American Flag
heading Nevada Flag


By: T.D. Barnes & Robert E. Friedrichs

Ever wonder about those UFO sightings that were reported to the local police and Nellis AFB in the 1950s? Could they have been rooted in things remembered from the 1940s, long before the infamous Groom Lake at Area 51?

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World War II prompted advances in aircraft technology and in the design of new aircraft. These wartime developments influenced postwar research, development, and production in ways that could not be anticipated at the time. New technologies came to the fore during the cold war that followed after World War II. These included the development of rocket power, supersonic flight, use of exotic materials, and more recently the development of stealth technologies.


The founder of Northrop Aircraft Inc. was John Knudsen "Jack" Northrop, who at one time worked for Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Company (later changed in spelling to Lockheed) as well as for Douglas Aircraft. It is not widely known, but there were actually THREE separate and distinct aircraft companies that carried Jack's name.

"Northrop I" was founded by Jack Northrop in 1927, initially under the name of the Avion Corporation. For the first couple of years as head of the California-based Avion Corp., Jack Northrop spent his time experimenting with ideas for all-metal construction and for flying-wing designs. Unfortunately for the bottom line, nothing actually got built or sold by Avion in the first two years of its existence, and economic reality eventually made itself felt. Lacking sufficient capital to carry on by itself, the Avion Corporation was absorbed in 1929 by the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, and operated until 1931 as the Northrop Aircraft Corporation, a division of UA&T Corp. During this period, Northrop built the Alpha (a single-engined passenger- and mail-carrying aircraft) and the Beta (a two-seat sports aircraft).

In 1931, UA&T consolidated its two subsidiaries--Northrop Aircraft Corp and Stearman Aircraft--into a single unit and moved everything to Wichita, Kansas. Jack Northrop was a dyed-in-the-wool Californian, and found the prospect of facing Kansas winters unpalatable. Consequently, he left UA&T and tried once again to establish another California-based aircraft company. He got together with his old friend and former employer, Donald Douglas, to found the Northrop Corporation ("Northrop II"), with Douglas retaining 51 percent of the stock and Jack being named as its president. The main factory was located at El Segundo, California, ensuring that Jack could remain living in the state that he loved. The Northrop Corporation was responsible for the famous Gamma and Delta commercial monoplanes that were so successful during the 1930s. The Northrop Corporation was also responsible for the 3A monoplane fighter of 1935 and for the A-17 attack plane of 1935/36. Northrop was also responsible for the BT-1 attack bomber, which was to evolve into the famous SBD Dauntless of World War II fame.

However, the Northrop Corporation began to experience some serious labor strife in the late 1930s. The labor problems eventually got so bad that the Army refused to accept any further deliveries of ** xx**A-17 attack planes until they were corrected. In an attempt to correct the labor problems, on April 5, 1937, Douglas decided to acquire the rest of the stock of the Northrop Corporation. Continued labor difficulties forced Douglas to dissolve the Northrop Corporation altogether on September 8, 1937. It was immediately reformed under the direct aegis of Douglas, the name of the company changing to the El Segundo Division of Douglas.

By 1939, the Northrop Corporation had become just another division of Douglas Aircraft, and Jack Northrop went out on his own for a third time to found yet another California-based aircraft company bearing his name, this one named Northrop Aircraft Inc. of Hawthorne, California ("Northrop III"), the forerunner of today's Northrop Corporation, the maker of the B-2 stealth bomber.

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Northrop Aircraft used Roach Dry Lake as an alternate test site in the 1940's when Muroc Dry Lake (now known as Edwards AFB) was unavailable, especially during the winter of 1944 when rain-swollen floods filled the California lakebed. Aircraft known to have been tested at this site were the XP-56 Black Bullet, N-9M Flying Scale Model Wing, and MX-334 glider. These aircraft were used for scientific experiments or other research that led to the development of modern military aircraft test flown at Area 51.

