It has been more than a century since the first scheduled commercial passenger flight took off on Jan. 1, 1914. There are now an estimated 22.2 million airline flights each year, and that number is only expected to grow.
That growth is paired with concern that all those planes in the air are not good for the air we breathe, or for the climate in general. Basically, they are bad for the environment.
On Monday, NASA and Boeing took a small but crucial step to addressing the problem with the introduction of an eco-friendly experimental aircraft. The model is designated by the U.S. Air Force as the X-66A, and it was produced through NASA’s Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project.
This X-Plane Marks a New Spot
According to NASA, the new X-plane seeks to inform a new generation of more sustainable single-aisle aircraft — the workhorse of passenger airlines around the world. Working with NASA, Boeing will build, test, and fly a full-scale demonstrator aircraft with extra-long, thin wings stabilized by diagonal struts in what is known as a transonic truss-braced wing concept.
“At NASA, our eyes are not just focused on stars but also fixated on the sky. The Sustainable Flight Demonstrator builds on NASA’s world-leading efforts in aeronautics as well as climate,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement on Monday. “The X-66A will help shape the future of aviation, a new era where aircraft are greener, cleaner, and quieter, and create new possibilities for the flying public and American industry alike.”
The X-66A is touted as being the first X-plane specifically focused on helping the United States achieve the goal of net-zero aviation greenhouse gas emissions — a goal articulated in the White House’s U.S. Aviation Climate Action Plan.
“To reach our goal of net zero aviation emissions by 2050, we need transformative aircraft concepts like the ones we’re flying on the X-66A,” explained Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, who announced the designation at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aviation Forum in San Diego. “With this experimental aircraft, we’re aiming high to demonstrate the kinds of energy-saving, emissions-reducing technologies the aviation industry needs.”
Enter the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator
The Sustainable Flight Demonstrator initiative was announced earlier this year. NASA will invest $425 million across seven years as part of the initiative. The company and its partners will contribute the remainder of the agreement funding, estimated at $725 million.
As part of the agreement, NASA will contribute technical expertise and facilities.
The X designation is for research aircraft. With few exceptions, X-planes are intended to test designs and technologies that can be adopted into other aircraft designs, but not to serve as prototypes for full production.
“We’re incredibly proud of this designation because it means that the X-66A will be the next in a long line of experimental aircraft used to validate breakthrough designs that have transformed aviation,” said Todd Citron, Boeing’s chief technology officer. “With the learnings gained from design, construction, and flight-testing, we’ll have an opportunity to shape the future of flight and contribute to the decarbonization of aerospace.”
The transonic truss-braced wing configuration, when combined with other advances in propulsion systems, materials, and systems architecture, could result in a reduction in fuel consumption of up to 30%, NASA further states.
According to the agency, due to their heavy usage, single-aisle aircraft today account for nearly half of worldwide aviation emissions. New designs and technologies for a more sustainable version of this type of aircraft could have a profound impact on emissions.
The Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project is an activity under NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program and a key element of the agency’s Sustainable Flight National Partnership, which focuses on developing new sustainable aviation technologies.
American History X-Plane
The space agency’s history with X-plane designation goes back to the 1940s – before there even was a NASA. Its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, jointly created an experimental aircraft program with the Air Force and the U.S. Navy.
NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, has provided technical expertise and support for several X-planes.
The X-66A is the latest in a long line of NASA X-planes. It began with the Bell X-1, which was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight and went on to prove the aerodynamic viability of thin wing sections. Subsequent aircraft include the Bell X-2, the first aircraft to exceed Mach 3; the Bell X-5, which was the first aircraft to fly with variable wing sweep; the North American X-15, which was the first crewed hypersonic aircraft capable of suborbital space flight; and the X-59 QueSST, a prototype quiet supersonic transport aircraft.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.