Flight Unseen

By Mark Cherrington

If you want to really test your imagination, try to picture the airplane that Blaine Rawdon ’73 is designing. Start with the biggest Boeing 747 sitting on a runway. That plane is, of course, huge, almost ludicrous in its enormity. Now imagine it twice as long, double the wingspan, and make it seven times heavier. Now you’ve got the measure of the Pelican—the largest airplane in the world. Next to Rawdon’s plane, the 747 would look like a Cessna. If you stood the Pelican on one wingtip, the other wingtip would almost reach the top of a 50-story building. Of course, tipping the plane on a wingtip could be difficult, because the Pelican weighs 6 million pounds. It has 76 steerable tires to distribute that weight and keep it from turning runways into rubble. It is powered by eight 80,000-horsepower turbine engines—like those in a cruise ship—driving four counter-rotating propellers, each of which is as tall as a five-story building. Although it is not intended as a passenger airliner (for numerous practical reasons), the Pelican has a payload equivalent to 8,000 passengers, their bags and cabin furnishings. Perhaps most remarkable, this behemoth has a cruising altitude of 20 feet.

At the moment, the Pelican doesn’t exist, except on paper. Rawdon is a designer at Phantom Works, the research and development arm of Boeing. The purpose of Phantom Works is to explore the outer limits of what’s possible in airplane design, the what-ifs of aviation. To come up with a final, real airplane, designers like Rawdon may explore 100 variations; a whole design track may fail because of insurmountable technical issues, prohibitive cost or ultimate lack of customer demand. “The way you work it in an advance design project,” Rawdon says, “especially on the technical side, is that you conceive of the thing and then you draw it up and then you try to figure out the areas where you’re going to have trouble, where there are risks. You make a list of those risks, and in the next cycle you try to understand whether they’re solvable and what the implications of the solutions are. And if there are any that are show-stoppers. Show-stoppers are our biggest concern, because you’ve got to find a way to solve that problem. We’re at a stage now where we’re trying to resolve some of our concerns.” It may take 10 years for the Pelican to become a real plane—if it becomes a real plane at all—but Rawdon is optimistic about its future.

The Pelican started with a Department of Defense request to come up with a craft that could lift a million pounds of cargo and carry it to a distant battlefield. (The Pelican can in fact carry nearly 3 million pounds.) This is part of the military’s new emphasis on mobility, its desire to be able to deploy an entire division—10,000 to 18,000 people and all their related weapons systems, vehicles and support materials—to any location on earth within 120 hours, a goal that is not possible to achieve with existing ships and planes.

“We actually started out with airships—blimps and dirigibles,” Rawdon says. “They provide lift without any power, so they’re very good at holding things up. But when you try to move things with them at any speed, it starts to take a lot of power because there’s so much surface area: there’s a lot of friction.”

To get around that problem, Rawdon decided to make his airship wider, to create dynamic lift, which also let him make the ship smaller, to reduce the friction. “So then it was sort of half blimp and half airplane,” he says. That solution, however, proved to be inefficient, so he went back to a full airship, but added gigantic wings. “That was better,” he says, “but we realized the wings were providing two-thirds of the lift and the buoyancy was only one-third of the lift, and that’s sort of stupid because now you’re carrying around this great big blimp making all this drag, so why not get rid of the blimp and just use the wing, which means you’re all the way to the airplane.”

The blimp-with-wings, however, did have two interesting qualities. First, its wings were enormous, some 700 feet from tip to tip. Second, it flew close to ground. Rawdon realized that if the designers could develop a standard airplane design that maintained these two key characteristics, they could take advantage of an aerodynamic phenomenon called the ground effect, which maximizes efficiency by coupling a plane’s wings to the earth, thus reducing the energy normally transferred to the air in the process of making lift. (Rawdon likens the phenomenon to the greater efficiency of walking on pavement rather than sand.)

