Blended-Wing Prototype Nears Flight Test

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As the FAA struggles with the technology of the present, there is no shortage of ideas for the future of aviation. NASA recently has been testing its latest version of the X-48B, an advanced-concept, fuel-efficient blended-wing body, in the Langley wind tunnel in Hampton, Va. The 21-foot-wide prototype is scheduled to begin flight testing later this year. "The biggest difference between this aircraft and the traditional tube-and-wing aircraft is that this does not have a tail," said Dan Vicroy, a Langley research engineer. The wind-tunnel tests will help determine how to assure three-axis control. Two X-48B prototypes have been built, made primarily of advanced lightweight composite materials. Powered by three turbojet engines, the 400-pound aircraft will be capable of flying up to 120 knots and 10,000 feet, Boeing says. The prototypes will be unmanned and flown from a remote ground-control station. They are built to 8.5-percent scale, NASA said. The Air Force has expressed interest in the design's potential as a multi-role, long-range high-capacity military aircraft that could be used for tanking, weapons carriage and command-and-control missions. The technology could be ready in 10 to 15 years. Boeing is also investigating many other ideas, The Seattle Times reported on Monday. Advanced-concept researchers are envisioning jets of the future that will be quieter, more fuel-efficient, faster and easier to fly. To achieve those ends, strategies include forward-swept wings, canard configurations and unducted fans. Of course, good ideas are only half the battle. Even some tested technologies stall when faced with money problems. A runway-light experiment in Dallas, for example, has proven successful but is not being implemented elsewhere due to a lack of funding, consumeraffairs.com reported last week.