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The Phantom Works: Where dreams take flight

November 1, 2002, by Bill Cawthon

Perhaps it's because I grew up in the space-happy 1950s, but I am a sucker for a cool airplane. Especially the fantastic "artist's concept" type of aircraft usually found on the covers of mass-market technology magazines. Ever since I was a boy with a subscription to Popular Science, my imagination has soared on the wings of four-color covers and "insider" articles.

The Bird of Prey was first shown to the public on October 18, 2002. The distinctive wings serve as both lifting and control surfaces.

Boeing's Phantom Works turns aviation concepts into reality; developing ideas for future civilian and military aircraft and advanced projects for the exploration of space. The Phantom Works is Boeing's advanced research and development unit and its mission statement is very simple: "To be the catalyst of innovation across the Boeing enterprise."

At the Phantom Works, over four thousand Boeing employees work on hundreds of projects that include both the advanced aircraft themselves and the advanced technologies to make them. Of course, the Phantom Work's projects extend beyond those related to aerospace: Boeing is the lead systems integrator for the Army's Future Combat Systems initiative. The Phantom Works also develops new solutions for existing programs and products and identifies potential opportunities for future business.

However, as the title suggests, I like to think of the Phantom Works as a place where dreams really do take flight.

Last month, Boeing showed off one of those dreams when it introduced the "Bird of Prey," a top-secret technology demonstrator. It is named for the fictional Klingon starship from "Star Trek," but this Bird of Prey has actually flown: a reported 38 times, as a matter of fact.

The Phantom Works team developed the Bird of Prey as a "stealth" aircraft. That would seem to be nothing new, however, unlike the F-117 and B-2, Boeing engineers incorporated design breakthroughs that could have allowed the Bird of Prey to be deployed during the daytime. The F-117's and B-2's stealth technologies are most effective at night. In addition to its radical shape and eye-fooling paint tricks, the Bird of Prey has innovations like flexible covers for the control surfaces. These eliminate gaps that can be detected by radar.

While it looks like it ought to be capable of at least Warp Factor Two, the Boeing Bird of Prey is limited to a far more mundane operational speed of about 260 knots (300 mph). Power comes from a single Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5C turbofan engine similar to those found in some small corporate jets. Maximum altitude is just 20,000 feet; well below the normal flight level of Boeing's commercial jetliners.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that all-out performance was never the project's goal. The Bird of Prey was not a military project. It was a "proof-of-concept" aircraft, funded completely by Boeing and intended to evaluate new ideas and demonstrate the company could deliver prototypes of new aircraft at very competitive prices. In reality, the fact it was successful is what allowed Boeing to reveal the Bird of Prey to the public.

Boeing’s Blended Wing Body project could result in the development of several different types of aircraft. In the artist’s concept illustration above, a BWB tanker serves as a “flying gas station” for several smaller jets.

Concepts incorporated in the Bird of Prey are now industry standards and no longer need to be classified.

The Bird of Prey project began in 1992 and lasted until 1999. Flights began in the fall of 1996, most likely at Area 51, the Air Force's advanced flight test center in Nevada. During those eight years, Boeing invested $67 million in not just the aircraft, but in an array of processes involved in aircraft development. The Bird of Prey was one of the first planes created and built using 3-D virtual reality design and assembly methods and cost-saving measures like disposable tooling. The Bird of Prey's construction utilizes a relatively small number of one-piece composite structures - innovative at the time, but now becoming more common.

A number of the design elements of the Bird of Prey have been incorporated into the X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, or UCAV, which is now being developed for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. The UCAV's shape and engine inlet were inspired by the Bird of Prey.

The Bird of Prey, having done its job, is headed to a museum, but there are more exciting projects at the Boeing Phantom Works. Of course, many are of the "black" variety, meaning they officially don't actually exist at all, but a number are open enough to yield some tantalizing glimpses of possible future aircraft and space vehicles.

For commercial aircraft fans, one of the most exciting projects under development is the Blended Wing Body, or BWB. Boeing is currently developing the BWB in cooperation with NASA's Langley Research Center. Although the basic concepts are almost eighty years old, the BWB presents

Demonstrator model of the X-50A “Dragonfly,” a Canard Rotor/Wing aircraft being developed in cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

some significant challenges, and it has only been in the past decade that engineers have begun making real progress in developing a workable aircraft.

At first glance, the BWB resembles a classic flying wing, but it is really a hybrid including design elements of the flying wing and conventional commercial aircraft. The airframe merges efficient high-lift wings with an airfoil-shaped body, meaning the entire aircraft generates lift. This reduces drag and increases fuel economy. Boeing estimates fuel savings of up to 20% when compared to one of today's jetliners.

The Phantom Works BWB studies include civilian planes capable of carrying as many passengers as the giant Airbus A380 and transport aircraft capable of delivering volumes of cargo over very long ranges. Other studies include military planes, such as a tanker capable of refueling multiple aircraft planes simultaneously, gunship or a next-generation heavy bomber with global range.

Boeing’s X-43 is being developed for NASA’s Hyper-X Program. The X-43 is air-launched and uses a Pegasus booster to get the aircraft up to speeds where its scramjet propulsion system can ignite. The X-43 is designed to reach speeds well in excess of Mach 7.

Static scale models of the BWB have received extensive testing and a 1/7 scale, 2,500-pound flying model is due to make its maiden flight within the next two years. Full-size blended-wing aircraft could be flying as soon as the next decade.

The X-50A Canard Rotor/Wing UAV technology demonstrator is another Phantom Works/DARPA project that will soon make its first flight. Dubbed the "Dragonfly," it is a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that uses its wing as a rotor, and vice-versa. This gives it the hover capacity of a helicopter and the speed of a fixed-wing airplane. A Dragonfly would be able to take off and land in a limited area, like the deck of a small ship, quickly transition to fixed-wing mode, and fly to its destination at speeds in excess of 450 mph. The military sees a number of potential uses for the Dragonfly, including reconnaissance and tactical air support.

The first remote-control models of the Dragonfly have been built and flight tests are scheduled for next year.

Moving to the frontiers of space, the Phantom Works projects get really exciting. Imagine a triple-decker launch vehicle that would replace the current Shuttle or a hypersonic plane capable of flying at altitudes of almost nineteen miles at speeds 60% greater than an SR-71 Blackbird. How about a military aircraft capable of delivering a precision strike anywhere in the world in 90 minutes or boosting a spaceplane for on-orbit missions? Fantastic as they might seem, Boeing engineers are right now doing the work that could take these projects from imagination to reality.

Phantom Works engineers are working with the USAF Space Command and NASA to develop the Flexible Aerospace System Solution for Transformation (FASST), a vehicle capable of rapid strategic response and orbital operations. In the illustrations above, the FASST vehicle has taken off from a conventional airfield. Next the orbiter stage separates from the boost vehicle. In the final illustration, the Space Operations Vehicle is on-orbit, ready to perform its mission.

I wish I could report that there are models of these fascinating air- and spacecraft, but I am not aware of any. However, I would imagine that if Herpa, Dragon Wings or Wooster decided to step "outside of the box," there would be a number of customers. Perhaps they could produce a Blended Wing Body jetliner in Boeing demonstrator livery?

After all, if the engineers at the Phantom Works can dream, why can't we?

Thanks to Boeing for making the "tour" of the Phantom Works available. I also want to express my appreciation to Erik Simonsen at the Phantom Works for his assistance with the pictures and for providing updated information. Please note that all images are copyright © 2002 The Boeing Company and are used by permission.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005