AF, NASA Develop Fuel Efficient Cargo Jets

100916-F-9126-024Air Force and NASA scientists have partnered to research alternatively configured cargo aircraft designed to maximize lift while decreasing air-drag, thus greatly enhancing fuel-efficiency.

The Air Force is currently pursuing next-generation aircraft structure research programs with the help of NASA and other federal and commercial partners, Kevin Geiss, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Energy, said in an interview with

“A blended wing-body is one example. Instead of a monocoque where you have the fuselage and the wings coming off, the wing is conformal with the aircraft. The lifting part of the aircraft blends right into the cargo or storage part,” said Geiss.

This design is configured to optimize fuel efficiency by decreasing the “drag” or airflow passing around the aircraft while still achieving maximum lift and cargo-carrying capacity.

Fuel efficiency is a huge part of the Air Force’s future energy strategy, as the service uses more than 2 billion gallons of aviation fuel every year, according to a March 2012 service report titled “Energy Horizons – A Science and Technology Vision for Air Force Energy.”

The report mentions non-traditional airframes or “blended-wing body” technology along with other aerodynamic improvements such as conformal antennas and winglets, or shaped curves at the end of an aircraft’s wings designed to optimize air flow over the wings.

“Center of gravity controls and lift-distribution control systems enhance performance by ensuring that lift is efficiently appropriated across the aircraft in relation to the location of the carried weight,” the essay states.

Another fuel-efficiency enhancing technique is something Geiss referred to as “Mission Index Flying,” a technique designed to help an aircraft optimize its route by using sensors and meteorological technology to take advantage of the weather conditions in real time.

In some cases, such as with the Air Force’s C-17, fuel efficiency can be improved by slightly decreasing airspeed while flying, thus reducing drag, Geiss said.

The Air Force has also learned how to be more efficient with palates and develop methods of weight distribution and packing designed to lower flight weight of cargo planes, Geiss said. This too results in increased fuel efficiency.

Also, although the Air Force is not currently acquiring any alternative fuels for operational use, the service does hope to be able to purchase about one-half of its fuel as cost-competitive alternative, drop-in fuels by 2020, Geiss explained.

The Air Force could wind up acquiring large quantities of biofuels, alternative fuels or synthetic blend fuels, Geiss added.

“This depends on industry to figure out a way to make these fuels cost-competitive. We are not going to get out in front of industry so it is up to them to figure out how to develop their processes. We’re not going to ask for an increase in the fuel budget because alternative fuel should be the same price,” Geiss said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Papi1960R

    They will spend $5.9 Billion, explore all kinds of pie-in-the-sky new technologies, and end up making a A-400 clone nobody can afford.

  • Lance

    No they just waste Billions and end the end we stay correctly with the C-5M air lifter.


    Well, NASA is involved, so this should be alright (full faith with NASA). Whats more, they are expanding on an excellent platform, the C-17, so really, this should go well……

  • Moose

    Well there’s an A400M post and a C5 post. Where’s the DC-3 or IL-76 posts? Come on, people, you’re slipping.

  • blight_

    sed ‘s/palates/pallets/’

    • none

      I like your reply…nice!

    • guam1970
  • Andy


    • d. kellogg

      Naw, what’s REALLY needed is a suitable STOL replacement for the venerable DHC-4/5 series aircraft, even better if it can be fairly easily redesigned to operate from carriers (C-2 COD replacement).

      Those beefy turboshafts being developed for that CH-53K? A pair of those would do quite nicely (with those fancy contra-props like the An-70 and A400M have).

      Naturally we’ll have to make a gunship out of it.


    • guest

      I don’t know where it came from, or where it was going, but a C-47 or a DC-3 went directly over my head to land at Albany Intl Airport yesterday. I haven’t seen one of those in a couple of years.

  • AAK

    For certain loads the modified airship concepts still have appeal IMO, they just need a shirtload of development and commitment instead of half-assed design studies every few years.

    • David

      That would be the way to go. The counter argument will be ” but they are sitting ducks”. To which I would counter “what large cargo aircraft or cargo ships are not sitting ducks in a contested environment”.

    • blight_

      Variable buoyancy airships might be interesting. They might not be cost-effective versus a ship that can carry dozens, if not hundreds of ISO cargo containers, but to the military, it may make more sense than sending ships to Karachi and overlanding containers to Bagram.

      To me, the most feasible use of the airship is to fly high over Afghanistan, hover over Bagram and gradually descend to unload materiel, but it would require holding the high ground. And if you can’t hold the high ground, loiter overhead and use GPS-guided parachute pallets. And on a bad day, chuck out some Griffins and Viper strike.

      My Jules Verne dream is to see UAV airship skycarriers, but that may be too much.

