Aircraft, awful and awesome: XP-79 ‘Flying Ram’

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***According to various Internet sources, during World War II the Army Air Force was interested in a jet-powered flying wing with armored leading edges. The Northrop XP-79 “Flying Ram” was intended to cut through the wings of enemy bombers with a minimum of damage after each collision.

The pilot lay prone, allegedly to minimize the frontal area where the collision was to occur, and as an additional benefit in this position could pull 12 Gs (a normal fighter was limited to about eight Gs). Since Americans look askance at kamikazes and other forms of suicide bombers, the urban legend of a “flying ram” to bring down enemy bombers by crashing through them was fascinating.

The reality was that the rocket-powered XP-79A utilized a highly explosive fuel, so the wing leading edges that might be hit by defensive fire were made of welded magnesium alloy with steel backing to deflect bullets.

But the rocket aircraft was so short-ranged that a new jet-powered model, the XP-79B, was developed. However, the XP-79B was plagued by development problems and, as the war progressed, it was viewed as less and less necessary. Nevertheless, development continued and finally a prototype was completed and flown just after the war was over, in September 1945.

Unfortunately, like many flying wings prior to the advent of computer-controlled “fly by wire” systems, the bright yellow XP-79 proved to be highly unstable. It only made one test flight, and after about 15 minutes the test pilot lost control of the aircraft and was killed trying to bail out.

When fire crews arrived at the crash scene, they found another flaw in the design – when water was applied to the magnesium fighter, the fire intensified. The aircraft was destroyed, and today only the legend of the “Flying Ram” lives on.

But legend is not the proper term – “myth” is. In fact, the XP-79 was armed from the beginning with four 50-caliber machine guns and was never intended to ram enemy aircraft.

The “Flying Ram” idea apparently came from comments made by Army Air Force engineers, probably in jest, after they heard about the armed leading edges of the aircraft long after its design was complete.