Blended wing brings air travel greater range, fuel efficiency, and comfort

6/26/2024 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Artist rendering of JetZero’s blended wing body passenger airplane.
Artist rendering of JetZero’s blended wing body passenger airplane.

The basic design of jet airplanes has been the same for 75 years, but JetZero, a start-up founded by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign alumni Mark Page, is about to change that with the introduction of a blended wing passenger jet that promises 50 percent less fuel and 50 percent lower emissions than similar-sized, tube and wing passenger jets flying today. Last year, the U.S. Air Force contracted with JetZero to the tune of $235 million to build a full-size demonstrator, which will take to the skies in 2027.

Page founded JetZero in 2021 with Tom O’Leary, a veteran executive of Tesla and BETA Technologies.

“I asked Tom to come aboard and be my CEO because he has a background in starting from nothing and finding people who have money to make a wise investment. My focus is on the technical aspects of making an airplane that works. Tom's focus is on building the company that allows the airplane to exist,” said Page.

Caption: Early 1990s, left to right Blaine Rawdon, Mark Page, BS ‘79, and Bob Liebeck, BS ‘61, MS ‘62, PhD ’68, while at McDonnell-Douglas, later Boeing.
Early 1990s, left to right Blaine Rawdon, Mark Page, BS ‘79, and Bob Liebeck, BS ‘61, MS ‘62, PhD ’68, while at McDonnell-Douglas, later Boeing.

The first $30K contract to study the blended wing came from NASA administrator Dan Goldin in the early 1990s, shortly after AE alumni Bob Liebeck published a design for a blended wing at McDonnell-Douglas. Goldin recognized the potential for fuel savings and wanted to see more. Liebeck, Page and Blaine Rawdon worked on the design for another three years with NASA funding. Since then, NASA has invested over $1 billion into blended wing technology.

How does the design of the new BWB differ from the original concept?

“The original blended wing was designed for 800 passengers, double-deck cabins with lots of range,” Page said. “Gate space at airports was at a premium, so the thinking was, let’s make bigger airplanes. The new concept is a single deck for around 250 passengers, which will have a range of about 5,000 to 5,500 nautical miles.”

The key to a single deck blended wing turned out to be the landing gear. Page figured out how to move the main gear behind the passenger cabin, which meant you didn’t need a bunch of space underneath the passengers to stow the gear. A single deck minimizes the amount of empty space on the airplane and greatly reduces surface drag, making it as efficient as possible.   

Page is working with Illinois’ Center for Sustainable Aviation to look to the future, specifically focusing on hydrogen propulsion technology.

“With Phil Ansell and his team, we’re researching how to make a blended wing as efficient as possible with hydrogen. Are there better places to fit the hydrogen tanks other than what we were looking at right now?”

Page realizes now why McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing didn’t pursue the blended wing concept in the 90s.

“There are hard economic reasons why corporations can’t implement every breakthrough. Innovations live and thrive in startups. I believe the path to future technologies is better suited to startups who can afford to take the risk. The tube and wing template is excellent. It has to be said. It really solves a bunch of problems. But we need to do something different; we need to change the shape to solve aviation’s biggest problems. The blended wing is the way to do that, and we are bringing it to life at JetZero.”

Mark Page earned his bachelor’s degree from Illinois in aerospace engineering in 1979. Bob Liebeck earned his B.S. in 1961, M.S. in 1962, and Ph.D. in 1968 from Illinois.

Share this story

This story was published June 26, 2024.