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Flying Rams

Article #187 • Written by Greg Bjerg

Northrop XP-79
Northrop XP-79

During World War 2, large bombers and flying fortresses were considered critical for victory by both the Allied and Axis forces. In order to meet the threat of enemy bombers, both the Germans and the Americans were developing new interceptors intended to attack large enemy planes by deliberately colliding with them. Employing a technology which was ultimately abandoned, the solidly-built interceptors were meant to collide with their target at extremely high speeds. If all went according to plan, the bomber would be fatally wounded and the ramming plane and its pilot would survive the impact, ready to move on to the next victim.

The American plane designed for this role was the Northrop XP-79B. Started as a program to develop a rocket-powered gun-equipped fighter, the XP-79B emerged as a magnesium-reinforced jet designed to ram enemy aircraft. The jet's design was unique, placing the pilot in a prone position to allow him to endure much greater g-forces. The pilot controlled the ailerons with a tiller bar in front of him and rudders mounted at his feet, which is the reverse of normal flight controls. Intakes at the wingtips supplied air for the unusual bellows-boosted ailerons.

Naturally the plane was nicknamed the "Flying Ram." The plan was simple: fly above enemy aircraft, then enter a high-speed dive and collide with an enemy's wing or vertical stabilizer. The XP-79B was designed to survive because of the heavily reinforced leading edges on the wings.

The XP-79B had a range of 993 miles, a ceiling of 40,000 feet and a top speed of just under five hundred and fifty miles per hour. A developmental version of the plane, the MX-324, became America’s first rocket-powered aircraft.

Fortunately for potential pilots, the balance of power in the war turned against the Axis before the plane ever flew. The only XP-79B to take to the air did so after the war's end, and ended tragically. Test pilot Harry Crosby had flown the plane well for several minutes before it entered an uncontrollable spin from 8,000 feet, and Crosby was unable to bail out. The XP-79B project died with him.

Although Axis pilots-- especially the Japanese-- actually did try to collide with Allied bombers using volunteers using conventional aircraft, they also had efforts to develop ramming planes. The Zeppelin Company in Germany-- named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin-- was working on such a rocket plane when the war ended. It was called the Zeppelin Rammer.

The Rammer was proposed in the last six months of the war, but its progress never went beyond the design stage. Unlike the XP-79B, the Rammer was to be towed aloft by another fighter (probably a ME-109 or ME-110) and then released at the desired altitude. After being released it would ignite a solid-fuel rocket and accelerate to six hundred miles per hour. The small plane had fourteen small rockets housed in the nose, which could be fired at an enemy aircraft. The fighter could then take a second pass to ram the target if needed.

Zeppelin Rammer
Zeppelin Rammer

The designers were convinced that the Rammer would be able to slice through a bomber’s tail section with little or no damage due to the heavily reinforced leading edges on the wings. After an attack, the Rammer would glide to the ground its retractable skid.

The Japanese never got to the stage of designing a plane specifically for ramming. Still, some Allied B-29's were lost in ramming attacks by Japanese pilots using outdated aircraft. The Shinten Seiku-tai (The Heaven Shaking Air Superior Unit) were specially trained sections of fighter units with the mission of air-to-air ramming of Allied bomber aircraft. It was all an act of desperation which had no significant military value aside from downing a few bombers, much like the kamikazes' efforts to damage US carriers.

The idea of using an aircraft as a manned guided missile has a modern footnote as well. On September 11, 2001, F-16 pilots flying combat air patrol over Washington DC decided that they would ram hijacked airliners if necessary. The pilots had taken off in such a hurry to protect Washington that they left with no air-to-air missiles and the wrong ammunition. Some planes left with non-explosive practice rounds.

Although the Northrop XP-79B program was cancelled early, its legacy lives on in the 21st century. The Northrop Corporation ultimately used its basic design when building the revolutionary "Flying Wings" of the 1950s. Northrop gained considerable knowledge about wing-only aircraft with planes like the XP-79B, and that expertise eventually lead to the B-2 Stealth Bomber.

Article written by Greg Bjerg, published on 22 May 2006. Greg was born and raised in Iowa and graduated with a degree in Journalism from Drake University. Sadly, he passed away on 20 March 2011.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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33 Comments
kwiksand
Posted 22 May 2006 at 11:57 pm

Go damn interesting!!! I love it when I browse to the front page and see a tech/military style entry, and the last 2 have not disappointed!

