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Flight into the Millennium

In the next hundred years strange craft will zoom across our skies. They won‚€™t be alien craft from unknown planets. They will have been built here on Earth and will be capable of speeds we can only begin to dream of. In Spring 2000 flight tests on Hyper-X may prove that today‚€™s science fiction will become tomorrow‚€™s reality.

by Stuart Carter

Winged aircraft as we know them will be a thing of the past. Aviation technology is undergoing some of the most impressive and revolutionary changes that we‚€™ve seen since the Wright Brother's first flight in 1903. Across the world designers are racing to create fantastic new aircraft that can fly humans higher, faster and further than ever before. Airliners will take us to the edge of space and around the planet in minutes, utilising new propulsion systems that will make the jet engine obsolete.

The quest for new designs is relentless. In the 1960s NASA investigated the idea of flying an aeroplane without wings. Their ‚€˜lifting bodies‚€™ were a series of experimental wingless gliders built during the development of the Space Shuttle. The cross section of the aircraft body is similar to a wing, producing all the lift it needs to fly. Aircraft designers were determined to do away with conventional wings. At a once secret airbase outside Moscow, ingenious Russian engineers created what looked more like a ‚€˜flying saucer‚€™ than a plane. Called ‚€˜Tarielka‚€™, it was conceived during the height of the Cold War under the old Soviet Union.

The Russian methods were low-tech, but the results were remarkable. It looked impossible, but the Tarielka flew. Initial tests on scale models were so successful that construction quickly began on a full sized Tarielka. Looking like a spaceship from a Science Fiction movie the Tarielka was designed to carry up to a dozen passengers and was poised to become the new executive jet of the future. Its engines are housed inside the main body. The small wings, which provide no lift at all, help to stabilise and steer the machine. The aerodynamic lift comes from the wing-like cross sectional shape of aircraft itself. However, the investment required to transform the Tarielka from a promising prototype into a truly reliable and airworthy aircraft was immense. The cash poor Russian government was forced to withdraw it's funding. Developing radical new technologies is never cheap.


UFO? This Russian wingless craft really does fly!

The most tried and tested way to carry hundreds of passengers around the world is the 747. It has carried 1.6 billion people 20 billion miles, the equivalent of flying the entire population of Los Angeles and New York City to the Moon and back! With passenger numbers expected to double by the year 2010, new airliners twice the size of the 747 are desperately needed to meet the demand.


An aerodynamics team from NASA, Boeing and Stanford University is developing a new super-airliner, able to hold 1,000 passengers, more than double the capacity of today‚€™s jumbo jets. To create the extra room and lift needed for the passengers and their luggage this design has abandoned the traditional shape of fuselage and wings. It has fused the body and the wing together into a design called the BWB the Blended Wing Body. Even successful new designs of airliners will have to use existing terminal facilities. It would cost too much and take too long to redesign the world‚€™s major airports. To ensure the BWB is economically viable its overall wingspan must be no greater than the 747.


The shape of the future: BWB model undergoing final research tests at NASA Langley Research Centre

The BWB is a concept that‚€™s been around for over 70 years. This type of design used to be called ‚€˜the flying wing‚€™. Even 50 years ago engineers and designers knew that it could potentially carry huge numbers of passengers.or bombs. However, flying wings have no tail plane and early versions were highly unstable and almost impossible to control. They are constantly on the verge of stalling. Too unstable to be flown directly by hand, even the best pilots would struggle to keep them in the air. With 15 flaps and ailerons the BWB needs more than double the number of control surfaces of a normal aeroplane. Onboard computers are now able to interpret the pilot‚€™s demands and translate them into safe and stable movements.

With its 17ft wingspan the Boeing/Stanford BWB model might look like the ultimate toy aircraft but this design could be the shape of the airliner of the future. So far this research programme has cost $4 million. On its maiden flight it was so successful that it demonstrated that this radical shape could outperform conventional designs by a huge margin.


Concorde's successor: Engineers prepare a model HSCT for aerodynamic tests.

Super Speed

The greatest challenge of all is speed. Even the next generation of superliners such as the BWB will remain subsonic. If we really want to shrink the world we will have to travel at many times the speed of sound.

