The aviation industry’s profit margins have been reduced to the bare minimum over the past two decades, and commercial air travel now contributes 2.5% of all global CO2 emissions. In short, we really need to start thinking differently when it comes to airplane design.
That’s the idea behind the Flying-V, an aircraft design that promises 20% fuel savings compared to the Airbus A350–thanks to the laws of physics. That’s the main reason why Franco-Dutch airline Air France-KLM is going to fund the development of this concept. KLM relies on the Boeing 787, the U.S. competitor to the A350, which is the airplane that Air France flies. In the cutthroat commercial flight industry, where every pound of fuel counts toward the profit line and entire fleets are renewed for a 2% fuel saving, 20% could mean an incredible competitive advantage.
It marks the very first time that any airline has pledged to fund the development of a prototype of a radically new design (or not so new, as we’ll see later). The airline will collaborate with the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands to create a functional, scaled-down prototype by October 2019. The prototype will be used to test the flight characteristics of existing computer models.
The aircraft was initially an idea by TU Berlin student Justus Benad, who developed the concept during his thesis studies at Airbus Hamburg. Benad’s design seats about 314 passengers–similar to the A350–but the actual size is smaller and has less inflow surface compared to its volume. According to Dr. Roelof Vos, the project leader at TU Delft, this results in less resistance–and less fuel needed to fly. Likewise, the entire body of the airplane acts like a wing, which makes the entire wing a lifting surface, further reducing the fuel bill. The plane’s smaller size is compatible with current airport infrastructure, a crucial challenge for airlines.
The same basic design actually emerged more than a century ago, with the work of German aeronautics engineer Hugo Junkers, who patented this aircraft architecture in 1910. Like Benad and the team at TU Delft, Junkers believed that it would be the best design to fly people over the Atlantic, thanks to the improved aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Junkers never realized his vision of a commercial “flying wing.” His first large prototype was destroyed by the German government after World War I, following the Versailles Treaty’s limitations on German aircraft size. Eventually, the Nazis used Junkers’s ideas for the super-secret Horten Ho 229, a bomber that Hitler wanted to use to destroy New York City.
At the same time, the legendary American engineer Jack Northrop was working on the Northrop YB-35 Bomber based on the same principles. His design eventually culminated in theNorthrop B-2 Spirit, the crown jewel of the U.S.’s strategic bombing force. But it wasn’t until 2007 that NASA and Boeing went back to the drawing board to see if flying wings could be actually used in commercial flight. The two groups began work on a project called the X-48, creating a prototype model of the flying wing design that was 8.5% the size of the planned plane. The 12-foot-wingspan prototype successfully flew in April 2013, and NASA and Boeing have since announced the development of a larger version capable of flying at the speed of sound.
That brings us to Benad’s Flying-V. Unlike the X-48 being developed in the U.S., which is a “blended” wing design, the Flying-V is a true flying wing with a “V” shape. (Blended wing design is a type of flying wing, but the latter doesn’t have any distinct fuselage, while the former does). The Flying-V is a pure symmetrical wing, and all of its parts are embedded inside that wing: the crew cabin, passenger seats, cargo compartment, and fuel tanks. In theory, this is a logistical advantage over the blended wing design–although we will not know for sure until tests are completed for both airplanes.
The Flying-V’s unique shape poses new opportunities for cabin design. According to one of the project’s team members, Peter Vink, professor of applied ergonomics and design at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, the wider space inside the aircraft opens up new seat distribution patterns that will lead to better passenger comfort. The central space, for example, may become a large common area: “We’re looking into new options to having a rest or taking meals on a plane,” Vink says on the project’s web page. “Offering food from a buffet is one of the options we’re sinking our teeth into.”
The third and most important advantage of this design is not about passenger comfort or fuel savings–but climate change. Commercial airplanes now produce a whopping 2.5% of all global CO2 emissions, a number that is only going to increase unless we take radical steps to curb emissions. Creating airplanes that drastically reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions is not only an advisable path, but an absolutely crucial mandate. Until technology comes up with electric or hydrogen engines capable of transcontinental flight–a feat that may not happen until 2040–we need alternatives that can be deployed fast.
NASA/Boeing’s X-48 airplane and the Flying-V could both be our ticket to ride–if enough economic and political will exists to lift their wings skyward.