The ground effect occurs when airplanes (or birds like pelicans) fly close to a land or water surface. The primary effect is reduced drag, with the degree of reduction depending on the plane’s wingspan and height above the surface. To maximize the ground effect, the Pelican has a 500-foot wingspan and is designed to fly as close possible to the ground, generally at a cruising altitude of 20 feet. For the most part, Rawdon says, the Pelican would fly over the ocean, using sophisticated computer control and scanning technology to avoid rogue waves, ships, islands and other obstacles. The plane could also fly at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet (although with somewhat less efficiency) when flying over land or preparing for airport landings.

For the Pelican to go from paper to plane, Rawdon will have to not only overcome a number of technical issues, but also find a market large enough to justify the enormous expense of producing a new airplane. To that end, he’s thinking not only of military applications, but also of commercial cargo business. Today, a company wishing to ship its goods overseas has to send them either by container ship, which is very slow but very cheap, or by jet, which is very fast but very expensive. The Pelican could offer a third option that would be much faster than a ship and considerably cheaper than other planes. It could carry 178 of the 20-foot-long containers used to carry cargo on freighters and tractor trailers. It also has the fuel efficiencies that come from the ground effect. Because it usually flies at such a low altitude, there would be no need to pressurize the plane, except for the cockpit. And its relatively slow speed means it would not need the precise finish and expensive manufacturing of high-speed jets. While the Pelican could be expected to capture only a modest percentage of the existing freight market, that market is so huge that even a small share translates into a great deal of money. And with China’s rapidly increasing role as a producer and consumer nation, the overseas shipping market is becoming even more lucrative. In the past two years alone, shipping companies have tripled the day-rates for their freighters as a result of increased demand for transportation to and from China. Rawdon believes the Pelican could be a tool for economic development in struggling countries. Because it would transport the standard containers used on trucks and ships worldwide, the plane might make it economically feasible for a country in central Africa, for example, to become a freight hub for an entire region by building a freight terminal and runway for the Pelican.

Rawdon may be designing the world’s biggest airplane, but he got into the business by working with the world’s smallest airplanes. When he was growing up in California, a friend’s father had a model airplane, the kind with a gasoline engine and wires attached to the body so a hobbyist could fly the plane in circles while holding onto the wires. Rawdon would fly the plane with his friends, and he soon became entirely consumed by flying. Even though he built the plastic model planes that are almost a requirement for young boys, he says he didn’t have much interest in them because they didn’t do anything. It was flight itself that attracted him, and he pursued it with ever-increasing ambition. The wire-controlled planes eventually gave way to radio-controlled models, then kits that let Rawdon build his own planes. He finally began developing his own designs for model planes; it’s something he still does, and he offers his own design software through a small Website. He is part of a subculture that is distinctive and somewhat hidden, but surprisingly large. The Academy of Model Aeronautics alone claims 170,000 dues-paying members in the U.S., and there are far more in other countries. The models have an enormous range, says Rawdon: “Model airplanes range in weight from .05 ounces to 55 pounds, which is a nominal limit, but guys are flying turbojet radio-controlled models that go 200 miles an hour. I mean honest-to-god turbojets. And they go 200 miles an hour. Then there are guys flying radio-controlled models indoors at three miles an hour.”

Because the people involved in this hobby tend to be technologically inclined and iconoclastic, a lot of innovation goes on here. It is far easier to experiment with a new propeller type or wing construction method when you can fabricate it, test it, repair any damage from failure and try it all again in the space of a week. For full-size airplanes, that process is long and very expensive. Model plane designers are so sophisticated, in fact, that the aerospace industry looks to them for solutions to design problems. “A lot of that technology is working its way down into the aerospace business,” Rawdon says, “both in research stuff and also in the unmanned aerial vehicles—the weapons and reconnaissance vehicles.” One aerospace company even goes out of its way to hire model-plane designers and lets them use the company’s equipment for their model work, simply because it’s likely to produce some innovation the company can use.