  • Guest

    Reducing speed increases fuel efficiency and reduces drag? What a novel concept! Perhaps this impressive Air Force scientific breakthrough will trickle down to the automotive sector someday.

    • Amicus Curiae

      You can slow down to a crawl but if the fuel flow doesn’t go down faster than the speed does you’re wasting your time (and fuel).

  • Dfens

    It’s funny that the Air Force claims to have this big concern about fuel efficiency, but they are putting more avionics on the B-52 and not putting new, high bypass engines on the airplane. It is obvious to anyone that high bypass engines would instantly increase the efficiency of that airplane by over 20%. The same is true of the B-1. If they’d fix the intakes and put the F119 engines on that airplane they’d probably get a similar increase in fuel efficiency. Dragging all that intake spillage through the air can’t be efficient and probably creates a lot of structural problems too. As for this NASA/Air Force program, all they seem to want to do is put winglets and empennage strakes on everything. It’s a lot of your money they’re spending for a 1% efficiency increase.

    • blight_

      It tells you who is in charge of picking the best of the litter.

      “We want electronics and boom-boom because we’re guaranteed to have squires delivering fuel to us at all times, so who cares about fuel economy?!”

      • d. kellogg

        Sad thing about the B-52 engine upgrade notions: the longer they ignore to do so, the less cost effective it will become: the closer the fleet gets to the end of its service life, the savings just won’t be there.

        Re-engining should’ve become a paramount concern post-Desert Storm.

        • Dfens

          Yes, but that has been their argument for not reengining the B-52 for the last 30 years, “it’s too close to retirement.” Hell, given the fact that their next generation bomber won’t see the light of day for another 30 years, and then we’ll be lucky if they build more than can be counted on one hand, it seems unlikely the B-52 or B-1 will ever be retired at this rate.

          The C-17 is such a fat little bastard that I’m sure the flow is separating badly behind that airplane at speeds higher than 0.7M. The best thing they could do to that airplane is to give the air a good clean place to separate like the C-130 has at the cargo door seam. Without that, they can put all the strakes they want on the ass end, but they won’t do much good.

          The C-130, like most airlift aircraft of its generation, accepts the fact that the flow will separate behind the cargo doors. The best thing they could do is add some features that cause the vortices that run along the edges of the cargo door to grow in size (thus weakening their suction drag effect) and add some vortex generators (vg) in some key places. The biggest problem there is none of the geniuses they have working their CFD magic seem to know what a “key place” is when it comes to vgs.

          • blight_

            Shh, the only people interested in “range extension” are the artillery shell guys. Base-bleed gas generators for the win. But Valens and Plato say that you cannot apply Natural Sciences to aircraft!

  • Musson

    We don’t need new planes to improve efficiency. Just teach the C-17 and C130 pilots to draft like NASCAR drivers. Kind of like in this picture – but 10 feet apart.


    • DGR

      This is a plan that cannot fail! MURICA!!!

    • SJE

      Actually, drafting in a V-formation (like migrating birds) significantly lowers energy use.

    • Dfens

      That last lap crash would take out half the fleet if they adopt the NASCAR model.

      • blight_

        You’d think after the XB-70 kaboom incident they’d avoid close flying with large jets where un-necessary…

        • SJE

          Which is the barrier to adopting close flying. With modern communications, however, you can have the followers linked to the lead so that they get advanced warning and can take evasive action.

          • blight_

            Meaning an autopilot to keep multiple aircraft in close formation?

          • Dfens

            C-130s have that kind of an autopilot system. I think they call it CAPS (Coordinated Aircraft Positioning System) on the J models. Even with that system, the closest they ever fly in formation is about a 200 yard trail. Believe me, that’s plenty hairy. I flew in an older C-130H with the SKE system (station keeping equipment). It consisted of some radio calls and button presses (up, down, left, right). It was like trying to follow your idiot college buddy through downtown traffic.

  • retired462

    They talk about an alternate fuel for the A.F.
    The Navy uses that alternate fuel, and I heard it goes for about $58 a gallon (thanks prez). Regular jet fuel about $5 a gallon.
    Why worry about anything in this article, as long as we throw money away, on alternate fuel.
    We need to be drilling for the real thing. Oops, can’t do that; the treehuggers don’t approve!

    • blight_

      The MBT-70 was projected to cost 200k/unit and “overrun” up to 1M a tank (which is 6M today). Development is expensive. We canned it for Abrams which cost 8.5M as of 2012 (presumably electronics inflated the costs?) and 4.3M in the early days.

      The Seawolf paid in R&D blood for the Virginias. The F-22 did not down-pay for the F-35, so we are just reinventing the wheel…hooray!

      • d kellogg

        You have to figure into those costs the high wages of good old American union labor. That doesn’t sweeten ANY procurement cycle, as the longer it’s drawn out, the costs for labor (and all the associated health/retirement upkeep factored into the employee base) goes up incrementally as well.

