This isn’t about the future. “2027, that’s tomorrow,” says Robert Liebeck , co-designer of the blended wing body aircraft that the U.S. Air Force has tasked JetZero to build and fly in four years.
Liebeck, an adjunct aerospace engineering professor at UCI, is thrilled at the Air Force’s commitment. “I never imagined that an airplane that I helped create – and a distinct one – would ever come to this.”
In the late 1980s, Liebeck began working on designs for the BWB. He was the leader of the team at Boeing, where a team funded by NASA developed it.
As its name suggests, the form of the aircraft is completely blended and essentially acts as one wing, rather than the traditional tube and wing configuration. This design will give measurably lower drag and thus more fuel efficiency.
“The BWB offers 20-30% lower fuel burn using today’s engines,” says Liebeck. “No other conventional airliner comes close in terms of efficiency.”
The BWB will be used for both commercial flights and as a military tanker. It lowers airport noise by 30-50 decibels since the engines lie on top of the aircraft. Liebeck says that means airports could potentially operate 24/7.
It would also be a game changer for the Air Force. “BWB aircraft have the potential to transform air operations for the Air Force and significantly reduce fuel demand, giving our warfighters the strategic advantage they need to win,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall at an event announcing JetZero’s BWB prototype project.
The BWB would be a huge step forward in cutting carbon emissions as the Air Force is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the Department of Defense, which in itself is the U.S. government’s largest consumer. The plane can also readily adapt to using liquid hydrogen for fuel, which would render the airplane carbon free.
After an extraordinary 58 years at Boeing, Liebeck retired in 2020, but at age 85, he’s still going strong. He’s a consultant on the JetZero team and teaches two classes at UCI – Aerodynamics and Airplane Design. He’s also a professor of the practice of aerospace engineering at MIT where he teaches Airplane Design.
Though he doesn’t teach BWB design, he talks about it and that has inspired his classes full of future aeronautic engineers. “Many of them want to work at JetZero,” says Liebeck, “and that’s happening.”
Liebeck’s illustrious aerospace engineering career includes being inducted in the International Air & Space Hall of Fame and pioneering an airfoil design that’s named after him – the Liebeck Airfoil.
His legendary designs also include wings for racing cars that have won the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One World Championship, the wing for NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow,” and the keel for the America yacht that won the 1992 America’s Cup.
Even so, he says teaching has been the most rewarding aspect of his career. “When I finish a lecture here at UCI, I feel like I’ve moved the needle in the right direction,” says Liebeck, “so it’s my favorite job.”