Supersonic Plane Wants It Both Ways

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A radical “bi-directional” aircraft design seeks to usher in a new Jet Age.

The shape of this strange-looking concept passenger plane has been compared to a shuriken throwing star, a stingray and the lower hull of a Cylon base ship (no, not the 1978 version). Whatever it reminds you of, you might get a chance to book a flight in it if you’re still around in 30 or 40 years, according to NASA. Oh, did we mention that it’s also supersonic and rotates 90 degrees in midair as it approaches the sound barrier? We hope you take your in-flight gin and tonic in a sippy cup.

This unique “bi-directional” flying-wing aircraft is the brainchild of Dr. Ge-Cheng Zha, an associate professor and aerospace engineer at the University of Miami. He and his colleagues recently received a $100,000 grant from NASA for further development of a wind tunnel prototype. With the ability to rotate 90 degrees, two different sets of wings with different surface areas can be used — one for takeoff and subsonic flight and one for supersonic. Zha says that switching to a different wing configuration at the appropriate time allows for great fuel efficiency, but will also allow the plane to pass the sound barrier without the traditional sonic boom, which would allow this vehicle to travel over population centers at supersonic speeds — something the Concorde was prohibited from doing.

supersonic jet 1 300x187 Supersonic Plane Wants It Both Ways “I’m hoping to develop an environmentally friendly and economically viable airplane for supersonic civil transport in the next 20 to 30 years,” Zha says. “Imagine flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours instead of 15 hours.” Hopefully, future supersonic passenger planes like Zha’s will offer more reasonable ticket prices than the Concorde’s $8,000-per-seat price tag for a mere New York-to-Paris jaunt.

The novel plane’s engines rotate independently from the airframe and are always pointed in the same direction. Although rotating the entire fuselage at 700 miles an hour might seem like a pretty unpleasant experience for the passengers and crew, Zha says that due to the central location of the passenger compartment and a five-second rotation time, the average g-force on the passengers would amount to less than they’d experience during takeoff. Zha has also pitched his concept to the military, which could lead to the first supersonic drones flying over distant battlefields or even your own backyard.

Images courtesy of Ge-Cheng Zha | University of Miami

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