California-based JetZero has unearthed its long-standing confidential work and is preparing to upset some balances in aviation. Sharing information for the first time about its blended wing aircraft, JetZero is determined that this project will not remain on paper. With its strong partnership with Northrop Grumman. JetZero says that the most important feature of its new aircraft is that it appeals to both the military and civilian markets. This multimission design can be used as a midsize commercial and military tanker-transport aircraft.
First introduced as a concept in the late 1980s and studied on and off since then, the Blended Wing Body (BWB) failed to capture the market despite promising performance projections. However, according to JetZero, its BWB aircraft could fill a yawning gap in the midsize commercial aircraft market and could also be the answer to the U.S. Air Force's search for a similarly sized advanced tanker-transport aircraft.
Considering that Northrop Grumman is the only major manufacturer with experience in designing and producing aircraft similar to the BWB configuration, the partnership with JetZero brings even greater importance to the project.
JetZero is so ambitious that it claims it can break the duopoly effect created by Airbus and Boeing in aviation. Could this be possible?
What are the Features of the BWB Concept?
The BWB concept is a unique design that blends the wings and airframe structure of the aircraft. The aerodynamic characteristics of the aircraft are strengthened by reducing the weight and drag while enabling the fuselage to contribute to lift. Also known as the Hybrid Wing-Body (HWB), the tailless configuration generally doesn't feature vertical stabilizers. When all these features are combined, the BWB concept becomes much more efficient than the current aircraft design, resembling a cylindrical pressurized tube with two wings added. BWBs are also much quieter than current aircraft because the airframe shields most of the noise from engines, which are mounted on top of the aircraft's body.
The Z-5 design, the first of the Z series aircraft family proposed by JetZero, is optimized for a range of at least 9000 km (5,000 nm) and to carry up to 250 passengers. The aircraft, which is planned to be produced entirely in composite, has a wide cabin and high aspect ratio wings. Although the wingspan of the plane is close to an Airbus A330, about 60 meters (200 ft), its overall length is shorter than a Boeing 767. Despite its size, JetZero says the Z-5 will be nearly half the weight and require half the power of its competitor, the Boeing 767.
JetZero believes that the reduced weight and power requirements of the Z-5 family aircraft, which targets entry into service in the 2030s, will enable the Z-5 to use derivatives of existing single-aisle engines such as the CFM Leap 1 or Pratt & Whitney PW1100G. The company also aims to equip the aircraft with mostly conventional systems, thus simplifying the development and reducing cost and safety risks.
BWB's Concept Has Disadvantages, Too!
BWB significantly increases aerodynamic efficiency as the aircraft's body also generates lift. However, they need to make compromises to have these features.
BWBs offer limited internal volume for passengers or cargo compared to the current plane's tubular structure. This is why the aviation industry has consolidated today's aircraft design over the last 80 years. The wide interior spaces created by the blended wing design bring novel structural challenges. In other words, JetZero designers have to make this aircraft more potent than today's conventional tubular fuselage. While trying to achieve this, some of the advantages of the BWB concept are beginning to disappear.
Other technically challenging details include difficult cabin pressurization and increased unused internal space.
Of course, there is also the social dimension. Passengers may oppose traveling in an unfamiliar aircraft from what they are used to and find it difficult to adapt. The plane probably won't have windows either. If JetZero responds to this challenge by having the entire aircraft roof equipped with windows, they will have to figure out how to manage this without structurally weakening the plane.
So, although it is a suitable concept from a military perspective, it has still doubts that it can be a preferred aircraft for the civilian market.
The Z-5 is aimed precisely at the market for the New Midsize Airplane (NMA) that was studied by Boeing until the project was shelved in 2020. Although Z-5 is expected to enter service in the mid-2030s, this possibility seems still years away, according to the available data.
A few years ago, European manufacturer Airbus announced three separate aircraft concepts that it plans to fly entirely on hydrogen by 2035 as part of the ZEROe project and announced that one of them would be commercialized and put on the market. One of these concepts is a 200-seat BWB design. While Airbus continues its efforts to develop a completely new aircraft for the NMA category, the European manufacturer is also focusing on developing the A321XLR, a long-range variant of the A321neo designed to carry 220 passengers at a range of 8700 km (4,700 nm). The aircraft is due to enter service in 2024.
The reason for the expectation that the Z-5 will make a big leap in the near term is the U.S. Department of Defense’s plan for a BWB demonstrator that is to be evaluated as a future tanker and strategic transport aircraft. The U.S. Air Force supports the project and wants to see the capabilities of the BWB, which can be converted into a tanker.
The initial goal is to develop the digital design of a prototype and perform airworthiness and test planning with this prototype. Then continue the process by manufacturing a large-scale prototype for certification and testing.
The pivot landing gear added to the design of the aircraft is one of the most distinctive details of the concept. Enabling the entire body to be tilted up to six degrees, this detail can help address flight control and stability issues that many designers experienced in the past.
JetZero submitted its proposal for the US$245 Million cost-sharing program at the end of March, with a goal of flight testing a NASA-supported small-scale demonstrator for this year.
JetZero says thanks to its fuel efficiency, the Z-5 can carry up to twice the fuel of the Boeing KC-46 tanker on a maximum-range mission. The aircraft was also designed to use existing airport infrastructures.
The Air Force released its first official request last year, stating that the BWB is one of the single most impactful technology opportunities for future U.S. Air Force aircraft, both in terms of capability improvement and greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Converting the cargo, tanker, and bomber fleets to a BWB design would reduce annual fuel costs by US$1 Billion compared to kerosene at current prices.
With the U.S. Air Force and NASA behind it, the Z-5 promises much more than those set out to bring this aircraft concept to life before. Considering that Boeing and Airbus have yet to propose any concrete BWB projects, the Z-5 has become more ambitious.
The most prominent way to stay ahead in competition in the aviation industry is to evaluate efficiency and performance parameters separately and achieve success that will make a difference in both areas.
The timeline for this ambitious project seems a bit far from reality. Considering the project's financial, political, economic, and aviation regulations, it is not easy to achieve this task in such a short time. Nonetheless, it's worth getting excited about a plane that claims to be 30-50% better in every way than today's planes. Time will tell if the Z-5 will live up to expectations.
CAN JETZERO COMPETE WITH AIRBUS AND BOEING?
Judging by the position of Airbus and Boeing in the aerospace industry, there were candidates who wanted to shake their thrones. The Brazilian Embraer stepped forward but could not resist. Bombardier experimented with C Series and developed a successful aircraft, but could not hold and had to sell it to Airbus and decided to exit the commercial aircraft market altogether. Comac owes its existence only to the Chinese government and is still not a threat to the two giants.
It also seems complicated for JetZero to prove this claim. What makes JetZero different is that its concept also appeals to the military. Thus, JetZero believes that the possibility of developing the idea and learning from mistakes, having strong investors by your side, and finding someone to walk with when the project is commercialized will be utterly different from Bombardier, Embraer, and Comac.
We know that Lockheed has had many of these features in the past, too. However, it is also known that it could not find a place between the two giants.
The way JETZERO can break the duopoly of Airbus and Boeing in the industry may be achieved if these two giant companies do not take action during the transition to a new era. The deep crises Boeing has experienced recently and their inactive situation as a company seem to be preparing the ground for this. JetZero now has a strong partner like Northrop Grumman to seize this opportunity. But despite everything, the possibility of breaking the duopoly in the industry seems unlikely