Imagine flying through the air in a WWII bomber and have the equivalent of a machete chop part of your wing off.. Scary thought.


alias
Posted 23 May 2006 at 12:03 am

Using a plane as a missile to destroy something is brutal as no matter how reinforced the edges are, the pilots are always in danger, ofcourse using unmanned planes to do this in times of war is a great option i wonder why they didn't think of that. Although now with sophisticated radar and better defense technology, i guess they don't have to 'ram' anymore. Even in the case of the 9/11 hijacks, I heard about them planning to ram the planes to take them down, but I guess that would have been too dangerous. Pretty stupid of them to leave base without equipping the right ammunition, though.


donlaudanny
Posted 23 May 2006 at 12:44 am

alias said: "using unmanned planes to do this in times of war is a great option i wonder why they didn't think of that."

They're called missiles.


Ilkka
Posted 23 May 2006 at 01:35 am

Damn interesting, to be sure, but isn't controlling the rudders via pedals exactly how "normal" airplane controls work?


Morgan
Posted 23 May 2006 at 02:08 am

Man oh man, how big a pair of balls do guys like Harry Crosby have? You're flying that thing face-first with plans to dive through another plane? My hat's off to you.


MikeyToo
Posted 23 May 2006 at 04:21 am

Ramming aircraft was a tactic used by the Soviets during WW2. They did not develop any specialized aircraft but felt that trading one of their outdated fighters for a Luftwaffe bomber was worth the risk. More information at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramming.


Cass
Posted 23 May 2006 at 07:57 am

I've read about those soviet rammings. Apparently they also would attempt to use their propeller to chop up the tail of an enemy aircraft. All in all, I think that this plane ramming business is unnecessarily ballsy. I've also see plans for a Nazi ramming plane that the pilot would (hopefully) eject from just before impact. Apparently, test runs didn't go so well... Good article, Damn Interesting.


Quagmire
Posted 23 May 2006 at 08:54 am

The RAF used a sort-of ramming technique to take down V1 guided rockets fired from France by the Germans into England. They would gather a lot of speed and fly alongside the rockets, then use their wings to tip the little wings of the rocket, upsetting its crude stabilization and send it careening off to explode in a field. Now that took some balls. ( more info )


alias
Posted 23 May 2006 at 09:31 am

donlaudanny said: "They're called missiles."

They had missiles back then too but they obviously saw something in ramming planes with other planes didn't they, theres a difference between an unmanned plane and a missile.


Haywood Jablome
Posted 23 May 2006 at 09:46 am

alias said: " using unmanned planes to do this in times of war is a great option i wonder why they didn't think of that. "

I'm sure they thought of it, but it was the 1940's. To my knowledge we couldn't successfully send unmanned planes on missions until the 90's. Please correct me if I am wrong.


Haywood Jablome
Posted 23 May 2006 at 09:53 am

I will correct myself. I just did a little research on unmanned aircraft, it seems the first was in 1982. It was used for military reconnaissance so i doubt it was capable of finding a manned plane and ramming it.


just_dave
Posted 23 May 2006 at 10:05 am

the first was in 1982. It was used for military reconnaissance so i doubt it was capable of finding a manned plane and ramming it.

Too true. The guidance system of an unmanned plane used for recon can be fairly crude, but to get such a system to locate, lock onto and track a moving target is a much more difficult task. Even today's anti-aircraft missiles with their sophisticated systems have difficulty with that. They do the job well, but there is still a certain margin of error.


Chastain Troy
Posted 23 May 2006 at 01:44 pm

alias said: "Even in the case of the 9/11 hijacks, I heard about them planning to ram the planes to take them down, but I guess that would have been too dangerous. Pretty stupid of them to leave base without equipping the right ammunition, though."

Come on... A base inside the US, in peace time, with no warning, is not going to have live ammo in staging areas waiting on the off chance that the US will need to place a squadron of air superiority fighters up to shot down other aircraft. Then again, as I think, the DC area should have had some sort of air cover on standby. I bet there is now.

Semper Fidelis


Jason Bellows
Posted 23 May 2006 at 02:29 pm

Quagmire said: "The RAF used a sort-of ramming technique to take down V1 guided rockets fired from France by the Germans into England. They would gather a lot of speed and fly alongside the rockets, then use their wings to tip the little wings of the rocket, upsetting its crude stabilization and send it careening off to explode in a field. Now that took some balls. ( more info )"

Well hell--that's almost an article in itself. That's cool.


just_dave
Posted 23 May 2006 at 04:36 pm

Come on… A base inside the US, in peace time, with no warning, is not going to have live ammo in staging areas waiting on the off chance that the US will need to place a squadron of air superiority fighters up to shot down other aircraft.

There is always live ammo at the ready at most any given time at any active air base. If it's not at the ready, it can be pulled & loaded in a very short time.

I worked for the Air National Guard for many years, and it is standard procedure to keep ammo, missiles, bombs, whatever, on hand not only for live-fire training (which is done more regularly than you'd think) but also for emergency situations (use your imagination there.) Not that I've seen live ammo used for anything but training, but it's there just in case. Most any time you see a military fighter up in the air, if he's on a training sortie, he's likely to be carrying live weaponry.

