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The sleek B-2 stealth bomber emerged from the azure sky like a spectral alien, accompanied by the roar of thunder rumbling from its four General Electric F-118 engines. The low flyby above a million spectators lining the Rose Parade on Jan. 1 was hair-raising.
The most advanced and unique aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, literally a flying wing, was the brainchild of an aeronautical genius, Jack Northrop, who originated the idea nearly 80 years earlier. Famed aviation pioneer Donald Douglas once said, "Every airplane flying today has some Jack Northrop in it."
But Northrop encountered severe turbulence as he soared into aviation history with more than 50 unique aircraft designs, and his Flying Wing was enshrined with enough controversy to pique the interest of the most reluctant conspiracy theorist.
Northrop was born in Newark, N.J., and spent a few years in the Midwest before his father landed in Santa Barbara in 1904. Jack was nine and helped his father build a two-room tent-house on the Mesa close to the beach, a great place to watch sea gulls flying gracefully over the blue Pacific.
He loved school and attributed the sound education he received at Santa Barbara High for his success. "I believe," he said, "that the high school training I received was the sort of thing you would expect in a junior college at this time."
After graduating in 1913, Jack spent three idle months on a cattle ranch in Maui, in sharp contrast to the frenetic pace he would set for the next 40 years. When he returned, Northrop had several jobs: he worked for his father, drew plans for a prominent architect and was a mechanic in Bill Rust's garage.
At some point he became intrigued by airplanes, perhaps when he saw a French pilot take off and land on the lawn of the Potter Hotel. As serendipity would have it, in 1916 Allen and Malcolm Loughead set up shop in space rented from Rust at 101 State St. Northrop was a frequent visitor. The Lougheads planned to manufacture seaplanes and launch them from East Beach. Northrop joined the Lougheads and designed their F-1 10-passenger Flying Boat. Then World War I intervened. After a short stint in the Signal Corps, Northrop resumed his work with the Lougheads.