack Northrop and Allan Loughead designing planes more than 70 years ago.

In 1916, Loughead, a self-taught barnstorming pilot, and his brother Malcolm, a mechanical wizard who invented the hydraulic automobile brake, moved their airplane company from San Francisco to a garage in Santa Barbara. One of their employees was an inventive teenager, a former auto mechanic and carpenter named John Knudsen Northrop, who helped them build a twin-engine seaplane.

But soon after, the Loughead brothers went broke. Northrop joined Donald Douglas in an abandoned motion picture studio in Santa Monica, helping design fuel tanks for globe-circling biplanes.

Dissatisfied with Douglas, he teamed up with Loughead again, trying a few radical designs.

In 1927, using Loughead's name but spelling it phonetically--Lockheed--to avoid having it mispronounced as Lughead, they opened Lockheed Aircraft in Hollywood. Their first project would be the key to aviation's next advance, the remarkable Vega. This high-winged monoplane, known for its speed and endurance, became the era's glamour plane, flown by aerial celebrities like Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, Sir George Hubert Wilkins and Art Goebel.

Northrop shunned the spotlight and avoided discussing his role in the development of aviation. He said he was "just lucky" and called himself a "technically advanced high school graduate."

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Nursing a dream, he left Lockheed and opened Avion Corp. in Burbank, designing the wildly inventive Flying Wing, an aircraft without fuselage or tail, the grandfather of today's B-2 Stealth bomber. But production costs skyrocketed and his dream was put on the back burner.

Avion merged with other companies that eventually became Boeing Aircraft. Northrop left to start the Northrop Corp. in El Segundo with the help of his old colleague Douglas, who would later make it a division of Douglas Aircraft.

Once again, Northrop resigned, wanting out of production and back into research and development. But the onset of World War II soon forced him back into manufacturing.

Los Angeles and its ambitious Chamber of Commerce aggressively courted aircraft companies. But the city of Hawthorne lured Northrop away by building a mile-long airfield that he would later turn over to the city, which eventually turned it into Hawthorne Municipal Airport.

On Aug. 10, 1939, Northrop Aircraft sputtered to life at Hotel Hawthorne. Not long after, the company moved to a new $500,000-plant on 72 acres of farmland near El Segundo Boulevard and Prairie Avenue.

Fat defense contracts landed in Northrop's lap. He did subcontracting work, built fighting seaplanes for the Norwegian government, resurrected the Flying Wing and produced the company's first big plane--the revolutionary P-61 Black Widow. The world's first night fighter bristled with armaments and radar. Built to seek and destroy enemy aircraft at night and in bad weather, it became one of the most important weapons in the U.S. arsenal and the company's first large-scale production order.

"Rosie the Riveters" swarmed into the Northrop plant, where antiaircraft guns were mounted atop the camouflaged building. Seven days a week, nine hours a day, for 60 cents an hour, workers labored while Army Air Corps leaders anxiously awaited the test results on the desperately needed aircraft.

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Under a shroud of secrecy, the first experimental Black Widow rolled off Northrop's assembly line May 8, 1942. With a wingspan of 66 feet and a maximum weight of 34,400 pounds, it dwarfed all other fighters of the period.

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