Super Jumbo flies into the future

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The Independent Online
Is this the shape of air travel to come? A giant flying wing capable of transporting 800 passengers from London to Los Angeles for three-quarters of the present air fare?

The Americans think it might be. The US aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas - at present being taken over by Boeing - and the space agency Nasa are about to test fly an unmanned 17ft model of the futuristic jet liner at Stanford University, in California. If the $3m (pounds 1.8m) government- funded pilot project is successful, the developers plan to spend $100m putting two quarter-size models in the air before the end of 1999. Nasa and the company have a "handshake agreement" to proceed.

At best the aircraft will not be carrying fare-paying passengers before 2010 but aviation experts believe it could revolutionise airline economics. Its blended wing body (BWB) design uses a third less fuel and is 12 per cent lighter than rival super- jumbo jets being developed by other manufacturers; operating costs could be cut by up to a quarter.

Passengers sit in a double- decker format built inside the wing. Three engines are mounted above the body at the back to cut down on drag by sucking air rapidly over the wings. A spokesman at the McDonnell's Advanced Transport Aircraft Systems Group in Long Beach, California, said: "We now have 20 engineers working on the programme. The test flight at Stanford will evaluate the aircraft's low-speed flight control.

"The stage we are now at with Nasa is deciding whether it is worth the expense of investigating the technology further. We want to proceed with it and when the Nasa administrator Dan Goldin came to see it several months ago he became very enthusiastic as well."

At 49 metres, the BWB is only two-thirds the length of the super-jumbo A3XX being developed by Europe's Airbus Industrie. It is a 650- to 1,000- seater with a range of 7,650 miles. But its wing span, at 88 metres, is the length of an American football field. Airbus says the A3XX will cost $8bn to develop and will be in service by 2003, provided it gets the launch go-ahead. It estimates there is a market for 1,380 such aircraft.

Boeing, the world's biggest jet manufacturer, shelved its own plans for a super-jumbo, the 747-600X, earlier this week, claiming that demand was too small to justify its $7bn development costs. However, Boeing is in the process of taking over McDonnell Douglas for $13bn. Graham Ennis of Condor Aviation, an aerospace design consultant who has followed the development of the blended wing body, believes this could be one reason why Boeing shelved its own programme.

Other observers reckon that the development costs of up to $20bn mean it will never get off the drawing board. But that is what was said 30 years ago about Concorde.