Historic Northrop Flying Wing Crashed After Doing A "Barrel Roll" According To NTSB (Updated)

The April 22nd crash marked the loss of a beloved pilot and one of the rarest antique flying machines in the world.

Tim Felce/Wikicommons

The tragic loss of the only Northrop N-9M flying wing in existence and its pilot Dave Vopat that occurred on April 22nd in Norco, California happened after the aircraft executed a barrel roll. You can read our past coverage on the crash and the history of the ultra-rare N-9M here

The National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report on the incident reads as such:

On April 22, 2019, about 1210 Pacific daylight time, a Northrop N9M airplane, N9MB, was destroyed when it impacted terrain near Norco, California. The airline transport pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was registered to and operated by the Planes of Fame Air Museum under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the personal flight. The local flight originated from the Chino Airport, Chino, California, about 1202.

Multiple witnesses located near the accident site reported observing the airplane flying on a northeastern heading at a low altitude when it performed a "barrel roll." Several witnesses reported that after the maneuver, the airplane "wobbled [from] side to side" before the airplane's canopy separated. Shortly after, the airplane entered a steep right turn, and descended into the ground in a nose low attitude.

Examination of the accident site revealed that the airplane impacted the outpatient housing yard of the California Rehabilitation Center. The debris path was about 474 ft in length, 200 ft wide, and oriented on a magnetic heading of about 124°. All major structural components of the airplane were observed within the wreckage debris path.

The wreckage was recovered to a secure location for further examination.

Flying wings have notorious stability issues. It wasn't until digital fly-by-wire flight control systems became a reality that the concept could be implemented in an operational fashion in the form of the B-2A Spirit.  

I have never heard of the N-9M, an antique that was built in the 1940s, doing barrel rolls at air shows, although that is based on seeing the performance myself and watching videos of it in the past. Such a maneuver in that airframe sounds excessively risky, especially if it hadn't been a staple maneuver that had been repeated many times over at altitude and cleared for air show routines in the past. The low altitude environment that the aircraft was flying in the time of the crash would have offered nearly zero chance of a safe recovery after a departure from controlled flight. 

Sylvain Mielot/wikicommons

N-9M in front of the Planes Of Fame hangar.

What we don't know for certain at this time is if the maneuver was intentional or if some unknown circumstance caused a maneuver similar to a barrel roll before the aircraft departed completely from controlled flight. 

The N-9M was scheduled to be a star attraction of the Planes Of Fame air show in Chino this weekend. We will keep you up to date as more information from the crash investigation is released.

Author's Note 5/3/19 3:40pm PDT—

I have received some very interesting correspondence about this tragic crash. Some who are close to the aircraft and its operators have noted that they have never heard of aerobatics of this kind being done in the aircraft and especially not at low-level. That is similar to my observations and knowledge about the aircraft and its operations as noted in the article. In addition, some believe that a catastrophic issue, like an engine failure while at a high power setting or a flight control issue, may have caused a maneuver that looked like a barrel roll, but was totally unintentional. Under such circumstances, it is possible the pilot partially recovered the aircraft before it flew into the ground. In other words, the pilot did everything they could to stabilize the situation, but it just wasn't enough and the aircraft crashed.

Any of these possibilities could very well be true, but all we have to go off of at this time is the preliminary NTSB report. The final report may take months or even longer to materialize and may not be fully conclusive in nature. Regardless, I think it is worth stressing these possibilities along with what the report directly states. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com