In a rare move for an airline, in 2019 KLM Royal Dutch Airlines pledged to fund the development of a blended-wing passenger jet that it anticipates introducing into commercial use sometime around 2040. In August, a scale model of KLM’s futuristic-looking Flying-V demonstrator successfully took to the skies at an air base in Germany. The project is a collaboration between KLM and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
The radical design stems from the Dutch flag carrier’s push for more efficient and environmentally responsible aircraft. Aviation contributes about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. Engineers say the design will reduce fuel consumption by 20% from today’s most advanced aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
KLM’s Flying-V differs from conventional aircraft, as the fuselage and wings are merged to form one giant flying wing. New long-range aircraft from Airbus and Boeing focus on efficiency through the use of composites and fuel-efficient engines, but flying-wing aircraft take efficiency to the next level with a radical new aerodynamic fuselage design that enables longer ranges and better fuel performance.
The Flying-V will accommodate about 314 passengers while an A350 or 787 seats between 300 and 350. The shape of the fuselage invites all kinds of innovative interior design features that can delight passengers.
The Flying-V would have the same wingspan as an Airbus A350, which would allow it to use existing airport gates and taxiways. And the Flying-V will be able to fly farther than the A350 with the same fuel load.
Passenger cabins would be split between the two legs of the V-shape fuselage design, while turbofan engines would rest on top of the fuselage instead of below the wing, an unusual but proven design. The Fairchild-Republic A-10 Warthog is one example of a similar engine placement.
Flying-wing aircraft look futuristic but they are based on designs predating WWII. Germans built several flying wing prototypes and the Americans and British also experimented with them. Today, several countries use a flying-wing design for unmanned aerial vehicles.
To date, the only manned flying-wing aircraft to enter commercial or military service is the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
It is surprising that KLM or any individual airline seems willing to commit the time, effort, and billions of euros that are necessary to develop and bring to market a new wide-body airplane. The task involves a considerable amount of risk. There is potential competition from Airbus and Boeing. Both of those huge airplane manufacturers have built and flown scale models of their own blended-wing aircraft projects.
Greenhouse gas emissions is the cloud hanging over the future of commercial aviation. It is great that airlines and aircraft manufacturers are taking steps to to diminish emissions as the demand for air travel will grow significantly. There must be solutions that maintain the tangible and intangible benefits flowing from international travel and tourism while minimizing negative effects on the environment. Blended-wing designs can be one of these solutions until electric aircraft technology can be feasibly implemented.