The experimental Northrop XP-56 "black Bullet" flying wing fighter of 1943 was one of the most unusual fighter aircraft to be evolved by any of the combatants during World War II. Although unsuccessful in attaining production, the XP-56 gained a lot of valuable data on flying wing designs, some of which was ultimately used in the design of the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber of the 1990s.It was one of three responses to a 1940 proposal for a high-speed, heavily armed fighter aircraft. This distinctive design included a rear-mounted Pratt & Whitney R-2800-9 engine driving counter-rotating propellers pushing the aircraft from the rear. Long, wept wings with an anhedral kink at the outer edge provided a stark contrast to the stubby, bullet-like fuselage. Further oddities on the second prototype included the absence of a rudder. Instead, blown-air jets in the wingtips provided directional steering! Only two of the tailless XP-56s were ever produced. It used contra-rotating propellers in a pusher type configuration and was the first all-magnesium, all-welded airframe in the world. Northrop used magnesium because at that time national aluminum reserves were thought to be too small to meet current and future demands. Magnesium weighs about one-third less than aluminum and promised stronger components and smoother finishes. The technique of heliarc welding was developed and patented by Northrop specifically to allow welding of magnesium, a highly flammable metal. The first XP-56 was destroyed during a high-speed taxi test on October 8, 1943. The second XP-56 used air-activated bellows rudders, had a bigger vertical stabilizer, and improved wingtip design incorporating blown air jets on the wingtips for better yaw control. It was first flown on March 23, 1944, at Roach Dry Lake where it reached an altitude of 760 meters. It flew a total of ten test flights before being retired. Details of its existence were not released until 1945. This aircraft is currently in the possession of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and is in storage at their Garber facility in Sutland, Maryland.


The Northrop XP-56 was the first USAAF fighter aircraft to be built by "Northrop III". The Northrop XP-56, like the Bell XP-52, the Vultee XP-54, and the Curtiss XP-55, was evolved as a response to Circular Proposal R-40C, which was issued on November 27, 1939. ** xx**It called for a fighter that would be much more effective than any extant--with a top speed, rate of climb, maneuverability, armament, and pilot visibility, all of which would be far superior to those of any existing fighter. In addition, the fighter was required to have a low initial cost and had to be easy and inexpensive to maintain. The Army specifically mentioned in R-40C that they would consider aircraft with unconventional configurations.

The Northrop entry, designated N2B by the company, was nothing if it was not unconventional. It was a unique tailless interceptor made entirely of magnesium. The N2B was a swept-wing tailless flying-wing aircraft with no forward-mounted elevators. Northrop proposed to use the new and untried Pratt & Whitney X-1800-A3G (H-2600) liquid-cooled engine, mounted behind the pilot's cockpit and driving a pair of contra-rotating pusher propeller.

Jack Northrop had actually been thinking about flying wing aircraft as far back as 1929 when he was with the Avion Corporation. In 1939, Northrop had, in fact, built a full-scale flying test-bed to explore the possibility of all-wing designs. Designated N1M by the company, the flying testbed was powered by a pair of Lycoming engines driving pusher propellers. The N1M has survived to the present day and is now on display at the Smithsonians new Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazey annex. I saw it there in May of 2004, and it is in really nice shape.

On June 22, 1940, Northrop Aircraft, Inc. received a contract for preliminary engineering data and a powered wind tunnel model. The designation P-56 was reserved for the project. On September 26th, 1940, a single prototype was ordered as the XP-56. The serial number was 41-786.

However, shortly after development of the XP-56 began, Pratt & Whitney abandoned all work on its X-1800 liquid-cooled engine. This left the XP-56 (and the competing XP-54 and XP-55 along with it) out on a limb, without an engine. Northrop's design team reluctantly decided to switch to the less-suitable Pratt & Whitney R-2800 air-cooled radial engine. Although the R-2800 engine was more powerful (2000 hp as opposed to 1800 hp), it was also wider. The larger diameter of the radial engine required in turn that the fuselage be widened in order to accommodate it. These changes resulted in an increase in the weight.

The fuselage was stubby and rounded, with an un-pressurized cockpit situated well forward. The plane had a short and stubby dorsal fin and a very large ventral fin, so large, in fact, that it very nearly scraped on the ground when the aircraft stood on its landing gear. The cantilever mid-mounted wing had elevons that functioned both as ailerons and wing flaps mounted on the trailing edge of the drooping wing tip. Air ducts for cooling of the radial engine were located on the wing leading edge. The main wheels retracted into the wing, and the nose wheel retracted into the fuselage. Proposed armament was to be two 20-mm cannon and four 0.50-inch machine guns, all mounted in the nose.

