To some, the Blended Wing Body airplane seems like a great idea. We like it, too. It’s highly fuel efficient–estimated to be up to 30% more so than the Airbus A380. The body acts as lift, providing a lot of the efficiency.
It’s voluminous. It can carry more than 1,000 people and it has great cargo-carrying capability. It’s also been discussed as an aerial refueling tanker for the US Air Force.
It’s in model testing by Boeing and NASA. And it’s futuristic, one of the more cool-looking planes (not that this is a practical consideration–Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser was cool, too).
But is it practical?
Billy Glover, Boeing’s environmental bio-fuels engineer, was asked about the BWB at the ATW-Leeham Co. Eco-Aviation Conference and whether this is really the answer to saving fuel in the future. Airlines want airplanes that are at least 20% more fuel efficient than today’s Airbus A320s and 737s and engine makers and the airframers are struggling to meet and exceed this demand with today’s technology.
The BWB, which can be made in different sizes, would seem to be an answer.
Glover didn’t dismiss the idea but he said there were challenges beyond those that are already well known. These well-known challenges are controlability, passenger acceptance (many would be without windows) and the possibility that those seated in the outer edges of the cabin might be more prone to air sickness as the plane turns and banks.
Glover added two more considerations, two that don’t mean much to the passenger (if at all) but which is a major concern to the manufacturer. One is the volume of material to build the BWB compared with the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft. While Glover didn’t give a materials comparison (e.g., the 737 requires X pounds of material and a BWB 737 would require Y pounds of material,) the airplane certainly appears to be more material-intensive, he pointed to the second major concern that perhaps is the greater concern to the airframers: how to you build a family of BWBs?
Unlike the tube-and-wing aircraft, the BWB doesn’t appear that it can be stretched. The 737 began as a 100-passenger -100 and since introduction in 1967 has been stretched many more times to be capable of carrying 200 passengers. A BWB can enlarge or decrease in size, but can it be stretched?
Glover raises a good point. And this may mean it will be a long time before the the BWB sees commercial service.