Azara Blog: "Silent" airplane promoted

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Date published: 2006/11/06

The BBC says:

More and more of us fly every year. As we do so, the political pressure to act to curb greenhouse gas emissions from planes is rising.

Now a team of researchers in Britain and the US has come up with a revolutionary new aircraft design that could make a dramatic contribution to curbing climate change.

The SAX-40, which has been developed by the Cambridge-MIT Institute, is a radically different shape of aircraft.

Officially, it is what is known as a "blended wing". It has a tailless wedge-shaped body with two bat-wings.

The Silent Aircraft Initiative (SAI) team has succeeded in coming up with a radically quieter plane. Crucially, the SAX-40 is also 35% more fuel-efficient than any airliner currently flying.

Oil prices may no longer be the $78 a barrel they were a few months ago, but with high fuel costs likely to continue, fuel efficiency is a major factor in all airlines' calculations.

Yet none of this means the SAX-40 will necessarily be built. Ever since the Boeing 707 first flew in 1957 and ushered in the commercial jet age, airliners have changed very little in their basic appearance.

Airliners still consist of a tube-like fuselage, with two swept-back wings and engines slung underneath.

There are good economic reasons why design has remained so conservative.

By making the fuselage a tube, aircraft-makers can easily build a family of larger or smaller variants, utilising many of the same parts.

And by sticking engines under the wings, it's easier to maintain them, or upgrade them halfway through an aircraft's 30-year lifespan.

Naturally, aircraft manufacturers have made considerable improvements in the past 50 years, for instance using composite materials and lighter, more efficient engines.
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For manufacturers, it is much safer to develop new airframes out of what has gone before, rather than re-tool completely with a brand-new production line.
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But the skies are not going to fill with radically new aircraft shapes any time soon.

When an airline buys a new plane, it will keep it flying for decades in order to make it pay its keep.

Which means even if this design gets the thumbs-up from the manufacturers, we won't be queuing up to board planes like the SAX-40 before 2030 at the earliest.

The inertia to move to an unproved, untested, uncosted design is huge, not surprisingly. Boeing and Airbus and the hundreds of airlines and airports in the world are not just going to drop everything, including their billions of pounds of fixed investment, on the offchance that this plane is indeed the future. Once upon a time the BBC trumpeted Concorde as the future. Clever design is not everything. Hopefully something can come of this all, or at least the best features, but you would be a brave (or foolish) person to make a bet on it.

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