The Boeing blended-wing-body (BWB) research aircraft, the X-48B, flew for the first time in July at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The 21-foot wingspan, 500-pound unmanned test vehicle took off on July 20 and climbed to an altitude of 7500 feet before landing 31 minutes later.

The X-48B flight test vehicle was developed by Boeing Phantom Works in cooperation with NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to gather detailed information about the stability and flight-control characteristics of the BWB design, especially during takeoffs and landings. Up to 25 flights are planned to gather data in these low-speed flight regimes. Following completion of low-speed flight testing, the X-48B likely will be used to test the BWB's low-noise characteristics, as well as BWB handling characteristics at transonic speeds.

The Boeing BWB design resembles a flying wing, but differs in that the wing blends into a wide, flat, tailless fuselage. This fuselage blending helps to get additional lift with less drag compared to a circular fuselage. This translates to reduced fuel use at cruise conditions. Because the engines mount high on the back of the aircraft, there is less noise inside and on the ground when it is in flight.

Three turbojet engines enable the composite-skinned research vehicle to fly up to 10,000 feet and 120 knots in its low-speed configuration. Modifications would need to be made to the vehicle to enable it to fly at higher speeds. The unmanned aircraft is remotely piloted from a ground control station in which the pilot uses conventional aircraft controls and instrumentation, while looking at a monitor fed by a forward-looking camera on the aircraft.

Two X-48B research vehicles have been built by Cranfield Aerospace in the U.K. in accordance with Boeing's requirements. The vehicle that flew on July 20 is Ship 2, which was used for ground and taxi testing. Ship 1, a duplicate of Ship 2, completed wind tunnel testing in 2006 and will be available for use as a backup during the flight test program. NASA's participation in the project is focused on fundamental, edge-of-the-envelope flight dynamics and structural concepts of the BWB. Along with hosting the X-48B flight test and research activities, NASA Dryden provided engineering and technical support.

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