Despite Rawdon’s passion for flying, he wasn’t considering a career in aviation when he came to Amherst. He chose Amherst because his father (Blaine Neahr Rawdon ’46) had gone to the college. (His two younger brothers, Matthew ’79 and Robert ’77, are also alums.) “Otherwise,” he says, “it’s unlikely that someone going to high school on the West Coast is going to hear of Amherst. I think I was possibly the only person to go to a private liberal arts college from my entire high school.” When he got to Amherst he chose physics as his major because he had been particularly inspired by his high school physics instructor. But he found Amherst to be quite a bit more challenging than high school. “Writing on the chalk board was too slow for the professor in that first class,” he says. “He used an overhead projector with a scrolling roll of clear plastic, so he would write by hand and then turn the crank. It was all you could do to keep up in class. Fortunately, I was able to go back and absorb it, so I hung in there, but I was not a great physics student. Some time ago I saw a book about graduate physics topics that somebody had in their house, and I thought, ‘This would be interesting.’ But I looked through it and I thought, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much I don’t know it isn’t even funny.’”

Although Rawdon certainly uses physics in his job, much of his work is diplomatic, explaining his planes to potential customers and to colleagues at Boeing. There, he says, his liberal arts education really pays off. “It turns out that I know many things and take many things for granted that a lot of other people don’t know,” he says, “and that’s sort of surprising. It all seems natural to me. One of the most useful things I learned was the ability to talk and write, which is the result of numerous classes, many of which were painful to me. Professor Armour Craig [’37] got a couple of fundamental ideas across, including that the use of language can be quite rigorous and precise; that by forcing ourselves to use language in a rigorous way, we force ourselves to think in a rigorous way.”

After Amherst, Rawdon went to the University of Southern California to get a degree in architecture. He worked for his father’s architecture firm for a few years, but his interest in model planes never waned. As a result, in 1977 he found himself involved in the project that changed his life.

He started spending weekends working with Paul MacCready, a fellow model-plane enthusiast and founder of Aero­Vironment, an environmental and wind-power consulting company. MacCready was trying to win a prize that a British industrialist had established for the first person to produce a human-powered airplane able to fly around a designated course. People using modified conventional planes had been trying unsuccessfully to win the prize for 18 years. MacCready’s plane, called the Gossamer Condor, was a unique, super-lightweight design constructed of aluminum tubing, Mylar plastic and piano wire, powered by a pilot pedaling a bicycle linkage that turned the propeller. Rawdon’s job was to test-fly and repair the airplane as it went through its final iterations. On August 23, 1977, the plane successfully flew the 1.15-mile course, winning the prize. The whole project was documented in a PBS television show, and the plane itself is now on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution.

Rawdon’s involvement with the Gossamer Condor was largely voluntary and part time while he continued his architecture work, but when MacCready got funding from DuPont for his next, even more ambitious, project, the Gossamer Albatross, he offered Rawdon a paid, full-time position, and architecture fell by the wayside. The Albatross was intended to win a new prize set up by the same British industrialist, this one for the first human-powered plane to fly across the English Channel. For that flight, 22 times longer than that of the first contest, the plane had to be made even lighter, stronger and more efficient. That’s where Rawdon’s model-plane experience came in. The flight across the channel would take more than two hours, but in initial trials the new plane could stay airborne for no more than 17 or 18 minutes. The problem turned out to be the propeller, which was a relatively old design. “It happened that my friend Bill Watson and I had been building model airplanes using a technique that was perfect for doing high-tech, lightweight, human-powered propeller blades,” Rawdon says. “So I took MacCready’s specs for the propeller and converted them into structure. We built this thing, Bill and I, in a week. It was a styrene foam core, carbon fiber spar and Kevlar and epoxy skins. It had a diameter of 13 feet and four inches and weighed three pounds. And that was considered heavy. The whole plane weighed about 85 pounds when it flew.”

