In Paris, the Boeing executive teases an eye-catching new aircraft concept

PARIS – Facing press on the eve of the Paris Air Show, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal confirmed Sunday that Boeing is seriously considering a specific innovation for its next redesigned aircraft that it will develop to enter service in the mid-to-late 2030s.

This is a new airframe configuration that Boeing is developing with NASA called the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing, or TTBW.

Until recent weeks, Boeing was publicly focused solely on fixing its recurring quality problems and dealing with supply chain shortages that were holding back a production increase. Now this concept, which previously seemed far-fetched, has suddenly come into focus.

“We have to look to the future,”[ads1]; Deal said.

At a parallel Airbus press event on Friday in Paris, chief technical officer Sabina Klauke described a series of early research efforts for new wings and other innovations. Klauke did not single out anyone, as Deal did, who was expected to be ready soon for prime time.

If adopted, the design innovation will give airliners a distinctive new look.

Although no decisions have yet been made, Deal said Boeing is already deep into an assessment of the new airframe design.

His comments follow those of his boss, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun, who said earlier this month that TTBW could be ready for use on the next all-new jet.

The aircraft will have very long, slender wings attached high on the fuselage.

The wings are so long that they must be supported by trusses or struts anchored to the bottom of the fuselage and angled out and up to the wing.

Towards the tip of the wing, beyond where the truss meets the wing, it is likely that the wing will need to be folded to allow it to fit into the same ports as today’s domestically flown aircraft, such as the 737.

The long, aerodynamic wings provide great fuel efficiency and correspondingly lower carbon emissions. With increasing pressure to cut emissions from aviation, especially in Europe, the next new aircraft will need to achieve 20% or more better fuel efficiency than today’s aircraft.

For the next major milestone in the project, Boeing will convert an old MD-90 airframe into a full-scale version of the TTBW that it aims to fly in 2028.

The Air Force has given the aircraft an official X-plan designation used for new experimental steps forward in aviation. TTBW will be X-66A.

NASA is providing $425 million in funding for the project while Boeing and its industry partners are contributing $725 million.

Deal said Boeing has done extensive analysis and wind tunnel testing of small-scale models of the new configuration. The full-scale flight tests will tell engineers how this data matches reality.

Deal added that a number of other innovations are also being studied at the same time, including new advanced materials for making the wing, a new high-volume production system and all aspects of design and manufacturing constructed with digital models.

Can all this really come together so quickly?

Deal was asked whether it is realistic to plan for a radically different, all-new aircraft design to carry passengers just a few years after a first experimental flight in 2028, in addition to radically changing the manufacturing systems and tools used to implement the design.

Deal pointed to all the analysis and testing Boeing and NASA have already done.

“That’s why we’re investing now,” he said. “We are not on day one. We are actually many years in.”

When asked if Airbus has any such new airframe concept in the works, Chief Technical Officer Sabina Klauke replied that the European jet manufacturer is constantly doing a lot of research.

Airbus has “a lot of technologies that we’re maturing right now to be ready for anything,” she said. “We are working with new materials, we are working with wings, we are working with the different engine concepts.”

She said many of the ingredients are similar to elements in TTBW.

She mentioned an Airbus project called The Wing of Tomorrow, which uses smaller scale models to study long, aerodynamically efficient wings.

“We’re looking at an extra-large wing, which will be collapsible, and it will even be collapsible in the air,” Klauke said.

That idea is partly to smooth out the lift coming from the wings by spreading them out to be larger in thinner air.

But no one seems to think of this as imminent technology, something we can all be flying on in just over a decade. There is no word of a full-scale European X-plane in the works in the near future.

But if Boeing’s 2028 test flight program delivers on the promise of the technology, Airbus will certainly follow with its own variant.

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