'Technically, OR Tambo could host the Flying V' - SA-born engineer heads up KLM's new futuristic aircraft design

There has been a lot of buzz around Dutch airline KLM funding a futuristic v-shaped plane with a unique aerodynamic design that promises fuel efficiency. 

But did you know that a South African is the chief engineer of the scaled model? 

READ: One of Europe's flagship airlines is working on a fuel-efficient, V-shaped plane that seats passengers in its wings 

South African-born, Malcolm Brown has been active in aircraft design projects and competitions throughout his studies. After graduating, he continued developing conceptual aircraft design software as a researcher.

He grew up in Jozi and attended King Edward VII for high school. He then studied Aeronautical Engineering at Wits, after which he decided to transfer to TU Delft in The Netherlands to continue his studies.

"The design of the Flying V had already begun with my master thesis research supervised by Dr Roelof Vos. When he began talking about building a sub-scale flying demonstration model I was very keen on getting involved. I had some RC aircraft building and flying experience in SA and designing and testing new concepts was always a dream job for me so it was a good match.

"Currently, I am the chief engineer of the scaled model and we are in top gear with production of the aircraft. In the near future I will be responsible for the data analysis, along with my team of students, in order to draw conclusions about our testing and make design changes." 


(PHOTO: Supplied) 

We asked him a few technical questions: 

How will seating work inside the V-shaped aircraft? 

The passenger cabin is built into the first half of each wing. Seating in the aircraft is similar to a current twin aisle aircraft; with economy class having 3 seats at the window, 4 seats in the middle and 3 seats at the side again.

The difference is that the seats are positioned at an angle to the forward flight direction. A slight sideways acceleration would be felt during takeoff and landing but it would not be unreasonably uncomfortable and comparable to a car going around a corner. 

READ: Shameless Passengers set the internet alight. Would you sleep on a plane floor? 

Will this require airports to widen runways? 

By integrating the passenger cabin into the wing the total aircraft area in contact with the air is reduced. This reduces the drag the aircraft produces and so reduces fuel burn. The mass of the aircraft has also shown to be lighter than a conventional aircraft which allows for a smaller wing and less fuel burn. These are the savings that are purely due to the design and shape of the aircraft and give the 20%. Even better improvements could still come in future by using more efficient engine technologies and integration and the use of alternate fuels.   

The Flying V has been designed to be similar in runway performance as the current Airbus A350, requiring the same class of runway length and width. Space required at the airport gate will also be the same class as the A350, so airports that support this class will not require upgrades. 

Will the cost of flying on such a craft be much more expensive than average airbuses?

This is difficult to reliably answer over the time span and the fact that ticket prices are dependent on many factors. A major cost is fuel and by being more efficient the Flying V has an advantage. Factors such as ease of maintenance, fewer part counts and the airport integration are also taken into account in the early design process and reduce the eventual cost.

How do you think South African aviation and airports compare to the rest of the world – could we be seeing the Flying-V land at OR Tambo?

South Africa has a healthy aviation culture and a good old airline that has much to be proud of and should regain its stride. Technically, OR Tambo could host the Flying V so if it were up to me I say definitely. 


(PHOTO: Supplied) 

The Vulcan delta wing, SR-71B Lockheed bomber, F14 Tomcat, the Concord, all had similar wing characteristics in that they ended in a squared off trailing edge for the aircrafts flaps. The Flying V doesn't appear to have this advantage, meaning there will be some unique aerodynamics to work out? 

Correct, the less swept trailing edge improves the effectiveness of the control surfaces and flaps. The Flying V does do the same, where the outer part of the wing holding the control surfaces is angled forward to aid control and stability.

Due to the large wing area traditional flaps are not required on the inboard wing so it can be more swept. Control and stability is one of our main research questions for the flying model.

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Will the model be using turbine engines, electric motors, rubber bands. Unlike the other RC models out there, will this one have a lot of monitoring equipment on board?

The model uses two 5.5kW electric ducted fans, together drawing almost 300 amps so gone are my days of rubber bands! There is also a dedicated air data computer on board giving us the accurate aerodynamic parameters we need to determine the handling and performance of the aircraft.

We also have an autopilot that, once calibrated, will be able to fly accurate test manoeuvres and take control in case of signal loss. The first flights will still be down to the fine fingers of our test pilot. 

Given the sleekness of the design, current pictures have the engines mounted above the centre line giving the appearance of frog's eyes. Would a more integrated design such as that of the Concorde not be more in keeping with the overall design and contribute to reducing drag? 

It is a bit frog-eyed or Mickey Mouse-like but I think the look will settle as the design of the engine mounting changes and that in the end it will be appealing to the eye. Concorde is in her own league, being supersonic the engine type and integration are different.

The Flying V will use very high bypass ratio engines giving large fan diameters. We chose to use a conventional nacelle and inlet to reduce the design risk at this stage of ensuring streamlined airflow to the engine. More integrated options such as boundary layer ingestion are a current research item in aerospace and if it proves advantageous it could be applied to the Flying V in later design.

Why the radical change when the old design has been used for decades?

It is not really a case of a flaw, much the opposite.

The current tube and wing design is heavily optimised and reaching the top of its development S-curve. Recent efficiency gains have come mainly due to engine and structural technology. Aerodynamics has definitely advanced but there will never be drag free lift.

The issue is that the fuselage does not add to the lift of the aircraft while making significant drag. By integrating the fuselage into the wing you make if lifting and reduce the total aircraft surface area in contact with air which causes reduces drag.

Flying wings and blended wing body designs make use of this but have been hampered by technological and design challenges. Novel ideas and solutions to some of these issues have been worked on at TU Delft, allowing us to realistically consider the concept. We continue to face these challenges but if it works out it could open a door to many new possibilities.

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