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A 2.5-decade-old aircraft has recently been reborn in a quest to revolutionize the future of aircraft wings. Airbus’ first-ever A340 aircraft (MSN001, registration F-WWAI) looks a lot different today than when it took its first flight on October 25, 1991 — almost exactly 26.5 years ago.

This rebirth has been a decade in the works. In 2008, 21 partners across eight European countries launched a partnership called the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking to develop new innovations for quieter and more efficient aircraft. One of its initial projects was the “BLADE” (Breakthrough Laminar Aircraft Demonstrator in Europe) project.

BLADE’s quest: a laminar flow wing design. Simply put, BLADE is trying to create a wing with a perfectly smooth airflow. Based on models, Airbus believes that a laminar flow wing design can reduce wing drag by 50% and increase fuel efficiency by 5%.

After substantial modeling, it was time to put the research to the test. So, Clean Sky’s lead partner Airbus donated its first ever Airbus A340 to the cause. The aircraft manufacturer chopped off the ends of each wing — just past the second engines. In its place, it fitted two prototype wing designs — one on the end of each of the wings. On the left, the “more innovative” Saab design. On the right, a “more traditional” GKN Aerospace design. And with that, the BLADE FlightLab was born.

As this technology is still in the experimental phase, only five crew are on board during the test flights — two pilots and three test flight engineers.

Two of the engineers sit at this station to monitor up to 1,650 different parameters during flight.

To make room for the test equipment needed to record and analyze all of those parameters, all of the seats, wall paneling and most of the overhead bins were stripped out of the interior.

Although it’s been flying since September 2017, the partnership waited until the ILA Berlin airshow to show it off to the aviation public. In a signing ceremony on Wednesday, all of the Clean Sky partners marked the occasion by signing the aircraft, one at a time.

Between its first flight in September 2017 and the conclusion of the testing in 2019, researchers plan to operate 168 hours of flight time with the new wing segments. As of today, the test aircraft has recorded 66 flight hours. From what’s being shared so far, the results have been great. Even on the first flight, the engineers were able to determine there was laminar flow over both wing designs.

That said, there’s still a long way to go, even with the initial testing — and there are challenges to overcome. One of those is insects. While the wing segments are designed to have perfect laminar flow, something as small as insects smashing against the leading edge of the wing can create airflow turbulence and decrease performance.

Image courtesy of Airbus.
Image of the signing ceremony courtesy of Airbus.

Once the initial testing is complete, the Clean Sky initiative hopes to have enough research done on the technology to create a full experimental wing with laminar flow for additional testing. So, while laminar flow wings are still a way off from commercial aviation, it’s exciting to see what innovations are in the works for even more fuel-efficient aircraft.

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