The resulting unorthodox design, first flying on 28 October 1949, was (unusually for a combat aircraft) fitted with three engines, General Electric J47s in this case: one at the extreme tail with an intake at the base of the tailfin, and two underneath the forward fuselage in pods. The innovative, variable incidence wings, swept at 35° and with 6° anhedral, were equipped with leading-edge slats, full-width flaps and spoilers instead of ailerons. The combination of variable incidence adjustment and slotted flaps allowed for a shorter takeoff run. Four 954 lb (4.24 kN) thrust Rocket-Assisted Take Off (RATO) bottles with a 14-second burn duration could be fitted to the rear fuselage to improve takeoff performance. Spectacular launches were a feature of later test flights.
The main landing gear consisted of dual sets of wheels in tandem in the fuselage, similar to the B-47 Stratojet, with outrigger wheels at the wingtips (originally proved on a modified B-26 Marauder named "Middle River Stump Jumper"). The B-51 was a large but aerodynamically "clean" design which incorporated nearly all major systems internally. The aircraft was fitted with a rotating bomb bay, a Martin trademark; bombs could also be carried externally up to a maximum load of 10,400 lb (4,700 kg), although the specified basic mission only required a 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) bombload. Eight 20 mm (.79 in) cannons mounted in the nose would have been installed in production aircraft.
Crew provision was for a pilot under a "fighter"-type bubble canopy and a SHORAN (short-range navigation and bombing system) operator/navigator in a compartment located lower than and to the rear of the cockpit (only a small observation window was provided). Both crew members were provided with a pressurized, air-conditioned environment, equipped with upward-firing ejection seats. The XB-51 was the first Martin aircraft equipped with ejection seats, these being of their own design.