On February 13, 1942, ** xx**a USAAF contract was issued for a second XP-56 prototype. The serial number was 42-38353. frequently called the *Black Bullet*. This is the aircraft that first flew at the Roach Flight Test Site.

The first XP-56 (41-786) was ready in April of 1943. It was shipped out to Muroc Dry Lake (later Edwards AFB) for tests. During initial ground handling trials, it was found that the aircraft tended to yaw sharply and dangerously while taxiing at high speeds. It was thought that faulty wheel brakes caused the problem, and trials were halted until the aircraft was re-equipped with manual hydraulic brakes. This delayed the first flight until September 30, 1943, when test pilot John Myers took the XP-56 into the air for the first time. An altitude of five feet was maintained, and the XP-56 appeared to fly normally. Several additional flights were undertaken, during which somewhat greater altitudes were attained. These test flights were not particularly encouraging. Nose-heaviness was a persistent problem, and lateral control was difficult to maintain in all flight regimes. However, before any of these aerodynamic problems could be addressed, the port main wheel tire blew out during a high-speed taxiing run and the aircraft somersaulted over onto its back. It was totally wrecked.

In an attempt to correct the deficiencies encountered with the first XP-56, the second XP-56 (42-38353) underwent some major changes. The center of gravity was moved further forward. There was a major increase in the size of the upper vertical surface--it was enlarged from a mere stub into a surface larger in area than the ventral fin. A new form of rudder control was fitted which made use of air bellows at the wing tips which operated a set of split flaps for directional control. The control of the bellows was achieved by valving air to or from the bellows by means of wingtip venturis.

On March 23, 1944, test pilot Harry Crosby took the second XP-56 up for the first time. However, Crosby found it impossible to lift the nose wheel off the ground at speeds below 160 mph, ** xx**and the test flight lasted only a few minutes. The second flight went better, and it was found that the nose heaviness went away after the landing gear was retracted. However, the aircraft was severely underpowered for its weight, and only relatively low speeds could be attained, much less than the projected maximum speed of 465 mph at 25,000 feet.

On May 39, 1944, it was decided that NACA would use their wind tunnel at Moffett Field, California to look into the causes of the XP-56s low performance. However, the higher priority of other projects led to postponement of the XP-56 wind tunnel tests until late October of 1944.

While awaiting the beginning of the wind tunnel testing, further flight test trials were undertaken with the XP-56. On the tenth test flight, the pilot complained of extreme tail heaviness on the ground, low power, and excessive fuel consumption. After consultations, it was concluded that the XP-56 was basically not airworthy, and that it was just too dangerous to continue flight tests with it. Shortly thereafter, the whole project was abandoned. The further development of higher-performance piston-engined fighters was futile in any case, since the advent of jet propulsion would soon bring the era of propeller-driven fighters to a close.

Although the XP-56 project was a failure, it was not a total loss for Northrop, since the company had learned a lot about flying wing designs. This data gained during the XP-56 project was put to good use in later Northrop designs such as the XB-35 piston- engined bomber, the YB-49 jet-powered bomber, and the B-2 stealth bomber.

Specs of the XP-56:

One 2000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-29 eighteen-cylinder air-cooled radial engine. Proposed armament was to be two 20-mm cannon and four 0.50-inch machine guns, all mounted in the nose. No armament was, in fact, ever actually fitted. In view of the limited flight testing of the XP-56, the following performance figures are based on manufacturer's estimates and were never achieved during actual tests. Maximum speed 465 mph at 25,000 feet, 417 mph at sea level. Climb rate of 3125 feet per minute at 15,000 feet. Climb to 20,000 feet in 7.2 minutes. Normal range 445 miles at 396 mph. Maximum range 660 miles. Service ceiling 33,000 feet. Weights were 8700 pounds empty, 11,350 pounds normal loaded, and 12,145 pounds maximum. Dimensions (second prototype) were wingspan 42 feet 6 inches, length 27 feet 6 inches, height 11 feet, wing area 306 square feet. The length of the first prototype was 23 feet 6 inches and the height was 9 feet 8 inches.


