Prof. David Zingg comments on weird-looking sustainable airplane designs

As an engineer for the U.S. military, Bill Otto Sr. worked on the Minuteman intercontinental missiles, developed new bodies for torpedoes and was chief scientist on the B-1 bomber avionics study. Then, after becoming a consultant, he shifted his attention to private airplane travel. He wanted a private jet, yet they were all very expensive — particularly because of poor fuel efficiency. So, like a good engineer, he started building his own.

“He set out to design an aircraft that could do transcontinental travel at speeds and costs comparable to commercial airlines,” explains Bill Otto Jr., his son, who works at his father’s company, Otto Aviation. Otto Sr. currently serves as the chief scientist of the company.

The result of that idea was officially announced this year. The Celera 500L, according to Chief Technology Officer David Bogue, is “designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, and is coupled with a very effective propulsion system.” Its propeller is at the rear of the fuselage. The plane looks like a bullet, with the wings way back. With it, Otto Aviation hopes to disrupt the private airplane industry. Today, only the rich can afford to charter a private jet. But efficient airplanes like the Celera 500L could make it perfectly affordable for, say, a big family looking to hire a jet when they take a vacation.

The Celera 500L, according to the company’s chief technology officer, is “designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.”

At the heart of this approach is a largely ignored strategy to make aviation more green than ever, which is now beginning to gain traction. For the most part, the aviation industry has focused on more efficient fuels and new propulsion systems. Airbus is investigating whether hydrogen can work as fuel for its planes. And this year, startup ZeroAvia completed the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a six-seater electric airplane.

Yet that leaves out aerodynamics. The shape of passenger airplanes has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, and climate change might be the impetus to introduce more radical designs, like the Celera 500L. Or consider a plane that — instead of a fuselage and two wings — has just one giant flying wing. It’s a concept that the Flying-V team at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is researching. This renewed focus on aerodynamics is critical, say experts.

“The opportunities in aerodynamics aren’t getting the attention they deserve,” says David Zingg, director of the Centre for Research in Sustainable Aviation at the University of Toronto. “If we want to make airplanes more sustainable, we need to make progress on all different fronts. Sustainable fuel and electric power are great, but we shouldn’t neglect the efficiency of the vehicle.”

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