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By the 1940s, passenger airliners had pretty much settled down on the shape that has dominated the industry since then: a monoplane, with wing-mounted engines, a roughly cylindrical single fuselage and a tailplane.

The 707 set the template for jet airliners: low wings, and pylon-mounted engines.

Boeing 707 Source: Wikipedia

Apart from the few, smaller, models that place their engines on the rear of the fuselage, there are almost no models currently in production that adopt a different template (in fact, the only one I am aware of is the Antonov An-148).

There are no more tri-jets. There are no more radical experiments like Concorde on the horizon, never mind in production. There are no serious proposals for significantly different shapes or configurations.

The only significant configuration choice for medium-to-large size airliners seems to be two engines or four.

Since the 707 slung its engines under the wing on pylons in the 1950s, the only significant development that I can think of is the adoption of winglets in the 1980s.

You might consider the 747's hump and the A380's twin decks to be significant variations, but they are still only variations on the theme, not fundamentally different configurations.

Assuming that jet engines remain viable in 40 years' time, will the airliners of 2058 still look fundamentally like 707s?

If you're concerned that question seems too open to mere speculation, let me ask it another way: is there a fundamental design reason why the low-wing/pylon-mounted engine/cylindrical fuselage/tailplane configuration established by the 707 shows no sign of being displaced by alternatives?

Or, why have the enormous advances in (for example) materials and aerodynamics made so little difference to the fundamental shape of airliners?

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With current fuel prices: Yes, we have arrived at a mature design which will not change much. Recent trends like the increase in aspect ratio and engine bypass ratio will continue, but the general arrangement will remain unchanged.

Just look what happened in the first 50 years of airline operations, and how much changed after that in regards of aircraft configurations:

Airliner shiluettes from 1919 to 1969

Airliner shiluettes from 1969 to today

If fuel prices rise to 200 USD per gallon and more, expect slower airliners with less sweep, much higher aspect ratio and probably even braced wings. To enable bracing the wings will be mounted on top of the fuselage, like on the Hurel-Dubois HD.31.

Boeing SUGAR Freeze concept

Boeing SUGAR Freeze concept. Note the third engine in the back which ingests the fuselage boundary layer, thereby reducing separation and pressure drag.

While you might read about two more new design directions, a supersonic airliner and the blended wing-body (BWB), I am rather skeptical that any of those will be adopted in the future.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why braced wings? $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Jan 7 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ @CarloFelicione because the wing in that proposal is very thin and not strong enough to support itself. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jan 7 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ A new design driver that could change the look of future aircraft is noise. In order to reduce noise, engines could be integrated in a way, that the ground is shielded from the noise during takeoff and landing. Also, a higher emphasis on aeroacoustic interference could have a small impact on design. $\endgroup$ – Felix L. Jan 7 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ @FelixL. This design driver is also 50 years old by now. Placing the engines above the narrow wings will not achieve much; going with a geared fan looks more promising. Of course there will continue to be minor tweaks, but the general layout will not change unless fuel prices go through the roof. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jan 7 at 22:48
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There is plenty of desire to push aviation. Since the Concorde was retired, there has been a desire to pursue a second-generation supersonic aircraft. The problems to launch something, you‘re going to spend billions of dollars. How do you recoup those monies to avoid another Concorde moment of creating something fantastic that has no hope of breaking even.

An example would be the Boeing Sonic Cruiser. This was a concept jet airliner with a delta wing-canard configuration. It offered a slight increase in speed, a carbon fiber shell with fuel efficient engines. Most airlines favored lower operating costs over a marginal increase in speed, so Boeing went with a slower design which became the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Boeing has other supersonic ideas in play as well.

Boeing Sonic Cruiser

For nearly twenty years, EADS — the parent company of Airbus announced that it was considering working with Japanese companies to develop a larger, faster replacement for Concorde. The concept is a plane that carries 300 passengers at mach 2 with a per-seat ticket price comparable to flying subsonic speeds. I have not heard much lately about the concept.

Lockheed would like to get back into commercial aviation and has been working with Supersonic Aerospace International on a Quiet Supersonic Transport. This plane would seat 12 passengers, cruise at Mach 1.6 and create a sonic boom only 1% as strong as that generated by Concorde.

Quiet Supersonic Transport

Boom Technology is an American startup company designing a Mach 2.2 (1,300 kn; 2,300 km/h) 55-passenger supersonic transport with 4,500 nmi (8,300 km) of range, to be introduced in 2023, called Overture. TBoom is hoping to power the Overture with three moderate bypass turbofans without afterburners, unlike Concorde's Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus. The issue is finding a non-military efficient engine.

Overture

If you search out some of the concepts just over the horizon, you will find lots of great ideas and concepts. It's just a matter of figuring out a market to recoup development costs.

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