NASA Model Flies at Air and Space

A futuristic aircraft model that flew in a NASA wind tunnel is the centerpiece of a newly renovated gallery in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

The 12-foot wingspan blended wing body, or BWB, model now hangs from the ceiling of the "How Things Fly" gallery that officially reopened March 18.

In remarks at the gallery rededication ceremony, Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said it is fitting that NASA partnered with the National Air and Space Museum to update the gallery. "Over a decade ago, NASA was a partner in creating the original How Things Fly gallery," Shin explained. "The idea was to have a hands-on gallery to explain the fundamentals of flight to a new generation of future engineers and scientists."

Gallery manager Michael Hulslander said the blended wing body model is the largest artifact in the museum's most popular attraction. "We get approximately 700,000 to a million visitors just in this gallery alone each year," Hulslander said.

The BWB model is one-twentieth the size of a possible full-sized aircraft and resembles a flying wing. That shape -- much different from conventional domestic airplanes -- is why the model was built for free flight tests at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

"When you get rid of the tail you have to come up with different ways to control the plane," said Dan Vicroy, a senior research engineer at Langley. "We have a lot of experience with conventional airplanes. We know how to predict how they're going to fly. But with this type of a flying wing design we have fewer examples and less confidence in our flying quality estimates."

Engineers use models and wind tunnels to better understand aircraft designs from idea to flight. The five-percent scale blended wing body model has 18 control surfaces along the trailing edges of the wing, compared to the four found on most airplanes -- rudder, ailerons, elevator and flap. One of the challenges to controlling a flying wing is determining how to blend the control surfaces to make the vehicle turn and climb.

Vicroy led the free flight experiment in the Langley Full Scale Tunnel's huge 30-by-60 foot test section. "We actually flew this BWB in the tunnel in 2005," said Vicroy. "We had control systems on board the model as well as high pressure air that we used to simulate the engines." The model was constrained only by a tether cable.

How researchers and engineers go about designing and developing aircraft is a new idea the Smithsonian's "How Things Fly" gallery is testing. "We don't talk a lot about the design phase of getting an aircraft from the drawing table to the runway," said Hulslander. "That's what we're going to start doing here in the gallery."

Research on blended wing body designs continues in the Subsonic Fixed Wing Project of NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program. The designs are part of hybrid wing body research into acoustics, structures, aerodynamics and flight controls.

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