The Boeing Co. turned 100 on July 15. Throughout the year, The Daily Herald is covering the people, airplanes and moments that define The Boeing Century. More about this series
There’s a quote by Boeing’s founder in the office of Brian Tillotson, one of company’s top engineers, that, he says, captures the spirit of the aerospace giant.
“The company started when Bill Boeing turned to his friend Conrad Westervelt and said, ‘I think we can build a better one.’ We talk about that all the time: How do we make this better?”
Tillotson’s job is to think not just about how to improve today’s products but also to figure out what Boeing needs to offer decades from now. It can take years to develop new aerospace technology, so companies have to look ahead.
“It’s not all that unusual to be in a meeting at Boeing where we’re talking about 20 or 30 years from now,” or even 50 years, he said.
When that time arrives, airplanes could look very different, with today’s familiar tube-and-wing silhouette being replaced by exotic designs that could deliver huge gains in fuel economy. Planes could have wide, flat fuselages and long, skinny wings, or they might look more like a bat in flight or a B-2 bomber. And they could be powered by the stuff of comic books, such as fusion energy. Fusion is what makes stars and our sun burn bright. For decades, scientists have been trying to harness the process here on Earth. Research continues, and many advocates say the goal is not far away. So far, only Marvel Comics’ Iron Man appears to have succeeded.
Forecasting the future requires imagining what is possible and what is needed, Tillotson said. Much of that work is done by the Boeing Research & Technology division.
Engineers consider how technologies are likely to evolve and how they could evolve. That is the “possible” side of the equation.
“We also look at the ‘need’ side,” he said. “That’s half of what we do. And the other half of what we do is kind of beating that against the possibilities. It’s that intersection of needs and possibilities that really tells you, ‘All right, that’s something that we really need to be looking harder at.’ ”
But the future doesn’t always work out as expected. In the 1950s, Boeing and other companies imagined supersonic jets whisking passengers around the world faster than the speed of sound.
In the 1960s, Boeing’s premier development project was designing the Model 2707, a supersonic transport that people called SST. Boeing built the Development Center to house the program near Boeing Field.
The federally funded project seemed so obviously the future of air travel that Seattle’s basketball team was named the SuperSonics. But rising fuel costs and environmental concerns made supersonic commercial flights infeasible. The Concorde and a Soviet version came and went. And the Sonics now play under the name Thunder in Oklahoma City. The Development Center, however, remains. It’s where Tillotson works now.
Forecasting the future takes humility, too.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying, ‘Oh, it’s obvious to everybody that we’ll need this, or it’s obvious that this technology will be available,’ ” he said. “You really need to take a minute to write down: Why do you think that’s obvious? What are you assuming about the world that makes you think that?”
Writing down your assumptions helps you notice when developments tell you that one of your assumptions is off, he said. “You’d better go check that before you invest any more money.”
That’s the best way to avoid “drinking your own bath water until you drown in it,” he said. “We do that like other companies; sometimes we do it well, sometimes we do it badly.”
To Boeing’s credit, there are plenty of programs that the company began and abandoned after realizing they didn’t have a future, at least not with Boeing. For example, it dabbled with public transit systems in the 1970s. Ultimately, Boeing decided transit didn’t fit with what the company does best: building big jets.
So, what could be in Boeing’s future?
“Fusion energy may become possible in our lifetime,” Tillotson said. “So we’ve got a few folks thinking about ‘What do we do if that comes true or if it starts to look like that’s going to work?’ ”
With a fusion reactor, there would be no need for fuel tanks, which would drastically alter the layout of an airplane. Fusion would remove concerns about carbon emissions and fuel economy. That would free engineers to reconsider airplane design in ways people haven’t even thought of yet.
Humans are visual creatures, and we expect big changes to be visually obvious, Tillotson said. But that is not always the case.
Advances in electronics, exotic materials and other technologies mean we can dramatically change what an airplane can do with the same fuselage and wings. Just look at the B-52, which first flew in 1952, he said. It looks the same, but functionally, it can do much more today. That is a big reason why the Pentagon hopes to keep Stratofortresses flying at least for another 25 years.
“A few weeks ago, I was at a workshop,” Tillotson said. “We were talking about what will we be dealing with in the world of defense in 100 years, and semi-seriously, someone said, ‘What will be the new payload on a B-52 in 100 years?’ ”
Technology does not always progress in a straight line, said Christian Gelzer, a historian at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Commercial jetliners today fly much more slowly than the Concorde, and even than earlier passenger jets. For example, flying from Seattle to Los Angeles took about 2 hours, 15 minutes, in 1972, and takes about 2 hours, 40 minutes, in 2016. Rising fuel costs and environmental concerns have slowed jets down.
“Technology is a human creation, and people decide how to use it,” Gelzer said.
Airplanes powered by hybrid systems, such as electric and gas-turbine engines, could become widespread in the future. Many hope they will further reduce the cost of flying, but they could also be slightly slower than today’s jets, he said.
Blended-wing-body designs could radically change the shape of airplanes. These designs sometimes have no tail and not much of a fuselage. Instead, the body and the wings flow into each other. Boeing and NASA have been experimenting with an unmanned model, called the X-48. The shape could be much more efficient than today’s tube-and-wing airplane. Blended wing body designs could slash how much fuel is needed by as much as 40 percent, Gelzer said. “Considering that engine manufacturers claw madly for gains of 0.2 percent to 0.5 percent in fuel efficiency, that is a big deal.”
At Boeing, Tillotson helps shape the company’s R&D spending.
Aerospace companies have to provide for today’s needs while preparing for the future, he said. When discussing R&D strategy with Boeing executives, “those guys, they’ll push back if we’re not bringing them enough advanced stuff.
“They will say, ‘We’ve also got to be in business in 50 or 100 years,’ ” he said. “‘So go back, and bring me a little more of the exotic stuff.’ “I’m not just making that up. I’ve been in meetings when they’ve said that to us. And, I got to tell you, it’s a heartening experience.”
Outside his office, Tillotson can look up to see airliners crisscrossing the sky.
“That’s only been true for the last 100 years. And we did that. We did that,” he said.