July 24, 2010

The Flying Prius

The future of aviation that engineers dreamed about 70 years ago didn’t look much like the present. But it did look a lot like the future of aviation they’re still dreaming of today.

Back in 1938, for instance, Popular Mechanics magazine ran a cover story on “The Flying Wing of the Future,” an amazing machine in which the fuselage was almost indistinguishable from the wide V of the wings. In May of this year, NASA presented the latest thinking from Boeing, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, and MIT about the “down to earth” shape of planes to come in the next 20 to 30 years, with companion studies by Boeing and Lockheed Martin about supersonic transport. Sure enough, one of the MIT proposals is for the Hybrid Wing Body H-Series, an enormous flying wing, and NASA actually has been test-flying a model of something similar, the X-48B, since 2006. At first glance they look like they’re straight out of 1938.

But the operative phrase here is “at first glance.” Basic principles of lift and propulsion are immutable, so certain design features keep coming back. What’s really new is just about everything else that’s likely to go into making the next generation—indeed, the next several generations—of planes: the composites for the bodies; the engines that propel them; the computers that steer them; and, most important, the new economic, environmental, and political imperatives of the 21st century. Manufacturers really have little choice but to produce quieter, safer, more fuel-efficient, and greener machines than ever before—if only they can figure out how.

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