Boeing bets on experimental jetliner flight in 2028

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New aircraft with better features a ‘gamechanger’ for air travel: Barbara Peterson

AFAR Magazine special correspondent Barbara Peterson discusses how air travel is changing with new aircraft designs and how new features improve the passenger experience.

Boeing Co. won a NASA-backed contest to build a prototype of a new, fuel-efficient jetliner that officials said the company aims to fly for the first time in 2028.

The plane the aerospace giant plans to develop would install longer, thinner wings supported from below on a single-aisle fuselage, a design that officials said would cut down on fuel needs. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration didn’t disclose the names of rivals who participated in its competition, which was aimed at kick-starting the development of more environmentally friendly aircraft.

Boeing executives and NASA leaders on Wednesday described the plane as experimental, with multiple technical challenges to resolve before the inaugural demonstration flight several years from now. The planned jet won’t necessarily become part of the lineup that Boeing manufactures and sells, executives from the company said. 

NASA has selected Boeing and its industry team to lead the development and flight testing of a full-scale Transonic Truss-Braced Wing (TTBW) demonstrator airplane. (Boeing)

The unique design of the aircraft’s wings reduces drag during flight, which in turn reduces fuel consumption by up to 10 percent. This concept is part of an ongoing initiative by NASA, industry partners, and academia to make the future of aviation mo (NASA/Langley Research Center/David Meade)

In November, Boeing Chief Executive David Calhoun said he had pushed back plans for the company to create its own new plane until the 2030s. 

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"This is really to have confidence in technology to enable it to be considered for commercialization," Boeing technology chief Todd Citron said of the prototype jet. The company is looking to see if the benefits match predictions for the plane, he said: "That would be the precursor for then consideration on a commercial product." 

The aviation industry has faced mounting pressure from governments and airline customers to address its contribution to climate change, spurring manufacturers to roll out strategies to try to mitigate emissions from planes.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency created the competition as the private sector wasn’t prepared to take on all of the risk alone. Boeing’s planned jet is funded with a $425 million NASA contribution over seven years, and $725 million from the company and its partners.

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The planned Boeing jet’s long, thin wings would be delicate and need support struts to reduce the stress where they join the body. NASA and Boeing must also study operational issues on the prototype jet, such as deicing wings and fueling the plane, said Bob Pearce, associate administrator at NASA for its aeronautics research unit.

Other potential aircraft designs discussed in the aviation industry, such as so-called double bubbles, which combine two nearly round fuselages, also seek to improve fuel efficiency and lower emissions, mainly from reducing aerodynamic drag. 

The “double bubble” D8 Series future aircraft design concept comes from the research team led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (NASA/MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences)

The military has used some unconventional approaches for planes to improve range and make them more difficult to detect, such as the new B-21 bomber’s blended-wing approach. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall last week said he was looking at a prototype for a blended-wing transport aircraft.

Boeing hasn’t developed an all-new plane since the 787 Dreamliner in the early 2000s, and Mr. Calhoun has said emerging technology such as more efficient engines don’t support the business case for one now.

The B-21 Raider, a new high-tech stealth bomber developed for the U.S. Air Force, is seen in an undated photograph in Palmdale, California, U.S., released December 2, 2022. Its “Flying Wing” design helps hide it from radar and consume less fuel. U.S. (Reuters Photos)

"There’ll be a moment in time where we’ll pull the rabbit out of the hat and introduce a new airplane sometime in the middle of the next decade," he said at an investor event in November.

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Boeing and rival Airbus SE have a backlog of thousands of existing jetliners stretching out to almost a decade of production. Big aircraft buyers have said they support the aims of reducing the climate footprint of aircraft, though some have questioned the economics of unconventional designs.

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