There have been big aircraft advances since flying began: jet engines, lighter materials, computerised control systems. But the shape of the planes has stayed the same — fuselage, two wings and a tail. Aviation engineers have long seen the heavy fuselage as a nuisance. What if the passengers and cargo could be housed in a wing?

The flying wing might look futuristic but the idea is nothing new. Possibly the first flying wing was designed and flown by Czech aviation pioneer Igo Etrich in 1909, although he had to add a tail to keep it stable. During the second world war, both the Americans and Germans worked at flying-wing bombers, without fully succeeding. In the postwar era, the US managed to build flying-wing military aircraft such as the B-2 stealth bomber.

Engineers have been trying to build a passenger flying wing too. KLM and the Delft University of Technology, supported by Airbus, have created a prototype called the Flying-V (pictured above, in a computer-generated image), a 3-metre-wide scale model of which made its pilotless first flight at an air base in Germany in July. The aircraft’s creators presented the results this month, with Roelof Vos, leader of the project and a Delft assistant professor, calling it “the most revolutionary change in aviation since the introduction of the jet aircraft”.

The Flying-V, as its name suggests, is really two wings, splaying out v-shaped from a pointed nose. Apart from the environmental benefits, of which more below, the designers are excited about the possibilities for passengers. We should always take cabin comfort promises with a pinch of salt — remember the gyms and bowling alleys we were promised in the Airbus A380? The Flying-V team says the plane could feature economy bunk beds. But a more important advantage of a slanted cabin wall is that the seats could be staggered, rather than in rows, so that, even in economy, people would not share arm rests with their neighbours.

Testing the scale model Flying-V in July © Malcolm Brown/Joep van Oppen

There have been other remote-controlled test flights of scaled-down blended wing-body aircraft. Boeing designed the X-48B and X-48C aircraft, which have more of a triangle than a v-shape. Built by Cranfield Aerospace of the UK, and flown in a partnership with Nasa, the planes ended their flights in 2013, with the partners declaring them a successful look at the future. Airbus showed off its similarly shaped Maveric demonstrator at this year’s Singapore air show, saying it could one day be a replacement for today’s short-haul single aisle planes.

The Flying-V is a future long-haul plane, carrying up to 360 passengers. The model’s maiden flight, while largely successful, was not perfect. The plane’s centre of gravity turned out to be too far back. It rolled and yawed and landed awkwardly, breaking its nose gear. All these problems are correctable, Vos said.

Airbus’s Maveric; a 3.2m-wide scale model was unveiled in February
Boeing’s X-48B, a 6.4m-wide demonstrator that first flew in 2007 © Robert Ferguson/Boeing

More important is whether the gains would be worth it. The Flying-V would use 20 per cent less fuel than today’s most advanced long-haul planes, which doesn’t sound much in an age when many oppose flying altogether. But Vos says that’s only the fuel saving from a different air frame. It doesn’t take into account improvements in materials and engines — or the use of a different fuel. While he doesn’t envisage the Flying-V ever being electric, he suggests it may be possible, one day, for it to fly on hydrogen.

When could a plane like this enter service? “In my personal view, 2040,” Vos told me. Richard Wahls, Nasa’s strategic technical adviser on advanced aircraft, also said wing-body planes could be rolling off the production line in the late 2030s. A long way off. But the pause in our flying is not a bad time to think about a more advanced and environmentally improved way of doing it.

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