Concorde is the only existing supersonic passenger plane. It cruises at twice the speed of sound, around 1,400 mph. There are just 14 of them. Operated by Air France and British Airways they can cross the Atlantic in 3 hours 20 minutes. They carry only 100 passengers and they are very expensive to fuel and service. Designing a supersonic aircraft that will be significantly larger and faster than Concorde will not be easy. Concorde is over 20 years old. In that time, no one else has taken on the phenomenal task of designing a replacement. That is until now. NASA has recently started work on a new supersonic airliner. Known as the HSCT, short for High Speed Civilian Transport, it is twice as large as Concorde and will carry three times the number of passengers.

One of the difficulties with supersonic craft like Concorde is that the long pointed aerodynamic nose severely limits the pilot‚€™s visibility during take off and landing. To overcome this Concorde was fitted with a pivoted nose that hinges down at subsonic speeds for both take off and landing. Designers have decided that this option is too heavy and bulky for the HSCT so their pilots will have to land and take off without ever seeing the runway. They will have to rely on a system of radar, video and infrared cameras. I wonder who will want to be onboard the maiden flight!

The HSCT has to be funded by a government agency because it requires so much basic research. To progress past this initial stage of development the HSCT will require significant private investment. Some industry analysts estimate that it will take at least 200 of these super-fast airliners to satisfy the world‚€™s airlines, perhaps many more. The HSCT will be able to fly non-stop over the Pacific from Los Angeles to Melbourne, presently the world‚€™s longest flight, in under 5 hours, slashing almost 10 hours of the present travelling time. In the not too distant future the HSCT may be a common sight in our skies but even this plane will have its limitations.


Non-stop luxury: HSCT will be capable of flying over 200 passengers at supersonic speeds across the Pacific.

New propulsion for a new Millennium

Finding a new system of propulsion is essential if we want to travel really fast. Every jet engine flying today uses the same principles as the first engines developed by British engineer Sir Frank Whittle in the 1940s. Even rocket power has it drawbacks. The fastest aircraft ever to fly was the rocket powered X15 in 1967. It flew at Mach 6.7, an incredible 4,690mph, and reached an altitude of over 60 miles - the very edge of space. It was so fuel inefficient that its liquid fuel only lasted for a few minutes. And the Space Shuttle needs to carry more than it own bodyweight in fuel. The Orbiter weighs a mere 77 tons but must carry 1,785 tons of fuel to lift off.

If we want to build airliners that can travel much faster than HSCT, perhaps as fast as the X15 or the Shuttle, we will have to develop a completely new type of aircraft. It must be one that uses far less fuel but is still capable of flying in and out of space. Right now a NASA-Boeing team are developing a unique 'air breathing' rocket engine prototype called Hyper-X. It will be so powerful that it will shatter all previous speed and altitude limits. This new design the Hyper-X will take off like a plane but fly like a spaceship.

Hyper X with Booster

Artist's impression of the Hyper-X research vehicle on its short test flight in Spring 2000 after release from it's booster rocket.

At just 12 feet long, the un-piloted prototype will be carried to 100,000ft by plane and by a Pegasus booster rocket normally used for launching satellites. It will then be released and its experimental engines ignited. Shaped like a lifting body, Hyper-X will use its unusual curved shape to scoop oxygen from the thin air and ram it at high pressure into its combustion chamber. Mixed with explosive hydrogen it will propel the craft forward at an unbelievable 2 miles per second. Code named X43 by NASA, Hyper-X will make its 700 nautical mile maiden flight at Mach 7 in the Spring of 2000. This 12 minute flight will be a one-off: the prototype is doomed to plunge into the Pacific at 300 miles an hour.

If all goes according to plan the final version of the Hyper-X will be even more impressive. It will be capable of speeds of Mach 20 to 25, fast enough to leave the Earth's atmosphere. A sub-orbital hop from New York to Tokyo will take less than an hour; London to Sydney will only be minutes more. One disadvantage of this kind of hyper speed travel will be a very loud sonic boom. The aviation authorities will have to maintain a tight environmental control.

In the future, the only limit will be the designer‚€™s imagination. The technologies that will make these amazing vehicles possible are already available. In the early years of the new Millennium we will see developments in propulsion and avionics that will take us far beyond the limits of conventional aircraft - developments that will make the simple winged aircraft a thing of the past and change the way we fly forever.


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