With Rawdon’s propeller, the plane was able to fly successfully across the channel, and it won the second prize. Then Rawdon and the rest of MacCready’s team moved on to an even greater challenge: building the first solar-powered plane, the Solar Challenger. Here the problem was getting enough electricity from solar cells to run the propeller. That was a significant challenge at the time, because solar cells were at best only about 12 percent efficient. Since MacCready’s cells were NASA rejects, many didn’t even meet that level of efficiency. Because sunlight produces about 100 watts of power per square foot, the best the team could hope for was 12 watts per square foot. The plane had a planned wingspan of 47 feet and a six-foot wing chord (the width of the wing from front to back), so if the wings were completely covered with solar cells, the maximum amount of power available would be about three horsepower (2,238 watts).

“MacCready did some numbers,” Rawdon says, “sort of back-of-the-envelope physics numbers, and said, ‘OK, guys, this is possible; go do it.’ So we had to make it happen. The two main aspects were that it had to be very light and efficient in order to actually fly on solar power—not just fly, but climb, which means you have to have excess power. And the flip side was we were going to fly high; we had to avoid killing somebody. So we tried to make a very lightweight and suitably strong airplane. And we succeeded at that. It is remarkable. I don’t believe anybody’s done it since—a manned, purely solar-powered airplane—partly because it’s a kooky idea and partly because the solar cells are very expensive. We did succeed in the end, and we didn’t kill anybody.” The plane flew 163 miles at an altitude of 11,000 feet.

There was no prize involved in the Solar Challenger (it was again funded by DuPont), only the satisfaction of achieving the seemingly impossible. But for Rawdon personally, there was indeed a reward in the project: it was through this work that he met his wife, Deborah Beron, a friend of one of the other crew members. Beron’s father worked at McDonnell-Douglas, and he set up a job interview for Rawdon, which led to his position with Phantom Works. His wife (now Deborah Beron-Rawdon) also eventually went to work for the company, specializing in aircraft interiors (she designed the interiors of all MD-11 jumbo jets). When McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, Phantom Works came with the package. Now Deborah Beron-Rawdon is in charge of strategic development for the Pelican project.

While Blaine Rawdon has received enormous attention for the Pelican, it is not the only major project he has worked on; one of his other designs, the Blended Wing Body concept, is, if anything, even more striking than the cargo plane. It is, in some ways, the opposite of the Pelican. While the Pelican looks like a throwback to Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the Blended Wing Body looks like something out of Star Wars (or, more precisely, like an angelfish turned on its side). It is sleek, with no distinct fuselage. It is, essentially, a flying wing, with the wing thickened toward the center. This type of design produces a plane that is lighter, more aerodynamic, more fuel-efficient and more spacious than conventional tube-and-wings airplanes. And because it is modular by its nature (the width of the deep center body can be increased or decreased in sections) it can be adapted to a variety of military and commercial applications at relatively low cost. With a wingspan of 280 feet—roughly the same size as Airbus’ forthcoming A380 Jumbo Jet—the 800-passenger Blended Wing Body would carry 50 percent more passengers than the Airbus while using nearly 30 percent less fuel. It would be significantly lighter than conventional designs of the same wingspan and would have far better handling characteristics and lift-to-drag ratio. It would have no tail, and the engines would be rear mounted, making the interior very quiet.

Like the Pelican, the Blended Wing Body is still only a concept at Phantom Works, but it has been in the design stream longer than the Pelican and is therefore at a later stage. “I’m hopeful that the Blended Wing Body and the Pelican will go forward,” Rawdon says, “but it remains to be seen. It will be a very exciting day when either one of them has its first flight.”

In the meantime, Rawdon has another first flight to look forward to. This man who has spent his whole life absorbed by flight, designing and building planes of every description, working on aeronautical milestones and redefining what an airplane can be, has never actually flown a plane himself (excepting a few turns in the human-powered flyers and some hours in paragliders). So for now the big news in aviation is that this year, Blaine Rawdon will finally get his pilot’s license.