Posted by Crystal Lewis Brown

The Swept Wing Airplane Design that Led the Way to Modern Aviation

Every year, dozens of spectators in a small town in Arizona wait right outside the hangar that houses an array of World War II aircraft, including seven flyable airplanes. That hanger is actually the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum, and those spectators are waiting to experience a homecoming of sorts. Nearly simultaneously, the group looks upward -- both children and adults are now pointing. They’re all waiting to welcome two World War II bombers back to their place at the museum.

For anyone whose aircraft experience consists of commercial aircraft, seeing an actual bomber jet is an experience that gives you goosebumps. Seeing airplanes that aided our country during the war being flown today is a special kind of moment and a rare glimpse into history. Guests had the opportunity to get right up close and inspect the Boeing B-17 “Sentimental Journey” and the B25 “Maid in the Shade,” studying them, looking at the weaponry, marveling at the sheer magnitude of the planes.

The Boeing Company

The B-17 was the backbone of the Allied daylight bombing campaign in Europe.

As impressive as the two bombers were – and still are – what is even more astounding are the innovations in aviation technology that came just a few years after these airplanes.

One such innovation was the introduction of swept wing technology. Instead of wings that come straight out from the sides of an airplane, like those in the aforementioned bombers, a swept wing is one that is angled. Engineers discovered that by angling the wing, they were able to eliminate excess drag, thereby allowing planes to travel at jet speeds for the first time safely. In other words, the swept wing design was a game changer.

The Boeing Company

A Junkers Ju 287 suspended at Völkenrode demonstrating a swept wing design.

What led to these innovations in human flight? In part, a discovery made in Germany at the end of World War II. In 1945, a team part of an initiative called Operation LUSTY discovered Nazi technology at a top-secret facility called Völkenrode. Part of the discovery included plans for swept wing aircraft designs.

Two years after the discovery, America unveiled their first large swept wing aircraft, the B-47 Stratojet. The swept wing design wasn’t the only thing that set the B-47 apart from prior airplanes. It also pioneered the concept of placing engines in small pods placed under the plane’s wings. The jet quickly broke records in both speed and distance, including crossing the United States in less than four hours in 1949. The plane’s speed was unrivaled. Since no plane was fast enough to attack it from most angles, the B-47 only needed defensive protection in the rear.

The Boeing Company

The B-47 Stratojet was the United States’s first swept-wing jet bomber.

The B-47 itself was a milestone in aviation history. In fact, every modern large aircraft is a descendant of the B-47. The advancements came quickly, with the U.S. military creating faster, more powerful jets. Subsequent planes included the NAA F-86 Sabre, which was the first swept-wing airplane in the U.S. fighter inventory. The Sabre scored consistent victories over Russian-built fighters in the Korean War. A so-called “twin” of the Sabre was the U.S. Navy’s FJ Fury series, transitioned from the earlier straight-wing design to a swept wing design. There was also the F3H Demon (McDonnell) in 1951, which reached speeds of 716 mph.

More recently, we have seen the introduction of the F/A-18 Super Hornet in 1999, which tops out at an astounding 1,190 mph. The Super Hornet replaced the F-14 Tomcat, the jet memorialized in the film Top Gun.

Just 70 years later, it’s astounding at how aviation technology has progressed and how the swept wing design has made such a difference. We can only imagine what else is in store.