For a couple years now, we've all seen those shady, grainy images being sent through cyberspace showing a large Blended Winglet "Flying Wing" style airliner allegedly taxiing at a major airport. The email that accompanied the photo usually said this was a "super secret spy photo" of Boeing's next generation passenger craft. Some called it the "first look" at a 797, I called it Photoshopped hocus pocus.
I've never doubted that Boeing's own Skunk Works might be working on such a craft, but did doubt big-time that they had a full-sized prototype that could cruise around Boeing Field on it's own power. But recently, Boeing let at least a part of the cat out of the bag when they offered this press release on their own site, putting to rest the rumors:
What has many people talking is the different applications for a blended wing body aircraft. The Seattle Times, who is consistently all over stories out of Boeing's Everett, WA base, said this:
Boeing Flies Blended
Wing Body Research Aircraft
CHICAGO, July 26, 2007 -- The innovative Boeing Blended Wing Body research aircraft – designated the X-48B – flew for the first time on July 20 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The 21-foot wingspan, 500-pound unmanned test vehicle climbed to an altitude of 7,500 feet during this first flight test, which lasted 31 minutes. The X-48B flight test vehicle was developed by Boeing Phantom Works in cooperation with NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to gather detailed information about the stability and flight-control characteristics of the BWB design.
Thanks to greater aerodynamic efficiency, a blended-wing-body design could be built much bigger than current planes and carry more passengers or cargo. For commercial applications, a big drawback is that most passengers in the cavernous interior would be far from windows. But Boeing is first looking at such applications as military cargo. George Muellner, president of the Advanced Systems unit in Boeing's defense division, said at the Paris Air Show last month that, with continued government funding, a blended-wing-body military-cargo plane could be in use sometime between 2015 and 2020.All of this is very interesting. As a pilot who must – repeat MUST – always have a window seat, I would not care to sit in the gut of a BBW, or 797, or whatever they end up calling it, with the windows (if there are any) maybe 25 feet away. But I can see a day when FedEx, UPS, DHL and the USAF could use these efficient planes to get their stuff from A to B absolutely, positively overnight. If this design lives up to its early promises, there might be significant fuel savings to be had when many of them are placed into service.
And you do have to admit, the design of the craft is pretty cool. It is the kind of design George Orwell might have envisioned would be flying through our skies in 1984, in his view of a modernistic world (now) when cars flew and people never aged. Well, Terrafugia is close to the flying car thing, we are living longer then ever (60 is the new 40), and that space-age airliner is now one baby step closer to coming to a ramp near you.