Air Force selects Long Beach startup for $235 million prototype aircraft project

The Department of the U.S. Air Force selected JetZero for the next phase of a blended wing body prototype aircraft project Aug. 16.

Based in Long Beach, CA, JetZero holds a prominent place in the history of the Blended Wing Body (BWB) design, being founded by the aviation trailblazers responsible for the invention of the original BWB. In 2023, this California-based startup unveiled its Z5 project, which has the potential to accommodate 250 passengers. An aircraft of this type would have a wingspan slightly greater than a Boeing 747 and could operate from existing airport terminals.

In the early 1920s Nicolas Woyevodsky developed a theory of the BWB and, following wind tunnel tests, the Westland Dreadnought was built. It stalled on its first flight in 1924, severely injuring the pilot, and the project was cancelled. The idea was proposed again in the early 1940s for a Miles M.26 airliner project and the Miles M.30 “X Minor” research prototype was built to investigate it. The McDonnell XP-67 prototype interceptor also flew in 1944 but did not meet expectations.

NASA and McDonnell Douglas returned to the concept in the 1990s with an artificially stabilized 17-foot (5.2 m) model (6% scale) called BWB-17, built by Stanford University, which was flown in 1997 and showed good handling qualities. From 2000 NASA went on to develop a remotely controlled research model with a 21-foot (6.4 m) wingspan.

NASA has also jointly explored BWB designs for the Boeing X-48 unmanned aerial vehicle. Studies suggested that a BWB airliner carrying from 450 to 800 passengers could achieve fuel savings of over 20 percent.

This technological leap not only serves the military but has promising implications for the commercial sector. Both passenger airlines and air freight enterprises could experience an expanded cabin or cargo capacity coupled with reduced fuel expenditures.

The effort aims to mature BWB technology and demonstrate its capabilities, giving the department and commercial industry more options for future air platforms.

“Blended wing body aircraft have the potential to significantly reduce fuel demand and increase global reach,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. “Moving forces and cargo quickly, efficiently, and over long distances is a critical capability to enable national security strategy.”

Several military transport configurations are possible with the BWB. Together, these aircraft types account for approximately 60% of the Air Force’s total annual jet fuel consumption.

The U.S. Air Force announced the $235-million contract awarded over a four-year period to JetZero, culminating in the first flight of the full-scale demonstrator by the first quarter of 2027. The goal of the contract is to demonstrate the capabilities of BWB technology, giving the Department of Defense and commercial industry more options for their future air platforms.