For plane watchers, the skies above Edwards Air Force Base is always a great place to see the most advanced aircraft in the world. Locals may begin seeing an odd, manta ray shaped aircraft again. NASA has resumed test flights of the X48B blended wing body (BWB) test plane. For almost 3 years, the unmanned X-48B, nicknamed the Skyray, flew 80 flights testing it’s radical design. After a major overhaul and upgrade, the X-48B is back in the skies again!

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NASA’s X-48B Skyray tests blended wing body flight over the California desert. Image Source – NASA.gov

As you can see in the picture above (and others below), the X-48B is unlike most aircraft. The X48B is part of NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation program, also known as ERA. The goal is to design aircraft of the future which are quieter, more fuel efficient, and less polluting. After it’s last flight in March of this year, the X48B was stripped down, refurbished and upgraded with new computers, instruments, and flight control systems.

Flown out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s high desert, the plane enjoys plenty of obstruction-free room to test it’s capabilities. The blended wing body design offers many advantages to conventional aircraft. The X48B is built by the Boeing Phantom Works in association with NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the British firm, Cranfield Aerospace.

The X48B is a scale flying model, about 21 feet wide and weighing about 500 pounds. If the design proves valid, it could lead to a full-sized version 240 feet wide and weighing 500 tons. Unlike today’s airliners and general aviation planes, where passengers ride in narrow tubes attached to wings, an entire BWB aircraft is one big wing. The crew and passenger sections are several times wider and capable of carrying 800 passengers.

The idea of the blended wing body design has been around for a long time. The first aircraft to be built was the Stout Batwing, a glider conceived of by William Bushnell Stout in 1917. Test flown over the skies of Detroit, Michigan in 1926, the single engine plane flew well, but the test pilot complained about the poor visibility.

Across the Atlantic in Germany, other designers pursued the BWB concept. The Junkers G.38 could carry 30 passengers, 6 seated in each wing with the rest in the center body. Equipped with 4 engines, the G.38 was 144 feet wide and could cruise 2,150 miles at a speed of 175 MPH. In 1931, Lufthansa began regular flights between Berlin and London. Two planes were built and later upgraded in 1934 to carry 34 passengers and additional cargo, but one crashed during a test flight. The second G.38 flew regular passenger service until pressed into the role of a military transport until shot down by the RAF in 1941.

During World War Two, the Horten brothers, Walter and Reimar, became very dedicated to developing a flying wing. With little formal training, the Hortens flew their first glider in 1933. In 1937, they designed and built a twin-engine wing. In 1939, they and a third brother, Wolfram, joined the Luftwaffe. Wolfram was shot down and killed over Dunkirk in 1940. Walter proved the better pilot, shooting down seven RAF aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

In 1942, the Luftwaffe became interested in the Horten brothers’ flying wing concept. Work began on a prototype which used two of the early jet engines available. Their design, the Ho IX V2 became the Ho 229 jet fighter bomber. Two were built but too late to enter service and one crashed during test flights. The U.S. Army captured the remaining prototype. After the war, the Hortens moved to Argentina to continue their work. In the early days of the UFO flaps in the late 1940s, the U.S. Air Force considered the possibility that UFOs were actually aircraft designed by the Horten brothers. A recent recreation of a Ho 229 shows that the plane does indeed have considerable stealth capabilities.

Britain and Canada also developed BWB aircraft in the 1940s. The Canadian plane was the Brunelli CBY-3 which could carry 24 passengers plus cargo, and cruise about 1000 miles at a speed 170 MPH. Despite successful test flights, the CBY-3 never went into production. In England, the Miles M.30 X Minor flew for the first time in 1942. The small test plane flew well, but again, a larger passenger version was never built.

Fast forward to July 20, 2007 when the X-48B ‘Skyray’ made it’s first test flight. Ushering in a new era in potentially cleaner, quieter and more economical commercial aviation. Engineers from Boeing and NASA predict as much as a 20% savings in fuel consumption for the X48B while carrying double or more the passengers and cargo of today’s jetliners. One of the two biggest obstacles confronting engineers now appear to be developing a non-cylindrical cabin which can be safely pressurized. The other is a psychological perception by passengers. In ground-based mock-ups, people did not like the seating arrangements and such large crowds packed in a small area. Even if passenger service may be an issue, the blended wing body design of the X48B Skyray could lead to military transports and refueling aircraft.

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