Back in the 1940s, a futuristic airplane was designed and subsequently abandoned by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. Until recently, Northrop’s flying wing idea has remained an unfeasible concept mostly because technology has not caught up to the revolutionary design. Needless to say, the flying wing design was decades ahead of its time but not anymore.
Northrop Grumman’s tailless, fixed-wing aircraft of the 1940s is now closer to taking off from the drawing board to the skies. In response to NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation program, which calls for aircraft designs that are quieter and have better fuel efficiency, Northrop has revisited the flying wing concept and with today’s computer-controlled, fly-by-wire technology, has made the necessary improvements to make a flying wing aircraft a reality.
Nineteen-forty’s technology limited the firm’s ability to correct the stability problems of the flying wing design. A flying wing aircraft does away with the horizontal tail to eliminate the downward force that the tail delivers; this downward force is necessary to balance a traditional aircraft’s weight and its main wing’s lift. While the tail adds drag as it generates lift in a conventional aircraft, it also provides stability to the plane when it’s airborne and prevents it from rolling.
Northrop’s 1940’s tailless, fixed-wing design resulted in yaw instability; the absence of a stabilizing tail gave the flying wing aircraft a tendency to rotate around the vertical axis. The limited technology back then prevented them from correcting these stability issues and forced them to abandon the concept. The development of today’s fly-by-wire technology, however, makes it possible now to reduce or eliminate these stability issues.
Northrtop’s new flying wing aircraft resembles another one of the firm’s innovative aircraft creations, Northrop Grumman’s B-2 bomber. Unlike the B-2 bomber, however, the new flying wing airliner design has a 230-foot wingspan, which is wider by 58 feet than the B-2 bomber’s. For the flying wing cargo aircraft version, the wingspan is 260 feet and the aircraft would have a smaller cabin area than the flying wing passenger airliner. The flying wing also features a shielded engine to reduce noise. Because of the aerodynamic design, it is also more fuel efficient than conventional aircraft. While the sleek contours of the flying wing is supposed to significantly reduce drag, aircraft control strategies that are necessary to maintain stability still result in drag penalties. In the near future, these drawbacks should also be resolved as technology continues to improve.