Blended Wing research at NASA Langley could change aviation

HAMPTON, Va. - When you think NASA it's easy to think rocket launches and space travel, but its history is rooted a little closer to home...in air travel.

Blended Wing

"The world as we know it today in terms of being able to travel around the world with ease really the home of that is right here in Hampton, VA," said Bill Barry, NASA Chief Historian, in July.

The Langley Research Center is looking to keep it that way, joining with Boeing - the company behind those massive jet airliners -- to develop a new wing design taking air travel into the future. It's called the 'Blended Wing'.

"Blended Wing is a brand new configuration. It`s an integration of the fuselage and the wings to be much more efficient plan for them," said Fay Collier, NASA's Associate Director for Flight Strategy. "Langley's been involved with the development of this concept since 1990 so that`s more than 25 years now. It`s gone from paper studies to wind tunnel tests to structural tests."

The idea is to create a more fuel efficient plane that not only reduces air pollution, but noise pollution too.

Langley's wind tunnel has been key to testing as recently as last year.

Bob Liebeck, a Senior Fellow at Boeing, says they're hoping to get to a manned demonstration soon. The NASA partnership being vital to the blended wing's success.

"Boeing and NASA have shared in the costs and NASA has not only brought money, they've brought at least half the technology," said Liebeck.

But will the blended wing change the planes you see at the local airport? Collier says not for the foreseeable future. You could see it, however, landing at the local military bases.

"We've been thinking it's going to be used for cargo first, military cargo, other military missions so that's kind of what our story has been. That would provide a natural transition at some point in the future to perhaps a commercial product," said Collier.

But we're still likely a long way off from seeing the blended wing go from testing...to flying our skies.

"From my perspective the time table is out there probably beyond 2030...the 2030 timeframe. That's where we've been focused. We're trying to mature the technology that the aircraft would need so that, if the market demands it, it could find its way into the fleet from 2030 and beyond," said Collier.

Liebeck isn't as willing to give a timeline.

"Right now I want to get through a manned demonstrator before I start setting a time schedule," he said.

From 1990 to 2030...potentially 40 years of design and testing to change flight as we know it.