Mildly funny story: During a training deployment to England a number of years back, I was working on a radio in the ops center/control tower, when a call came in from a nearby civilian airport. The caller, the air traffic controller, was asking if our pilots (flying A7D's at the time) would kindly fly up & out of their airspace when taking off in a group, rather than flying low & slow to allow those taking off after to catch up. One of the pilots who was there responded (off the air) with "Fork them. They don't have guns, do they?"

Maybe you had to be there. It's one that stuck with me anyway.


Xoebe
Posted 23 May 2006 at 05:34 pm

I just have to put that idea in the "bad idea" file. Ramming is a tactic of last resort, regardless of how the aircraft is designed.

Look at some of the logistics problems you'd have. Imagine you were the XO of a squadron of rammers. You'd have the bunch of the hardest drinking, balls-to-the-walls, crazies on your hands that any nation could produce. And if they got out of control - and they would - what would you do to them? Ground them?

Besides, if you can hit an aircraft with your own aircraft, you can hit it with 30mm with only a little more effort. And you get to keep the pilot.


Asshe
Posted 23 May 2006 at 07:34 pm

Isn't it amazing how imaginative we can be when trying to hurt others!!

Damn Interesting though.


cornerpocket
Posted 23 May 2006 at 08:14 pm

So many of the aircraft thru the ages have been created conceptually and then designed without the benefit of aerodynamic sciences and wind tunnels and such. It is often amazing that they flew at all and I understand that many of them were notorious for being difficult and dangerous, mostly due to design flaws and crudities. I am speculating, of course, but I suspect that common sense prevailed and brought an end to the idea that a pilot could actually ram another plane and continue on to fly and ram some more, no matter how strong the leading edge of the wings were made. The tremendous change in velocity and direction would pose immense problems, let alone the debris and fire and explosion of unspent bombs and ammunitions.


Hayley
Posted 23 May 2006 at 10:00 pm

They're like Viking aircraft! Very cool, albeit more than a little psychotic.


Odwalla
Posted 23 May 2006 at 10:03 pm

The author shows his ignorance of WW2 air combat history in the very first sentence of this article. There never was, isn't, and probably never will be a class of aircraft calld a "flying fortress". A plane is either a fighter, an interceptor, a transport or a bomber. While capital ships work in naval warfare and Star Wars there is no tactical logical behind them in air combat. *The* Flying Fortress was the Boeing B17. It was America's mainstay heavy bomber in the European theater of operations. It wasn't its own class of airplane, it was a bomber, pure and simple.

The entire concept of ramming wasn't anything earth shattering back then and it still isn't now. The Russians were building Yak fighters with reinforced leading edges of the propellers well before WWII began, easily six or seven years before the Northrup concept was conceived. The Russians knew that if war broke out they would be facing an ammunition shortage and designed the propeller in such a way as to allow the pilot to get in behind an enemy aircraft and chew its empenage (that's read "tail section" to the uneducated in the crowd) off without damaging his own airplane. While planed as a last-ditch weapon it became a widely used tactic by early war Russian pilots because it was so effective.


Prince
Posted 23 May 2006 at 10:52 pm

I am militarily ignorant, but even the ignorant can see that, no matter what decade you'r in, flying at top speed to hit another plane just seems kinda dumb, dont ya think?

And dont bother with the whole no-ammo thing, because I can see that there might be circumstances when its required, but it just seems so freakin' stupid


student
Posted 24 May 2006 at 03:19 am

I got a question somewhat OT: What is the advantage that greater speed confers upon a plane in a combat situation? One often hear that the German jets if introduced earlier and in large numbers would have even turned the tide of the war.


Kafka
Posted 24 May 2006 at 03:31 am

Ah, trust the military, any military, to think of strange things. Could have probably worked in theory, provided that the rammer was of sufficient weight and strength. Of course, going at such high speeds, travelling in more or less a straight line, would be pretty dumb. I think that they would be rather easy to avoid (if you could see it coming) and that there is a high chance the rammer will fail, or hit a friendly aircraft or hit the ground... or how about a bomb on a plane?

If the rammer hit a plane carrying some bombs, wouldn't the bombs and the rammer and the plane be blown up? The possibilities for it going wrong are endless. I guess it shows the military is willing to at least consider anything, no matter how dumb the idea.


another viewpoint
Posted 24 May 2006 at 05:11 am

Xoebe said: "I just have to put that idea in the "bad idea" file. Ramming is a tactic of last resort, regardless of how the aircraft is designed. "

...maybe so, but using the "ramming technique" might go a long way on our highways and byways. It might also get those that believe their concentration and focus are not diminished by; readying newspapers, drinking coffee, talking on their cell phones or worse yet...putting make up on.