        Cost of living in various parts of the world: we’re seeing competently-manufactured armored vehicles, aircraft, and ships coming from countries decades ago we would’ve thought not possible,
        being built to ISO 9000/14000/Lean Sigma standards at far cheaper labor costs,
        yet in America our heavy industries are comparably lacking due to the demand for higher wages, and we spend a fortune over-pricing problem-prone designs that take half a generation to fix (and now, another half-a-lifetime to even get fully fielded…).

        The more corporate mentality switches from customer-focused to
        shareholder-focused, this is what we get.

        • blight_

          High wages relative to non-European countries; closer to parity with Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Especially for /skilled/ manufacturing, not peasant assemble-the-plastic-toy slave labor.

          I’m pretty sure the only way out for American manufacturing is to reduce human capital and build newer, less human-intensive plants. Compare the employee requirements for an old car factory with newer ones dominated by robots…though foreign countries can go with robots too if need be. And their robots will have cheaper technicians and engineers to go with it. But you’ve eliminated the advantage of cheaper foreign labor.

    • SJE

      You can’t just look at domestic oil costs. Look at cost in theater, where there may not be a domestic source, so you have to use soybean oil, or synthesize on board a nuclear powered carrier. You don’t want to be reliant on long supply chains.

  • blight_

    Let’s go round two with nuclear powered jets!

    • Dfens

      That will never happen. The big oil industry has already scared all the sheep when it comes to the best source of power we have on this planet. Instead we keep funding research for the sake of research on one of the biggest radioactive polluters of all time, fusion.

      • blight_

        Fusion’s a big polluter? If you mean in the sense of guzzling down tons of joules (presumably from liquified dinosaurs) just to fuse two hydrogens into a helium but requiring more energy in than you get out…?

        • Dfens

          Fusion, especially hydrogen fusion, produces a huge amount of neutron radiation. Neutrons are difficult to shield against because they have no charge, plus they have a bad habit of colliding with surrounding nuclei, sticking, and turning stable elements into radioactive elements. Fission does a better job of holding the neutrons in and fusion breeder reactors are incredibly clean.

          • blight_

            Damn, always forgetting about neutron release. In nuclear weapons the neutron release has usually been put to good use increasing the efficiency of fission chain-reactions, and I imagine someday that’ll be how fusion will be used. Unless you build a moderator out of something that can a lot of neutrons and keep on trucking…?

      • DGR

        The problem with flying nuke planes is planes crash…. a lot…. So it may be safe for all involved, and provide a huge amount of energy that is as close to self sustaining as we can get, but what do you do when they crash? If a ship is destroyed it sinks and the problem disappears, if a planes has a problem and crashes in a city you have a very very real problem. To date they have yet to make an airplanes that doesnt crash, so until they fix the whole crashing problem nuke planes are a no go. I wish they could make it work, but we are not there just yet.

        • blight_

          A goodly number of the crashes in the old days were due to hydraulic failures. Substituting the energy of a full load of jet fuel for a properly scaled nuclear reactor…?

          Most of our experience with nuclear systems is large scale infrastructure, and massive reactors for ships; and on the small end, tiny RTG’s to power/heat remote lighthouses and space probes.

          • Dfens

            Having hundreds of thousands of pounds of kerosene burst into flames is not a problem, but Oh My God if a little bit of uranium got loose it would be a catastrophe of biblical proportions! It’s like that nuclear catastrophe that happened in Japan when a magnitude 9 earthquake caused a reactor in Japan to shut down. Clearly a global catastrophe even though not a single person died. But wait, someone might die eventually if they eat enough radioactive tuna. God help us all.

  • SJE

    There is a lot of interest and talk about blended wing bodies, and there are a lot of advantages to them: carry more per wing span and gas usage, inherently stronger frame. But there is a lack of expertize and regulatory inertia. No one is going to take the risk to develope a BWB for commercial purposes. However, if the AF can get on board, it might tip the scales.

    • RunningBear

      Would the flying wing B-2 be a sub-set of the BWB by default? :)

      • SJE

        No. A flying wing is not the same as a BWB. A BWB blend both traditional and flying wing designs.

        One of the barriers to BWB and flying wings is that people sitting further out have a terrible ride whenever the plane yaws. This limits the adoption to passenger jets, but is far less of a problem with cargo.

        • Praetorian
    • Amicus Curiae

      All wing or blended wing configurations do not lend themselves to carrying people or cargo. The internal shapes that are dictated by the configuration are oddly shaped, hard to load and unload, and heavy to pressurize. A dense payload (like bombs) can be accommodated with acceptable weight trades, but the best application is an airborne tanker. All those odd shapes can be filled with fuel, making a high fuel fraction easier to do. A flying wing tanker looks very good on paper. A flying wing for anything else is a lot of problems.

