July 02, 2012
Credit: Credit: Robert Wall
Guy Norris and Robert Wall Edwards AFB, Calif.
Judging solely from what Boeing's Phantom Works development organization has in the pipeline, the company has lots to look forward to. Now it just has to prove it can turn some of these technology demonstrators into cash flow.
Doing so will be no easy task given increasingly tight military budgets, although flying the hypersonic X-51 at Mach 6, or the Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft for 10 days, is no trivial assignment either. What is clear is that answers to some of the technical questions will start emerging in the coming months, whereas validating the business case for some of these endeavors may be years off.
The self-funded Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft effort may provide the earliest test case. Boeing is trying to win a position in a heavily contested market against rivals that already have government funding (such as Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk), in the high-altitude endurance marketplace. Nevertheless, Boeing sees a window as the U.S. Air Force looks to save money by putting the Global Hawk Block 30 fleet into storage and canceling the Blue Devil 2 blimp program. The financial constraints “we see as a benefit,” says James Dodd, vice president of Advanced Boeing Military Aircraft at the Phantom Works. “Phantom Eye's cost per flight hour is a lot less than particularly Global Hawk,” he asserts.
But the company still needs to validate that Phantom Eye can deliver on its promises. Boeing hopes to return the liquid hydrogen-fueled Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft demonstrator to flight this year after it suffered damage on landing following its June 1 first flight.
Investigations into what happened are almost complete, but the problem appears linked to the design of the landing gear, rather than a material issue, says Boeing program manager Andrew Mallow. Most of the damage to the Phantom Eye's wing and nose section appears relatively easy to fix, while some strengthening of parts of the structure may be needed for a more robust nose landing gear.
Once the assessment is finalized, a new program plan will be set, Mallow says, noting that he'd like to see the air vehicle fly again this year. Boeing has brought in some F/A-18 landing gear experts to help with the redesign. The skid main landing gear proved itself in the first flight, although minor changes may be made.
The overall program impact is relatively minor, Mallow suggests, noting that Boeing was considering an aircraft modification in any case after first flight to make some electrical changes and an oil pump change.