As D-Day said in the movie Animal House...RAMMING SPEED!

(ps...you gotta luv this stuff!)


JustAnotherName
Posted 24 May 2006 at 06:16 am

Cass said: "I've read about those soviet rammings. Apparently they also would attempt to use their propeller to chop up the tail of an enemy aircraft. "

Reminds me of Ben Hur and the Chariot race.


1c3d0g
Posted 24 May 2006 at 12:30 pm

Odwalla: that's a bit harsh. Maybe you can enlighten us next time with your thorough WW2 articles.

Kwiksand: "Imagine flying through the air in a WWII bomber and have the equivalent of a machete chop part of your wing off.. Scary thought." LMAO!!!


shytus
Posted 24 May 2006 at 05:10 pm

You should all check out http://www.gameden.net It's totally free and they even have nintendo games on there. It's probably a bit off topic but I don't know any other good place to tell you guys about this.


USNSPARKS
Posted 24 May 2006 at 06:09 pm

No one mentioned a very important point. The target bombers aren't simply flying along to their targets.
They have many guns to shoot at incoming fighters, the regular kind or the rammers. I admit the high
speed of the rammer makes them harder to hit but they are still going to be shot at. It's probably much
easier to knock a bomber down by ramming into the tail than it is to actually shoot one down. You should
see some of the photos of our (U.S./allies) bombers that have made it back looking like Swiss cheese. You still need to get past those pesky gunners doing their best to blow you out of the sky.


Maj.Problem
Posted 28 May 2006 at 11:50 am

Odwalla, if you're going to call the author ignorant, look at yourself. You say there are only 4 types of aircraft. What about liason, ground attack, reconnaissance, maritime patrol, anti-submarine, experimental, towing aircraft, etc? In addition, I would treat the reference to "Flying Fortresses" in the article as a reference more to the concept of American designed aircraft being heavily armed and armored, particularly bombers. If you look at their durability standards and defensive armaments, Americans were among the best.

Although ramming is not new, the point of this article is that it passed from the realm of heroic sacrifices of the moment and even field modifications to do so, to a plane being designed from the ground up to collide with another aircraft.


Dave
Posted 30 May 2006 at 07:11 am

Of course, those B-17s would take a LOT of punishment and keep on flying. For example, there's the case of the B-17 "All American" that sustained a mid-air collision and flew back to the base. The photo has to be seen to be believed:

http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v385/FrankDrebin/AllAmericanTailFD.jpg

from:

http://www.armyairforces.com/forum/m_52240/mpage_1/tm.htm

Dave


verrryinteresting
Posted 24 June 2006 at 09:56 pm

You know. They have made unmaned bombers.


Madoc62
Posted 16 December 2008 at 09:13 pm

Greg,

Hate to break it to you but the XP-79 was never intended to ram anything - let alone ram enemy aircraft. The plane was made out magnesium, in part, but that was a weight saving measure on Northrop's part since the magnesium they used was stronger than the aluminum of the day but also lighter than steel.

Had that tiny aircraft tried ramming another airplane then it's most likely the P-79 which would've been destroyed. And there was nothing in front of the pilot as he lay there prone but a bit of plexiglass. That would make it even less likely a move to try and play tag with other planes.

That tiller bar was not the "reverse of normal flight controls" but rather a clever bit of engineering to compensate for the tight quarters in the cockpit. And lastly, the XP-79 wasn't around long enough to have earned any name like the "Flying Ram." That came about long after the plane had crashed and the program been shut down. Repeating it here is but part of the myths that have grown up around the aircraft.

And lastly, Harry Crosby did bail out of the XP-79. He just didn't successfully clear the aircraft as he bailed. He got clipped by either the vertical stabilizers or the wing itself and that knocked him unconscious and thus unable to open his parachute before he hit the ground.

For all this talk about aerial ramming, I'm surprised you didn't make mention of the one German unit specifically formed to ram enemy planes. This was the Sturmstaffel 1. They didn't use any purpose built aircraft for the task, just regular issue Luftwaffe planes with some extra armor thrown in. Their success was very, very limited and the program didn't last long.

A bit more fact checking here Greg would be greatly appreciated.

Madoc


Museful
Posted 08 June 2013 at 06:24 am

Surely this plane was not designed for ramming. Placing the pilot in the prone position would allow him to endure greater g-forces during maneuver (e.g. when pulling out of a dive or going into a dive), but *not* in the direction required to survive ramming. In fact, it drastically reduces his chances of surviving a ram/crash, because the impact will send blood into his head causing ("red-out").


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