A 'Whale' of A Hybrid Airliner
By Bill Moore
As a young college graduate from a theology college in England, I got to see the very first Boeing 747 on display at the 1969 Paris Air Show. Having flown into Paris from London Heathrow aboard the workhorse Air France Caravelle, seeing that giant airplane was an amazing sight. In terms of seating capacity, it held two-and-a-half times more passengers than the TWA 707 in which I'd flow to Europe in the summer of 1967.
Fast forward now forty years and along comes the Airbus A380. Capable of carrying nearly twice as many passengers at the original 747, it is, in its own right, a stunning sight. I got to see my first one in Air France livery last summer as it arrived from Paris into New York City's JFK International Airport.
But in addition to carrying more passengers, the Airbus is stunningly efficient. Based on passenger seat miles, it gets better fuel economy than your typical European passenger car and produces fewer carbon emissions, despite literally burning 10-12 tons of jet fuel per hour of flight time. If all the seats are occupied, it gets the equivalent of 78 mpg in US automotive fuel economy terms, and 3 L/100 km in European terms.
Now lets leap forward, perhaps another forty years and it's feasible another giant airplane, carrying 259 more passengers (775) than that Air France A380 and burning even less kerosene might make its debut at LeBourge. If it does, my only hope is that it doesn't go by its designer's current moniker: Sky Whale.
The product of the fertile imagination of Spanish industrial designer, Oscar Vinals, the 'Sky Whale' seems to take many of its design cues from cetaceans. Size-wise, it's wingspan is some 8 meters (26 ft) wider than the A380. It too is powered by four engines with passengers carried on multiple decks: three of them, opposed to the two decks in the A380. But there the similarities cease.
Technically called the AWWA, its designer imagines it to be a hybrid-electric jetliner. Its four engines, buried in its semi-detached wings, burn jet fuel, or bio-aviation fuel by then, in their core during take-off, but the outer turbofan sections are spun by electric motors. In effect, it is a charge-sustaining hybrid, from which some of the electric power is generated by solar cells embedded in the wing-shaped fuselage. In Vinal's imagination, the gas turbines can be throttled back or even shut down during phases of the flight, while the electric fan jets propel the craft at sub-sonic speeds, dramatically cutting its carbon emissions, which will be important as the world struggles to deal with the effects of global warming.
During takeoff and landing, the four engines can tilt down 45 degrees to improve safety and maneuverability. All flight controls would be fiber optic fly-by-wire.
The goal of the design is to (1) reduce aircraft drag, (2) reduce aircraft weight though the use of high-tech materials, (3) reduce engine fuel consumption, (4) reduce NOx engine emissions, and (5) increase its sustainability. Additionally, the unusual semi-detached wing design was incorporated to improve the survivability of the passenger cabin area, with the wings and its fuel bladders sheering away from the fuselage, reducing the chance of fatal fire.
Of course, it's just a designer's dream, but it does suggest one possible direction passenger air travel may take in a post-fossil fuel world.
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