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Why Boeing's cylinders are taking a flying leap into a faster future.

Byline: Bradley Perrett Special Correspondent

In the beginning, Boeing created the B-47. The late 1940s bomber was the origin of the modern airliner, a mighty leap in technology, so advanced that commercial aircraft would follow its basic design for decades to come.

But now, after half a century of stability, signs are finally emerging that airliners are breaking the mould, moving away from the standard configuration of swept wings and podded engines.

Boeing unveiled a radical new airliner design in March, and European rival Airbus Industrie soon shot back with its own concepts of planes that would perform better than today's standard models and look a lot different.

We may not see another golden age of aerospace technology like the 1950s, when a new and exciting aircraft took to the air almost every month, but there are strong signs that the long period of boring refinement may give way to a bit of excitement, at least for a few years.

Typically, a new technology makes slow progress at first, as engineers sort out basic problems. Then new ideas come thick and fast, and the efficiency of the technology leaps higher until everyone arrives at what is obviously the best way of doing it, whatever 'it' is. After that, progress slows again, because engineers can now only tinker, refining the consensus design to improve performance by a few per cent here and there, which is what airliner designers have been doing for decades.

Engineers designing the Douglas DC-4 in the 1930s worked out that an airliner fuselage should be a cylinder, or close to it.

The round cross-section is the lightest shape for withstanding the pressurised air that people need at high altitude, and a straight body makes it easy to arrange the seats, galleys and toilets. It also helps the manufacturer to lengthen or shorten the plane to create new versions.

Like its famous DC-3 predecessor, the propeller-driven DC-4 had its passenger cabin above the wing, not below it, so the floor could be flat.

A Cold War weapon that was never used, the jet B-47 exploited German ideas from the Second World War to create a breakthrough: a long swept wing with which it could economically fly close to the speed of sound.

And the advanced bomber introduced an efficient place to put the engines. Hung from pylons under the wing, the B-47's turbojets were easier to carry than fuselage-mounted engines, created little drag and were easier to service or replace than engines buried inside the wing.

After the B-47 flew in 1947, not much more technology was needed to create the modern airliner.

A few years later the B-52 improved the wing shape, and then Boeing combined all these ideas to build the 707 airliner, which looked just like most of the commercial jets since then.

The supersonic Concorde turned out to be a costly dead end, and so even the latest aircraft, the mighty A380 superjumbo that Airbus plans to fly in 2004, will look like a 707.

Boeing saw off rivals in the first half of the long refinement phase that followed the 707, but has since watched Europe's up-and-coming Airbus Industrie produce more sophisticated versions of the standard airliner design.

Now the US company is seeking to introduce a new type of high-speed airliner, nicknamed Sonic Cruiser, that could wipe out the 707 look-alikes.

'If the Sonic Cruiser works then it will certainly change the game,' said analyst Dan Solon from Avmark International, an industry consultancy.

Boeing's aim is to go faster, getting closer to the speed of sound.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 12, 2001
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