Adios, cigar and popsicle stick?

2028. Leaders of the airline and commercial airplane industry gather at an environmental conference, in the new high-tech city of Neom in Saudi Arabia. As a waterside reception flows on, eyes turn to an unfamiliar shape in the sky, growing larger by the second, something like a great manta-ray. The airplane pitches up and rolls – and continues rolling as two thousand smartphones are raised to track it, rolling through the inverted position at the top of the climb, now descending gracefully, deliberately and rolling back to level flight. In the cockpit, test pilot Jenna Bigglesworth reaches forward and takes from the cockpit coaming a plastic cup of juice, that has sat there level, uncapped and undisturbed from one end of the barrel roll to the other…

Such were the visions that came to mind on August 16 as the Department of Defense announced the selection of JetZero and Northrop Grumman to design, build, and test by 2027 a full-scale demonstrator for the startup’s blended wing-body (BWB) transport airplane, the most radical alternative to traditional transport aircraft configurations since the Boeing 367-80, the ancestor of every large commercial airplane out there, flew 69 years ago. (And was unforgettably barrel-rolled over Lake Washington the following year, to the horror of Boeing boss Bill Allen.)

The JetZero BWB seems aimed to follow the trajectory of the “Dash 80” with eerie precision: it looks as if the closest application for a production airplane may be an Air Force tanker, reducing risk for commercial applications. The BWB will also emulate the Dash 80 in being largely privately funded: the $230-some million announced yesterday will be only part of the cost, “a portion” of the funding, according to Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems president Tom Jones. Even the famously frugal Scaled Composites will need more than that for its share of the work.

There are deep Boeing roots behind the BWB program. The core design team veterans – Bob Liebeck, Mark Page, Blaine Rawdon and others – started working on BWB 30 or more years ago, at McDonnell Douglas at Long Beach, exploring new materials and advances in computational fluid dynamics (airflows over a BWB are dynamic and three-dimensional) to move from the long-theorized flying-wing airliner (as in, since 1910) to a practical shape. But after Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997, Seattle became somewhat impatient with the BWB team’s vision. I asked for an interview with Liebeck in 2003 when I was working on a 787 story for Popular Science: “Our market forecast for the next 20 years does not include commercial applications for the BWB concept,” snipped Boeing’s flack. “Since our leadership is of one mind on this issue, we don’t believe a further interview on this subject is necessary.” Alrighty then!

All I can say is that Liebeck and his colleagues have to be quite happy right now. Not to mention that it’s Boeing’s own lamentable performance on the KC-46 that’s given JetZero a shot at a tanker contract.

The theory behind BWB is sound. In reducing the drag of a large aircraft, aspect ratio alone doesn’t matter. Aspect ratio just means your wing has lots of span (good for induced drag) but small wetted area (good for other drag elements). BWBs may look as if they don’t have small wetted area – but when you consider the area of the fuselage and tail, they do. Liebeck’s designs have a broad lifting body and skinny outer wings, combining span with minimum area and generous internal volume.

The devil is in the details: controllability and scalability, pressurizing a non-cylindrical cabin, manufacturing something that’s not assembled from a series of near-identical hoops, arranging the landing gear. JetZero’s gear is unique and ingenious and one of many reasons for a flight demonstrator, although some other technologies will be worked in parallel with the X-plane and will likely not fly on it. Notably, a tanker is an attractive first app for a BWB – no need for a large pressure cabin.

Delivering the entire program and keeping the Defense Department interested will be challenges, too. With similar power and weight to a 737, the BWB prototype is of course not Scaled Composites’ largest airplane – but it will be the most complicated and the company’s first venture into fly-by-wire. Expect the formation of a three-member team of JetZero, Scaled, and Northrop Grumman in El Segundo, with Scaled primarily working on structures and NG on integration. JetZero is out hiring, and one thing is notably missing from their ads: any requirement for a clearance. That’s a good thing, by the way. It might be awkward if the USAF insists on stealth characteristics in its future tanker, but that would be a bad thing.

Performance will be important. Boeing’s own record notwithstanding, the company will fight tooth and nail to win contracts for the KC-46 beyond the initial 179 aircraft, and recoup its losses. Any slippage in BWB will be a cue for Expressions of Concern about the need to replace KC-135s in a timely manner. Already, the USAF’s notional “bridge tanker” requirement – in fact, a thinly veiled threat to bring Airbus back into competition – is getting squeezed as the service pushes to bring its all-new tanker on earlier, and could default to Boeing if the numbers aren’t worth a competitor’s time.

But the question that investors will ask is: Can the BWB break into the commercial airplane business? The stats aren’t encouraging. It’s been done once in the past 60 years, and it took (at the time) the direct backing of most of the European Economic Community. Doughty efforts by Canada and Japan to gain a toehold in the smaller end of the business have failed in recent years. Does JetZero aim to be bought by Airbus or Boeing? Somehow, I doubt it. It might be remiss of JetZero not to have a word with Embraer, for the time being the only builder of jet transports to not be called Airbus or Boeing or be based in China.

Something to watch: the BWB, with its low ratio of volume to weight and wetted area, makes volume relatively cheap. That could be valuable if the industry turns to liquid hydrogen aircraft.

Watching these events, you can’t always tell whether you’re seeing the start of a chapter in aerospace history, or another footnote. But that’s what makes the business fun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *