Experts say new ‘bullet-shaped’ plane a concept we could see in the near future

The concept of a bullet-shaped passenger aircraft might be far-fetched for now, but experts at the University of Pittsburgh’s Aircraft Operations and Dynamics Lab say it’s a vision that could become a reality within the next 15 years.

That’s the headline finding of a new study detailing why aircraft of the future should be largely “bullet-shaped” rather than narrow tube-shaped. Currently, new aircraft shape is mainly dictated by size constraints, they say.

The researchers set out to explore the advantages of straighter aircraft shapes — including the ability to run faster and use fuel more efficiently — and concluded that more refined aerodynamics, and different segments of a shape each governing a particular pressure, would accomplish the desired result.

“Your standard airline airplane basically has three vertical surfaces with three surfaces each,” said CMU professor Ken Ellis, the study’s lead author. “Depending on what terrain is behind you, that aircraft is almost the perfect shape, or it doesn’t perform nearly as well.

“That’s kind of how aircraft shape works. They choose specific wings, and there are certain operations that they can’t do. But, on a simplified perspective, you could take three different directions and use them to optimally suit different types of work on the aircraft and use that to change the shape,” Ellis told

And — unlike taking into account the duration of a flight and costs — it’s a technique researchers say has been around a long time, especially in European test conditions.

The problem, however, is that it’s expensive to both modify existing airplanes, and create new designs that will be accepted by the aviation community. Given current global economic conditions, few new aircraft would be accepted into service today unless a radical new design is introduced.

“Those aircraft that we have today are commonwealth of independent airlines. They have pretty well agreed standards and we cannot expect them to redesign their airframes to accommodate these new aerodynamic efficiency designs,” Ellis said.

All this means a future flight on “bullet-shaped” aircraft has little short-term prospect, at least, unless more radical designs like those in the new study come to fruition.

“It’s a new approach, and a new approach requires a new aerodynamic concept,” said Ellis. “It requires a new drive and work within existing aviation laws.”

Nevertheless, the plan would see aircraft making radical changes to their entire frame, rather than just repositioning its wings.

“If we have these new aircraft that utilize all of these new aerodynamic methods, it would be able to process fuel more efficiently and could therefore be able to generate more power and performance, which would be a big advantage,” Ellis said.

The proposed plane is based on the Eurofighter jet, and the researchers believe that it would be similar to existing models on the market because all of the design needs are known. But Ellis believes the airframe design would be completely different.

“It wouldn’t have a tail or a wing-dome shape. It would be quite the opposite. It would be like a bullet — that’s the only similarity,” he said.

The study is due to be presented on Tuesday at the 47th Annual Meeting of the National AeroMechanical Society.

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