NASA and Boeing Team Up to Build the Greenest Airliner in History, Sports 2 Sets of Wings

Let's take a minute or two to talk about airliners. If you haven't been in the loop, Boeing finished production on the last 747 quad-engined double-decker jetliner. As a metaphorical book-end on the era of gigantic, thirsty passenger jets that began in the 1960s, Boeing needed something desperately to point to as an ideological successor.
 NASA/Boeing Sustainable Flight Demonstrator 6 photos
Photo: NASA/Boeing
Boeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight DemonstratorBoeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight DemonstratorBoeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight DemonstratorBoeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight DemonstratorBoeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight Demonstrator
The name of the game in the 2020's airliner sector is far different than in the late 1960s. Big, wasteful, fossil-fuel-burning behemoths are slowly but surely on their way out. Slated to replace them is a series of far smaller but profoundly more efficient airframes. Want a proof-positive of this? Look no further than NASA's Chief Administrator Bill Nelson.

We tend to forget that the A in NASA stands for aeronautics. But what this means is that the American agency still has a vested interest in terrestrial aircraft. That's why an investment-awarded granted by the agency to Boeing for NASA's Sustainable Flight Demonstrator (SFD) initiative has implications beyond just environmental concerns.

With an initial investment by NASA of $425 million over seven years and $725 million from sources elsewhere, Boeing might have just found its new golden goose. Something which, after all the 747s are retired, can be looked at and said to be Boeing's technological flagship. Let's take a deep dive into what we know so far to see if Boeing's new designs really are the real deal.

"It's our goal that NASA's partnership with Boeing to produce and test a full-scale demonstrator will help lead to future commercial airliners that are more fuel efficient, with benefits to the environment, the commercial aviation industry, and to passengers worldwide," Bill Nelson said of their partnership with Boeing on this initiative. "If we are successful, we may see these technologies in planes that the public takes to the skies in the 2030s."

Boeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight Demonstrator
Photo: Boeing/NASA
It may be easy to mock a prominent NASA official holding a model of a twin-engine jet airliner that appears to have a second wing. "Why is it a bi-plane?" we hear people asking from beyond the screen. "Didn't we ditch those after World War One?" Well, the short answer to that is no. Bi-Planes continued to see service throughout the Second World War as well. In extreme cases, as with the North Korean's Polikarpov PO-2, they served for even longer.

Antique biplanes with wings fastened in place by lengths of wire suffered from largely the same issue, a chronic lack of engine power. With such underperforming engines, a second set of wings was the only way to generate enough lift to coax their primitive airframes into the sky. It's important to understand the impetus behind a compound wing system such as the one Bill Nelson held in model form at a recent SFD conference is altogether different.

If anything, modern aeronautical engineers have the opposite problem. Modern turbofan engines have no problem making more thrust than most people can wrap their heads around. The real proverbial rocket science in this whole affair is understanding how to generate as much thrust as possible out of every single drop of fuel.

In how twin sets of wings were essential to the pioneer age of flight, Boeing's Transonic Truss-Braced (TTB) wing can be just as useful in making aviation considerably more efficient. All without the need for four thirsty, emissions-ridden traditional turbofan engines we've seen in the air for six decades now. As for what might power Boeing's Sustainable Flight Demonstrator contender, the answer isn't yet clear.

Boeing/NASA  Sustainable Flight Demonstrator
Photo: Boeing/NASA
Either Pratt & Whitney or General Electric are the two most likely American candidates to power this novel Boeing jet. There's also a strong case to be made for Rolls Royce to be given the contract. But perhaps the nature of the engines themselves is more important than the engine supplier. All we know for certain, at the moment, is the novel airliner will sport a twin-engine configuration.

Late last year, the Raytheon corporation completed the first startup of a new form of a turboprop engine, which consisted of a normal engine combined with a 1 MW electric motor in a similar configuration to a plug-in hybrid electric car. Closer to the airliner space, Airbus's E-Fan X design study aimed to cater to much the same market as Boeing's Sustainable Flight Demonstrator.

Sadly, this project on the part of Airbus ultimately never went anywhere. But that's not to say some other form of plug-in hybrid jet engine technology couldn't be implemented by a different team. In the end, no one sollution is going to solve the recurring issue of passenger jet travel being a significant contributor to global carbon emissions.

All the fusion reactors, wind farms, and solar panels in the world couldn't solve that problem. That said, some really smart minds are going to need a lot of funding to solve this quagmire. Let's hope humanity is up to it.
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