Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet by Czech Model

1/48 scale
Kit No. 4808
Cost: $19.99
Decals: One version (U.S. Army Air Corps, WWII)
Comments: Engraved panel lines; vacuform canopy; resin cockpit, wheels and wheel well inserts

History

The Northrop XP-56 was designed in response to a November 1939 U.S. Army Air Corps proposal for unconventional fighters called R-40C, which prompted additional designs such as the Curtiss XP-55 Ascender. Northrop’s XP -56 had a radical airframe that appeared to be a compromise between the pure, all-wing designs like the N-1M that Northrop was pursuing in parallel, privately funded projects, and a stubby fuselage that was the plane’s only nod to convention, and which gave rise to the “bullet” part of its nickname, “Black Bullet.”

The XP-56 had a rear-mounted, “pusher” powerplant in the form of a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine that drove two contra-rotating propellers. Additional unconventional features (for the time) were the plane’s tricycle landing gear and cranked, gull wing. Its tiny fuselage — only 27.5 feet long — triggered the need for elevons to help control roll and pitch. Proposed armament was to consist of two 20mm cannon and two 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine guns.

The manufactuing process for the XP-56 was also new; it was built using a new material, magnesium, and a new construction process, Heliarc welding. Heliarc welding became a standard method for fabricating metals and Northrop patented a special welding torch specifically for that purpose.

The pusher powerplant was an effort to increase overall performance by reducing drag in the forward section of the airframe. It was not a success, as the type’s top speed never matched the desired specifications. The XP-56 initially had a small dorsal tail fin and a large ventral fin, but the brief and ill-fated flight test program of the first prototype revealed such severe stability problems that it led to a significant increase in the size of the dorsal fin on the second aircraft. The Army Air Corps ordered a total of two prototypes.

During its brief flight test program, the first XP-56 proved extremely unstable in the air. Its first flight on September 6, 1943 was a mile long and only 30 feet off the deck at Muroc Dry Lake, California with Northrop Chief Test Pilot John Myers at the controls. He reached a top speed of only 130 mph, and detected lateral-directional stability problems. The second flight nearly ended in disaster shortly after lift-off when Myers experienced multi-axis control problems 50 feet above the surface of the lake. The XP-56 yawed left, rolled right, and its nose pitched down — all at the same time. Myers managed a landing that was more of a controlled crash just two miles from where he lifted off.

The stability and control problems continued; the first prototype was demolished in a take-off accident on October 1, 1943 — barely a month after its first flight. Myers walked away alive and relatively uninjured. His comment: “The airplane wanted to fly upside down and backwards, and finally did.” The comment may have been only half in jest; the inverted position to which he said the plane was predisposed could have been a function of the large ventral fin on the first prototype’s underside, which dwarfed its dorsal fin.

The second prototype featured a much larger dorsal fin to help cure the control problems encountered with the first aircraft. It made a total of 10 flights between March and August of 1944. Northrop test pilot Harry Crosby had no more success controlling it than John Myers had with the first XP-56. While many successful fighter designs dating to World War I’s Sopwith Camel were unstable, Northrop reluctantly concluded that the XP-56’s handling characteristics were downright dangerous. To top it off, it never achieved the promised speed of 465 mph, and by 1944 had been eclipsed by more successful, albeit conventional fighters such as the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang.

The Northrop XP-56 remains a radical, interesting experimental fighter design of World War II. Unfortunately, like Northrop’s XB-49 Flying Wing, it probably could not have been flown safely without the help of technology that did not yet exist in its day — the modern flight control computer.

The first prototype of the Northrop XP-56.

The Kit

Czech Models’ XP-56 is molded in grey and consists of 33 injection molded parts, a single vacuform canopy, and 31 yellow cast resin parts providing crisp detail for the pilot’s seat, instrument panel, cockpit floor and sidewalls, rear cockpit bulkhead, air intakes, wheel wells, wheels and spinner. The kit features engraved panel lines, individually mounted propeller blades for the contra-rotating propellers, and a choice of injection molded or resin wheels for the landing gear. The kit faithfully recreates the dihedral of the type’s unusual gull wing.

 

 

The second prototype. Note the dorsal tail, which was enlarged in an effort to improve directional stability.

The landing gear themselves are nicely molded and a dark wash will serve to bring out their detail once they are assembled and painted. The landing gear doors feature raised detail, as do the wheel wells and all the components for the cockpit. The decals consist of a single set of U.S. Army Air Force decals and include a marking for the triangular Northrop logo, which unfortunately is just a bit out of register, but a fine paintbrush, the appropriate matching shade of red, and a steady hand may easily cure that.

References

  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum online ~ http://airandspace.si.edu
  • Virtual Aircraft Museum – http://www.aviastar.org/air/usa/northrop_xp-56.php
  • www.militaryfactory.com
  • “Strange Wings: The XP-56 Black Bullet” by J. Terry White ~ www.whiteeagleaerospace.com

 

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