The Transformation of the Modern Airliner

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The Transformation of the Modern Airliner

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has been a research organization that is intensely concerned with aviation.  As a result, it created the Fundamental Aeronautics Program to conduct cutting-edge research over the long term.1  The aim was to address all of the challenges involved in aviation, including noise, emissions, cost, speed, alternative fuels, and power plants.  The research even addresses the problems involved in flying aircraft on other planets. 

In doing so, NASA has continuously partnered with airframe manufacturers and others involved in aeronautics research to bring in the best talent and technology.  Within the Fundamental Aeronautics Program, there are four sub-categories of interest:

First, the subsonic fixed-wing project conducts research on new designs for airplanes and their engines.  The goals are to produce aircraft that can take off in a short distance; fly faster, quieter, and cheaper; use less fuel; and produce lower levels of emissions.

Second, the subsonic rotary wing project aims to improve helicopters and other rotary wing craft so that they can fly faster, farther, quieter, and cheaper, even while carrying more in the way of payload.  Among the concepts being tested are aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter and then tilt their rotors to fly like an airplane. 

Third, the supersonics project intends to create practical supersonic commercial airliners.  Supersonic flight is well understood, but it comes with a tremendous penalty in noise and emissions.  The main goal is to reduce those negatives.

Fourth, the goal of the hypersonic project is to design a vehicle that can fly from the surface of the Earth directly into space, reaching many times the speed of sound.  Under this program, aircraft could conceivably fly to Mars, delivering large payloads with great accuracy. 

While much of this may seem like science fiction to the casual observer — or else too far in the future to bother worrying about — some of this research is paying off now in terms of new designs for commercial airliners.  According to, Boeing, in collaboration with General Electric and Georgia Tech, is involved in a project called Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research.2  After an 18-month period of study, Boeing brought NASA a new family of concept aircraft, including several new designs that could meet NASA's most important goals for aircraft in 2030, including: 

·         An increase in fuel efficiency greater than 70 percent over today's airplanes...

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