Tailless Aircraft - Notable Examples

Notable Examples

The examples given here are in historical order.

J. W. Dunne

During and shortly after the First World War, the English engineer J. W. Dunne developed a series of tailless aircraft characterised by having swept wings. In his book An Experiment with Time he claims that one of these was the first aeroplane ever to achieve natural stability in flight. Certainly, Dunne designed the first practical tailless aeroplanes. Few records of these aircraft remain.

Most of Dunne's designs were biplanes, typically featuring a fuselage nacelle between the planes, with rear-mounted 'pusher' propeller, and twin rudders between each pair of wing tips. His D.6 monoplane of 1910 was a pusher type high-wing monoplane which featured turned-down wingtips with pronounced wash-out.

Many of Dunne's ideas on stability remain valid, and he is known to have influenced later designers such as John K. Northrop (father of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber).

Dunne gave some help initially to Geoffrey T. R. Hill who produced the Pterodactyl series of tailless aircraft from 1920s onwards which were specifically designed to reduce the likelihood of stalling and spinning.

Lippisch deltas

The German designer Alexander Lippisch produced the first tailless delta design, the Delta I, in 1931. He went on to build a series of ever-more sophisticated designs, and at the end of the Second World War was taken to America to continue his work.

Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet

During the Second World War, Lippisch worked for the German designer Willy Messerschmitt on the first tailless aircraft to go into production, the Me 163 Komet. It was the only rocket-powered interceptor ever to be placed in front-line service, and was the fastest aircraft to reach operational service during the war. Its rocket propulsion system was highly unsafe, especially the early versions, due to the hypergolic nature of the fuel and oxidizer combination used for its powerplant. Landing was hazardous not only because the Komet had no main wheel units following its normal rocket-powered "sharp start" take off, jettisoning its twin-wheeled "dolly" during the takeoff run, but because sparks from the metal landing skid often flew up and ignited fuel vapours escaping from the propulsion system. More pilots were killed in takeoff and landing incidents than in combat.

de Havilland DH 108 Swallow

In the 1940s, the British aircraft designer John Carver Meadows Frost developed the tailless jet-powered research aircraft called the de Havilland DH.108 Swallow. Built using the forward fuselage of the de Havilland Vampire jet fighter. One of these was possibly one of the first aircraft ever to break the sound barrier - it did so during a shallow dive, and the sonic boom was heard by several witnesses. All three built were lost in fatal crashes.

Northrop X-4 Bantam

Similar to the D.H. 108, the twin-jet powered 1948-vintage Northrop X-4 was one of the series of postwar X-planes experimental aircraft developed in the United States after World War II to fly in research programs exploring the challenges of high-speed transonic flight and beyond. It had aerodynamic problems similar to those of the D.H.108, but both X-4 examples built survived their flight test programs without serious incidents through some 80 total research flights from 1950-1953, only reaching top speeds of 640 mph (1,035 km/h).

Dassault Mirage

The French Mirage series of supersonic jet fighters were an example of the tailless delta configuration, and became one of the most widely produced of all Western jet aircraft. By contrast the Soviet Union's equivalent widely produced delta-winged fighter, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, does have a tail stabiliser.

Convair F2Y Sea Dart

In the 1950s, the Convair F2Y Sea Dart prototype became the only seaplane ever to exceed the speed of sound. Convair built several other successful tailless delta types.

Supersonic airliners

The Anglo-French Concorde Supersonic transport and its Soviet counterpart the Tupolev Tu-144 were tailless supersonic jet airliners, with gracefully curved ogival delta wings. The grace and beauty of these aircraft in flight were often remarked upon.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

The American Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft was the fastest jet powered aircraft at the time it was retired, achieving speeds above Mach 3.

Northrop B-2 Spirit

The most recent tailless type to see operational service is the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit flying wing. It is unstable in flight and has artificial stability provided by a fly-by-wire system.

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