The N-9M Series of four aircraft were designed to test the theories of "maneuverability, controllability, and performance" to predict those characteristics in the XB-35. They were a one-third scale flying platform that easily allowed for rapid modification of their basic shape and control surfaces. Later, they were used for training of new XB-35 pilots in handling flying wing aircraft. The first plane (N-9M) crashed at Muroc Dry Lake on May 19, 1943.

In October, 1943, work associated with the XB-35 program was reprioritized with ground and flight test data from the then existing two aircraft (N-9M2 & N-9MA) being given first priority. A more definitive test program was then laid out in a letter dated December 7, 1943, that called for a series of 35 flight tests of the N-9M2. Tests included flights with different sets of auxiliary fins on the drive shaft housing to determine the effect of increased directional stability on lateral-directional dynamic stability. Other tests were to measure drag determination, directional stability and control, lateral control, lateral-directional dynamic stability.

By March 31, 1944, the N-9M2 had completed 33 flights with the results being ** xx**rapidly assimilated into the design of the XB-35. On April 19, 1944, the N-9M2 test program was interrupted when this aircraft was involved in a gear up landing at the Roach Flight Test Site. The pilot was not injured as a result of the hard landing but the aircraft sustained minor damage. The aircraft was returned to the hangar for repairs and was in flyable condition the next day. Debris associated with this incident can be found in the immediate area of the hangar to this day. Concepts first researched and tested using the n-9M's were later used in the designs for the XB-35, YB-49, and B-2 stealth bombers. The last known surviving N-9M (N9M-B) is currently in the possession of the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, CA. The wing of an earlier model is in the possession of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

Specs of the N9M

Two Menasco C6S-4, 6-cylinder air cooled in-line engines, 275 HP (N-9Ma): two Franklin 0-540-7, 6 cylinder air cooled opposed engines, 300 HP, (N-9MB): Wingspan of 60 ft, overall length of 17 ft 10 in, overall height of 8 ft 7 in, wing area of 490 sq ft, takeoff weight of 7,100lbs, maximum speed of 257 mph, cruising speed of 160 mph, range of 500 miles, and a service ceiling of 21,000ft.


Throughout World War II, the Germans had a vigorous development program for rockets and rocket powered/assisted aircraft. The emphasis on this technology was not lost on their American counterparts. In September 1942, Northrop undertook a design feasibility study for a rocket-powered interceptor. This led to a contract for a series of vehicles that consisted of three gliders, two of which were designated MX-334, and a powered version, the MX-324. All three planes were to be test vehicles for a later craft, the XP-75.

The MX-334 flying wing was designed to test the control and stability characteristics of a glider design that would then become America's first rocket powered airplane. The gliders were constructed of a metal tubing center section, with plywood elsewhere. In an unusual step, the pilot position was to be prone, thus allowing this to be a true all-wing aircraft, with no protruding cockpit. This also had the advantage of allowing the pilot to withstand high g-forces during maneuvering.** xx**

Although the craft was designed as a pure flying wing with no vertical surfaces, it was later shown that a vertical fin would be needed at higher speeds. Consequently, a plywood fin braced with wires was added. The first flight of the MX-334 occurred on October 2, 1943. Several of the test flights nearly killed the pilots. During one, the pilot accidentally pulled the upper and lower escape hatch cover release instead of the tow line release. With the smooth shape of the mid-wing no longer a streamline, severe buffeting resulted. The pilot was able to land the plane successfully. Another fortunate near-tragedy happened when the glider got caught in the propwash of the P-38 tow plane. The plane pitched up, stalled, and went into a spin. When it recovered, it was upside down, and the pilot was lying on the roof, unable to reach the controls. He managed to open the escape hatch and parachuted. The plane continued gliding in circles at the same rate of descent as the parachute. When the glider finally landed, it was damaged beyond repair.

