Aviation experts are brewing an aggressive plan to create a new generation of small planes that would be guided by a computerized flight control network and provide inexpensive air taxi service among the nation's more than 5,000 rural and suburban airports. These planes would have to be cheaper, possess simpler avionics, and fly faster than comparable aircraft available today. Eager to jump-start these revolutionary designs, NASA's Langley Research Center held a student competition. Shown here are the first- and second-place winners in the Technology Innovation category. Each design was accompanied by detailed aerodynamic, propulsion, stress factor, and structural studies, and a cost-benefit analysis.
FIRST PLACE: ALARIS
Students in the University of Virginia's engineering department chose an unusual blended-wing body design for their jet. The four-seater would employ two new, lightweight Williams EJ-22 turbofans to reach a top cruise speed of 529 mph. It would have a range of more than 2,000 miles and computerized avionics for automated flight. The price tag: an estimated $1.35 million.
In blended-wing bodies, otherwise known as flying wings, the fuselage and wing function aerodynamically as a single unit. As a result, the planes weigh less, produce lower drag at cruise speeds, and consume less fuel. But a flying wing is inherently less stable: Matt Daniell, 21, a leader of the Alaris project, says it's the equivalent of "an arrow without its feathers." That's why this type of plane has never been used in general aviation, and only rarely elsewhere (the stealth B-2 bomber is the best-known real example, though Boeing is now experimenting with a flying-wing design for a future large airliner). To skirt the instability problem, the UVA students employed an onboard computer to facilitate airplane control.
Winglets would also help steady the Alaris. The swept-back wing shape makes it possible to position them toward the rear, where they would function the way vertical stabilizers and rudders do on conventional planes. The already quiet engines would sit above the fuselage to reduce noise-a key factor if small-plane aviation is to develop the way NASA wants it to.
The Alaris design is not without drawbacks. One judge noted that the plane's steeply sloped door could make entering and exiting difficult, and that the extra interior volume created by the blended wing wasn't particularly well employed.
Thrust: 770 lbs. per engine
Length: 21 ft.
Height: 7.5 ft.
Wingspan: 35 ft.
Max. cruise speed: 529 mph
Max. altitude: 49,000 ft.
Range: 2,681 miles
Takeoff dist.: 821 ft.
Landing dist.: 1,000 ft.