Air Force Bat Wing Tanker Transport
- The Air Force is seeking proposals for a mixed-wing aircraft that would serve as a tanker and transport.
- Mixed-wing aircraft feature huge fuselages that taper into the wings, creating a huge internal cargo area.
- Mixed-wing aircraft were studied for years but never built.
air force, according Aviation Week and Space Technologyis expected to issue an industry request for information (RFI) for a scale prototype of a mixed wing body aircraft, which could be an aircraft capable of carrying huge loads of cargo or fuel with greater range and better fuel efficiency than ever before.
The Air Force and Department of Defense will spend $56.9 million on an initial design study, with a focus on expected fuel savings if the design is adopted for tankers and transports. AvWeek reports that a more efficient tanker could not only reduce the service’s $2 billion annual fuel bill, but also allow a tanker to handle more aircraft over greater distances.
Traditional large aircraft usually consist of a tubular fuselage with flattened wings on both sides and wing-suspended turbofan engines. The blended wing body design basically looks like a traditional tube and wing airplane if the airplane was made of unfired clay and someone stepped on it, crushing the fuselage and wing into one body thick. The result is an aircraft that, at least in concept art, often looks like a cross between a jumbo jet and the B-2A Spirit stealth bomber.
The mixed wing body design has been around since the 1990s, but never really took off. The commercial aviation industry has been content to develop tube and wing aircraft, a proven configuration. The military, primarily for cost reasons, relied on this to field the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (based on the Boeing 737NG), the KC-46A Pegasus air-to-air tanker (Boeing airliner 767) and the E-8C JSTARS battlefield surveillance aircraft (Boeing 707).
The blended wing body has advantages over tube and wing. The blended wing creates a large, continuous wing that helps with lift and minimizes drag, which requires less fuel. It also creates a huge internal cargo space that can hold all types of military cargo, from vehicles to supplies. It can also carry a lot of aviation fuel, both to propel the aircraft and contribute to longer range, but also to distribute the fuel to other aircraft. It would be a big plus to help Air Force and Navy fighter jets bridge the distance between North America and Asia, and the Pacific Ocean in between.
A new aircraft design would require extensive testing to determine that it is safe enough for commercial use. Once developed, airports around the world would also require upgrades, just like they did for the Airbus 380 airliner, to support a mixed wing body. The roughly triangular configuration, for example, might require a longer passenger boarding bridge to span the distance between the terminal and the aircraft gates.
Boeing (top) and Lockheed Martin (bottom) experimented with mixed-wing aircraft. In 2007, Boeing X-48B, an 8.5% scale model of a full-size aircraft, flew from Rogers Dry Lake to Edwards Air Force Base, California. The X-48B was designed to “demonstrate that the new design can be flown as safely as current transports having a traditional fuselage, wing and tail configuration”, and was followed five years later by a another model, the X-48Cincorporating design changes and more powerful engines.
In 2017, NASA unveiled concept art for Lockheed Martin’s design, the Hybrid Wing Body. Hybrid Wing Body “combines the characteristics of merging the wing into the body of the aircraft, while retaining the suggestion of a T-tail tube and wing configuration.” The T-tail resembles the tail of the company’s C-5M Super Galaxy transport.
The Air Force has repeatedly expressed interest in the mixed wing corps over the years. The service has repeatedly abandoned the concept in favor of a civilian design, but rising fuel prices may finally spur it into action. If the fuel savings on a mixed-wing aircraft are significant enough, we might finally see bat-winged Air Force jets in the skies, and maybe just at commercial airports.
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