NASA Testing New Flying Wing Shape
Ask anyone what an airplane looks like and most will tell you a tube
with wings. NASA researchers are trying to expand that image. They're
testing a design for a flying wing, called a blended wing body.
Technicians have installed a five-percent scale model of a blended
wing body in the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel at NASA's Langley Research
Center in Hampton, Va. During tests in the tunnel's huge 30X60 foot
test section, pilots "flew" the 12-foot wingspan, 80-pound model. It
stayed aloft in the tunnel's wind stream constrained only by a tether
cable. The flying wing is the biggest model ever free flight tested
in the Full Scale Tunnel.
"We want to understand the edge of the envelope flight characteristics
of the blended wing body," said Dan Vicroy, blended wing body flight
dynamics principal investigator. "We're comfortable with the flight
characteristics of conventional tube with wings airplanes, but we
don't have much experience with flying wings."
NASA is working with Boeing Phantom Works, Long Beach, Calif., on this
advanced, more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly airplane
concept. Researchers say a blended wing body could be useful as a
multi-role aircraft for the military, including functioning as a
tanker, cargo or transport plane.
Much testing needs to be done before the flying wing could be safely
introduced as a transport aircraft. The blended wing body doesn't
have a conventional airplane tail, used to control pitch (up and
down) and yaw (side to side) motions. Instead it uses a combination
of control surfaces on the trailing edge of the wing to maneuver the
airplane. The free flight tests will help assess the best combination
of control surfaces and limits.
Other questions also need to be answered about the blended wing body
configuration. "One question is how do you build a lightweight
structure that can be pressurized," Vicroy said. "It's easy to
pressurize a tube, but not as easy to pressurize a non-cylindrical
Even building the blended wing body model was a challenge. For this
test the model had to be dynamically scaled. It had to have the same
scaled shape as the real plane, same scaled weight and inertia
characteristics of roll, pitch and yaw. The model had to be light for
its size. It was built from graphite composite material similar to a
Formula 1 racecar.
Owned by Langley and operated by Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va.
The Tunnel was completed in 1931. It has tested World War II
fighters, submarines, the Mercury space capsules, supersonic
transport concepts and the flying wing.
The research is part of the Fundamental Aeronautics Program in NASA's
Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. The program's goal is to
advance breakthrough aerospace technologies.