      • SJE

        All true. The pressurization problem can also be mitigated by individually pressurized containers, but this does not lend itself to people.

    • blight_

      Is this the part where I trumpet Burnelli’s designs?

  • Bronco46

    I’m not clear on why the C-17 air frame wouldn’t make a good tanker. I know it’s smaller than a 767, but you could get so many more for the money. And keep the C-17 line open.

    • UAVGeek

      More flexible too. You could make interchangeable the rear cargo door with a Flying boom, and get the best of both based on the requirements. Roll on fuel cells on the main deck in the rail system, removable buddy pods on the wingtips.

    • toady

      For the same reason why the C-17 isn’t a civilian cargo airplane. fuselage diameter = drag that has to be overcome by thrust (2 more of of the same type engines used on the 757/767). Its not a very efficient airplane for anything than what it was designed to do; haul over-sized cargo. It roughly uses two extra engines to haul the same amount as the 767 with less than half the range.

  • Green to the max

    Two words: Wind Power.

  • hibeam

    Hey AirForce, you guys could learn something from our freinds the ducks.

  • hibeam

    Cargo Drones. Automated aircraft. Takes the boredom out of long haul.

  • Max

    Easy to solve this problem. Just talk to the good folks over at Lockheed Martin. They’ve been using antigravity technology on the B2 for a long time to extend the range of the B2. It’s called electrogravitics. Put this technology on any cargo aircraft or any aircraft period, and you’re going to be extremely fuel-efficient.

    I know some people don’t want to believe it’s true, but it is.

    • William_C1

      The B-2 is Northrop.

      • Max

        I stand corrected! Thanks for the post.

        In my mind, though, there is so much cooperation in the “military-industrial complex” that it makes little difference. According to a paper published back in the 1950’s called “Project Winterhaven” (, many large companies were working on antigravity research, when all of a sudden, everyone stopped talking about it, at least publicly. The public was told, O no, it doesn’t work and no one is working on it anymore. Oh sure, how believable is that?

        • Dfens

          The B-2 uses the same anti-gravity system as the Wright brothers’ first airplane. It’s called Bernoulli’s principle. Not “top secret” enough for the conspiracy theory websites, but a lot more useful.

          • Max

            Actually, it’s using electro-gravitics. The forward leading edge of the wings are electrified to some large voltage, perhaps tens of thousands or more volts. If my memory is correct (like a giant capacitor), the positive anode is forward and the cathode is in the rear of the wing, so that the electro-gravitic effect provides forward thrust which assists the jet engines, or perhaps it provides upward anti-gravity thrust. I’ve read the book, but it has a few months and I don’t recall all the details.

            There is even a picture provided of a B2 in flight that shows the static around the wings. Quite interesting. There is speculation that the electro-gravitic effect enables the B2 to go up into the stratosphere? far above any ordinary search radar, and then drop down onto the target to deliver the bombs. The target wouldn’t even see it coming, because it would be looking for planes coming in in a normal trajectory rather than on top of them.

    • blight_

      Surprised you didn’t mention the seizure of Nazi rocket research and doomsday weaponry (though conversely, the greater advance of the Soviets through Third Reich territory would suggest Putin would have more doomsday weapons than ‘murrica)

      • Max

        There isn’t space to write a book here. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are correct. I find it impossible to believe that the US has been developing antigravity vehicles since the 1950’s and the Soviets/Russians have been clueless. They’re smarter than that.

  • d kellogg

    Lockheed Martin???
    Those same people ~responsible for~ the F-22, F-35, and LCS programs?

    If that’s the case, we wouldn’t see an actual production model until the actual Earth year Captain Kirk is supposed to be born (2200-something without a quick websearch, IIRC).

    Someone else will first have to invent all the working parts, so LM can assemble them into a seriously botched, minimally-working (if at all) design.

    • William_C1

      You know there are two LCS designs right?

      • d kellogg

        And both of the designs still leave a lot to be desired, especially when we look at what they originally promised.

  • OD375

    Hm, rocket fuel for C-17?

  • @HarryInventor

    WOW, usa! That’s cool! And so advanced!
    Pretty soon you’ll have A-400s of your very own!
    Well done. And when do you plan to actually enter the 21st century, usa?

    • Dfens

      We have lots of airplanes that are billions over budget and decades behind schedule. Don’t think you’ve cornered that market with the A400M. As far as aerodynamics go, I like the way the A400M counter rotates its propellers. The C-130 should do the same, but otherwise its not exactly ground breaking.

  • roland

    I think it would be beneficial for the country, humanity and science if we further the research and use of ion energy and anti gravity for flight and space exploration.

  • Chris
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