AIN Blog: Have Airplane Designers Lost the Edge?
Here we are in 2012, nearly 110 years since the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight, and with some notable exceptions aircraft design over the years has become about as conservative and uninspired as a bowl of Jello.
The modern business jet has evolved into simply a tube to which wings are attached amidships, an empennage is attached to the tail cone, and an engine is hung on either side of the tail section.
The most notable exception in the air today is a turboprop that was actually designed more than 30 years ago by Italian engineer Alessandro Mazzoni. In 1986 he was assigned to head a team of engineers at Piaggio and charged with creating a private aircraft that would be 10 years ahead of any competitor.
The result had wings set at mid fuselage circumference aft of the cabin and mounting turboprop engines turning pusher propellers. On either side of the nose were lifting devices similar in appearance to a canard, and everything about the airplane—the fuselage, the engine nacelles, the laminar-flow wings and the propellers—was designed with minimal drag in mind. A decade ago, I wrote that if Ferrari had built an airplane, that’s what it would look like.
Now, several decades later, the Avanti II cruises at Mach 0.70, as fast as a light jet but on one-third the fuel. And because the wing was placed aft, the spacious cabin is nearly the size of that of a midsize jet. So here we are in 2012, and that elegant airplane is still 10 years ahead of any competitor and selling faster than Piaggio Aero can build it.
By contrast, it amazes me these days how incredibly pedestrian we in this industry have become, although there is the occasional glimmer of hope, a flash of that genius and willingness to push the envelope that in times long past personified generations of designers and aero engineers.
Michimasa Fujino of Honda Aircraft has that flash. In 1986 he began working in secret on the HondaJet, a light twin now undergoing certification flight testing. At first glance, what immediately catches the attention are the engines mounted on pylons (gasp) atop the wings, far enough from the cabin to minimize noise yet close enough to minimize asymmetrical thrust in an engine-out incident, and so close to the horizontal centerline balance that the airplane exhibits only a slight nose-down pitch.
Here and there in the industry, there is still talk of a supersonic business jet. Most of it is not much more than talk, including news stories that appeared earlier this summer of a collaboration that included a number of major manufacturers, including Gulfstream Aerospace and Boeing. As it turned out, it was much ado about nothing.
Gulfstream and a few other business jet manufacturers have acknowledged back-burner research into a supersonic business jet. A Gulfstream spokesman said only that the Savannah-based OEM “is continuing to conduct basic research into enabling technologies that would eventually make possible a supersonic aircraft…with a focus on technologies to mitigate the sonic boom.” It’s not exactly a full-on program, but the dream is there, and so long as the dream exists, all things are possible.
A small company with a big dream, Aerion continues to forge ahead with designs for a supersonic business jet. The firm has no plans to build it, but hopes to find an OEM with which it can partner in bringing it to market. Perhaps more remarkable, Aerion has $250,000 deposits on 50 aircraft in escrow, and the company projects a potential market for 400 of the Mach 1.6, $80 million airplanes over the next decade.
So if you want, you can stop by the company’s Reno facilities and bet $250,000 on the world’s first supersonic business jet. Or, you could drive 440 miles south, stop in at the Bellagio and put the entire bundle on 21 to win.
Now you might think the chances of winning are about equal, and that may be. As for me, I think I’d put my money on Aerion. It’s taken them 10 years to get this far, and it may take another 10 before anything is flying. But I kind of like the idea of seeing something new in the sky that’s more than just another mailing tube with wings.