Thursday, 30 September 2010

Future Aircrafts - The Oblique Flying Wing Concept

Talking about future aircraft is possibly one of the most exciting topics I can find. We must agree that in the last 40 years thousands of innovations have been brought to the airlines industry. Bigger, more powerful, quicker, greener, more automatic, stable, etc.

Unfortunately, during this last 40 years we can't speak of a real breakthrough on the world of transport planes. As an example, putting the shape of a Boeing 707 and an Airbus A340 one above the other we will find out that it is nearly the same, only that 40 years separate them.

Why? Due to the high risk involved with nowadays industry. Once upon a time we were able to innovate, people was able to spend time and money looking for new revolutionary projects. Actually, the high competence between companies makes that a brief risk analysis turns aways any possibility for real breakthrough.

We only need to move back to the Concorde case, and that makes it a lot easier to understand why companies are so afraid of thinking in an innovative way. There is place for small progressive changes but we have left back the major breakthroughs. That could give topic to some new articles, but in this one I want to explore one of the possibilities that have been brought as a future aircraft.

The Oblique Flying Wing is a project that began many years ago, back in 1979. It was a research project conducted by the NASA and the idea was to try a new design for an aircraft that had only one wing that crossed above the plane's body. This wing was able to turn on its vertical axis up to 60 degrees. This model was called AD-1.

This plane was a result of many aerodynamic investigations that brought to conclude that a wing that was able to pivot and face the direction of flying at certain degrees offered high performance advantages, specially reducing extremely the consumption of fuel by traveling at the same speed, as the drag force was reduced when pivoting the wing.

This revolutionary concept was showing the best results in stability when traveling at 1.4 times the speed of sound. A plane could take off with the wings in the normal position, and at same time that speed was increased while accelerating in the air, the wings would go pivoting and reaching the maximum degree when cruise speed was reached.

Unfortunately, the tests were driven with a small plastic and fiberglass plane that, for security reasons, was limited to a maximum speed of 170 mph. It was piloted successfully on 79 occasions and only poor handling qualities at sweep angles above 45 degrees were encountered. In any case, the reason for this problems was the low cost involved in the project, and theory and research demonstrated that if done properly, the plane should have been even more easy to pilot. The materials used, the size of the plane, and the low speed while testing high angles made the plane perform in non-optimum conditions.

The project was archived after resulting in success and new ideas have been developed since then following the same basics, up to a point where the wing could constitute the body of the plane themselves and would be able to pivot in the same way keeping the engines fix pointing to the direction of flying.

It is a shame that such an interesting project for supersonic flights involves so much risk and no aircraft manufacturer accepts to take it. Progressive developments are not risky, but have an important point to consider: are we developing progressively along a path with no exit?

Dani Alonso

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