NASA has selected Lockheed Martin's "Skunk Works" division to design and develop the experimental "Low Boom Flight Demonstrator" (LBFD) aircraft. This air vehicle will be used to collect data on reduced-level sonic boom performance that currently restrict super-high-speed commercial passenger airliner travel over populated airspaces (this was one of the primary defeats of the European BAC/Aerospatiale "Concorde" supersonic airliner program). The LBFD will also be used to jumpstart a whole new generation of NASA-funded "X-planes", a long-running series of experimentals (some becoming record-setters) driven by the research branch that ultimately played a critical role in advancing American aerospace technologies during the Cold War period (1947-1991). The primary end-goal of the new program is to provide a standard data scheme for civilian airspace aircraft-makers to be referenced when designing their own ultra-efficient subsonic-level products.
When the project was first unveiled by NASA in August of 2017, no fewer than three firms shared interest but it was Lockheed that ended up the only party to submit a formal bid. The company has elected to construct the aircraft utilizing existing "off-the-shelf" systems taken from such types as the Northrop T-38 "Talon" carrierborne advanced jet trainer and the Boeing F/A-18 "Super Hornet" carrier-based fighter-bomber - not only will this accelerate manufacture of the flyable unit but also keep development costs in check.
Going by the presented concept artwork released by NASA, the LBFD will take on a sleek-and-slim overall shape with a finely-pointed, duckbill-like nosecone, delta-style wing mainplanes, and a rather unique tailplane arrangement. The cockpit will be seated at midships with limited forward and rearward viewing for the pilot due to the raised nature of the forward and rearward fuselage spine (this meant to break up the oncoming boom shock at very-high-speeds). To compensate for the restricted view, the aircraft will carry an XVS display system that includes a nose-mounted camera with color imagery relaying situational awareness to the pilot during critical take-off and landing actions. A "triple plane" design is seen for the overall shape of the aircraft - delta-like wing mainplanes are positioned just aft of midships with canards set forward and traditional tailplanes fitted aft. In addition to the traditional horizontal tailplanes there will be a smaller set of horizontal planes seated high atop the single vertical fin (similar to the "Multhopp Tail" adopted by many civilian and military aircraft). A tricycle undercarriage will be used for ground-running with these components taken from a Lockheed F-16 "Fighting Falcon". The T-38 will form much of the LBFD's cockpit section which will house a single pilot. Structurally, the aircraft's overall length will reach 94 feet from nose-to-tail.
The LBFD will have a speed capability approaching Mach 1.4 and fly up to altitudes of 55,000 feet requiring pressurization for the cockpit and life support systems for the pilot. Power is slated to come from a single General Electric GE F414 afterburning turbofan engine (the same as used in the Boeing F/A-18 "Super Hornet" line) and this installation will be aspirated by a diverterless supersonic intake scheme. Placement of the engine is key to the design and involves the unit being positioned well-aft in the fuselage with its edges finely-contoured to the existing airframe to maintain aerodynamic efficiency. The intake will be seen just above the aft-dorsal fuselage spine with a conventional exhaust ring featured at the fuselage's extreme end - as such, little to no ductwork will be required to funnel air through the unit.
With a design review forthcoming before the end of 2019, a first-flight is scheduled for sometime in mid-2021. Flight testing is then to arrive in 2023 and should continue into 2025 during which time public feedback will also be welcomed and assessed as the aircraft is test-flown over select populated areas across the United States.
The LBFD may very well help to introduce a whole new era of commercial flight and add to the already stellar legacy of contributions had by the United States in the aerospace field.