The MX-324 was to be powered by an Aerojet liquid-fuel rocket engine. Once ignited, the rocket engine would expend the fuel in three minutes, then the aircraft planed like a glider. The first powered flight of the MX- 324 took place the following July. The flight tests revealed that the handling characteristics of the design were as good or better than those of the other flying wings. The rocket motor used in ** xx**the MX-324 used monoethylaniline and red fuming nitric acid, either of which could kill the pilot. Three years after the first flight of the Me 163, Harry Crosby flew the first American rocket powered aircraft. The flight began on the morning of July 4, 1944. After a tow to 8,000 feet from a P-38, the Aerojet motor was ignited and it began to produce 200 lb. of thrust. The flight lasted over four minutes and ended with a safe landing. The current location of the MX-324 is unknown but it was last photographed at Wright Patterson AFB.

Specs of the MX-324

ROLLOUT: 1944 WINGSPAN: 9,75 m LENGTH: 3,65 m MAX SPEED: 560 km/h WEIGHT: 1.134 kg ARMAMENT : NA The MX-324/334 "Rocket Wing" Usage Experimental Wing Construction Metal Capacity Pilot Motor type One Aerojet XCAL-200 Power 200 lbs thrust Length 12 ft (3.7 m) Span 32 ft (9.8 m) Wing Area 244 ft2 (22.7 m2) Aspect Ratio 4.20:1 Pilot position Prone Maximum Speed 300 mph


While the MX-334 effort was underway, Northrop signed a follow-on contract for an aircraft to be designated the XP-79. The mission of this new aircraft was to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft with gunfire. To accomplish this, four-.50 caliber model M2 fixed machine guns with a maximum of 250 rounds were incorporated into the design of the aircraft. Northrop chose to construct the aircraft out of a non-critical war material, magnesium. The XP-79 was to be powered by an Aerojet XCAL-2000 rocket motor capable of propelling the aircraft to 40,000 feet at 538 mph. The XP-79 was to have landing skids, two on each side of the center section. However, it was later decided to incorporate retractable quadracycle landing gear. The aircraft would have a wingspan of 38 feet and a length of 13.22 feet.

During March 1943, the decision was made to modify the third XP-79 to be powered by two Westinghouse 19-B axial flow jet engines in place of the Aerojet XCAL-2000 rocket motor. This aircraft would be known as the XP-79B. During June 1944, Northrop and Air Material Command (AMC) learned that Aerojet could not produce the XCAL-2000 engine in time and that the Northrop subcontractor, Avion could not produce the aircraft on schedule. These events led to the cancellation of the program in September 1944.

Northrop did not want to give-up and took** xx ** over the further design and construction of the aircraft. On 12 September 1945, the XP-79B, piloted by Harry Crosby, took off for the first time. Two Westinghouse 19-B (J-30) engines powered the aircraft. After about fifteen minutes of flight, the XP-79B entered what appeared to be a normal slow roll from which it did not recover. With the destruction of the sole XP-79B, the program was canceled.


By: Robert E. Friedrichs

My interest in the Roach Dry Lake Flight Test Site began when I first saw a photo caption in a book that Northrop Aircraft had published in 1976. The old photo at the beginning of this section was identified as having been taken at Roach Dry Lake, Nevada. The book had originally belonged to my wifes parents, both of which had worked for Northrop. In addition, my father had worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, which runs across the Roach lakebed. Our parents had never discussed aircraft at Roach Dry Lake and, after researching the aircraft that had been flown there, I envisioned an earlier "Area 51" whose purpose and accomplishment never escaped its shrouds of secrecy.

** xx ** In the fall of 2001 and winter of 2003 I embarked on a mission to find this hidden test bed of secret aircraft. I found a barren dry lake within sight of Primm, Nevada and its modern hotel/casinos and golf course. The panoramic view of the distant mountains matched perfectly with old photos I had acquired of the aviation facilities and aircraft tested during the 1940's. As you'll note in the photos below, little evidence remains of the wooden hangar and the people that worked there. As for the stories of the people who worked at Roach Lake during the brief but exciting time, virtually nothing remains. Perhaps this web page will spark others into contributing their stories and photos whereby the ambitious and historical undertakings at Roach Lake won't be totally lost.

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