NASA funds concept aircraft that rotates 90 degrees to go supersonic

Designing the perfect aircraft is impossible. For takeoff and landing (arguably the most important parts of flying), you want something with wide, broad wings. But to fly fast and efficiently, you want wings that are swept back and as small as possible. Variable sweep wings are a compromise, but this concept (just funded by NASA) proposes something, um, different.

Instead of sweeping its wings back as it goes supersonic like the B-1 Lancer does, this concept for a "supersonic bi-directional flying wing" (or SBiDir-FW) instead rotates the entire aircraft by 90 degrees to transition from subsonic flight to supersonic flight. The engine pod stays pointing in the direction of flight, but the rest of the airplane swivels around until its nose and tail have become its wings. The picture above shows supersonic configuration, while the picture below shows the subsonic takeoff and landing configuration:


The only structural difference that you'll notice are the presence of winglets in the subsonic configuration; by folding these winglets down, aerodynamic effects apparently cause the airframe to rotate 90 degrees on its own without requiring a powered system. Folding the winglets back up while in supersonic orientation will rotate the airframe back again, with just the engine pod keeping its forward orientation.

The SBiDir-FW aims to solve an inherent problem in supersonic aircraft, which is that supersonic and subsonic performance call for designs that are in direct conflict with one another: for supersonic aircraft, you want wings with sweep and low aspect ratio, while you want the exact opposite for subsonic aircraft. So, the SBiDir-FW just includes two completely different wings that you switch between as you go from one flight mode to another, and there we go, problem solved. The resulting aircraft (which is obviously still just a concept at this stage) would exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Maximum speed of between Mach 1.6 and Mach 2.0 (1,200 - 1,500 MPH) would allow a direct flight from New York to Los Angeles in under two hours.
  • Supersonic configuration is highly efficient with extremely low drag and no sonic boom, allowing for flights over land.
  • Subsonic configuration capable of taking off in under 2,500 feet.
  • Seating for up to 70 passengers.

NASA has pledged $100,000 towards helping the designers of this concept (a team from the University of Miami) take the SBiDir-FW into the wind tunnel testing stage, and if everything goes well, there's the potential for another $500,000 award in the future. That's not enough to turn this thing into your next commuter jet, but it may be enough to get some sort of operational testbed into the air to see if something this crazy might actually, you know, work.


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