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UP, UP, AND

AWAY

IN 2006,

A FUEL-CELL AIRPLANE FROM BOEING SHOULD MAKE THE FRIENDLY SKIES EVEN FRIENDLIER. BY ROXANNE KHAMSI

DOUG SWANSON LEANS BACK IN HIS CHAIR and admits that he does not know who will fly the plane. The project requires an experienced test pilot, he tells me, an aviation wiz who can manage the technical challenges that come with operating an experimental aircraft. Of course, other special conditions apply. “He or she can’t weigh very much,” he adds with a laugh. The details remain secret for now, but Swanson smiles and presents an intriguing capsule summary. The airplane in question is a compact contraption, about six feet tall, but it boasts an impressive wingspan more than nine times its height. Plainly speaking, it is a modified motor glider with long, efficient wings built to produce less drag for each bit of lift generated. Swanson emphasizes that the first test flight is not scheduled to occur until next year, and many details remain undecided. Though his smile widens slightly when asked where the initial trial will take place, he claims to know only that “it will happen in Europe.” For now the oneperson plane remains unfinished in Spain with an unassigned pilot seat. But if all goes as planned, the pilot who ends up behind the controls will cruise into aviation history on fuel-cell power. 58 | P L E N T Y

Swanson, who is deputy director of the Boeing Research and Technology Center in Madrid, describes the so-called fuel-cell demonstrator-airplane project as one of the more radical endeavors the company is pursuing. There are also investigations under way into using renewable energy on larger aircraft, including efforts to introduce fuel cells as a source of auxiliary power to run the lights, heat, and in-flight entertainment. Other researchers at Boeing are examining how commercial planes could burn less fuel by modifying the design of planes and engines. These innovative projects fall into the realm of Boeing Phantom Works, the division of the aviation giant that studies overlapping technologies to benefit both the company’s military and commercial branches. In the United States, the Boeing researchers assigned to these tasks are scattered throughout various branches of the company—hence the word “phantom” to describe the virtual aspect of the organization. But in July 2002 the company established the first physical center devoted to this special research division, located a few minutes by car from the Barajas Airport, just outside Spain’s capital. The green windows of the Madrid branch give visitors the first hint that researchers there have an environmental outlook. If Boeing succeeds in designing a manned plane to fly on hydrogen fuel, the engineering feat will present major possibilities to reduce air-travel emissions in the future. “Basically, this is the first time an aircraft with a pilot is going to fly using this technology,” says Francisco Escarti, managing director of the research center. “If you look at the flights we’re going to perMarch 2005 www.plentymag.com

Plenty Magazine Issue 04 June/July 2005  

fuel cells go to war; the incredible biodegradable CD; gender-bending fish; and other updates from around the globe. you drive speaks volume...