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November 15, 2002

Release: 02-57

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The first flight of a revolutionary flexible-wing F/A-18A research jet was Friday, Nov. 15 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, Calif.

The Active Aeroelastic Wing program is researching the use of lighter-weight flexible wings for improved maneuverability of future high-performance military aircraft. The program intends to demonstrate improved aircraft roll control through aerodynamically induced wing twist on a full-scale manned supersonic aircraft—essentially a 21st century, high-tech update of the primitive wing-warping control system devised by the Wright brothers for their 1903 Wright Flyer. It is a joint program of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Boeing's Phantom Works and NASA Dryden.

"We're extremely happy to get the aircraft off the ground after a lot of hard work by a lot of good people at Boeing, the Air Force and NASA Dryden," said Denis Bessette, NASA Dryden's AAW project manager. "This is the beginning of the 21st century aircraft, where morphing technology will create wings that bend and shape themselves for aircraft control and efficient flight from low to high speeds, and from low to high altitudes. We're expecting very productive research."

The first AAW flight followed a three-year period of modification and ground testing at the NASA facility. During the one-hour, eight-minute flight, NASA research pilot Dana Purifoy put the modified Navy fighter plane through an extensive functional checkout of aircraft flight controls, avionics systems, engine operation, and newly installed test instrumentation. He also began evaluation of its aerodynamic flutter limits and differential movement of the inboard and outboard leading edge flaps used in AAW research.

The first phase of AAW flight tests will include about 30 to 40 parameter-identification flights at a rate of about three or four per week. Boeing's Phantom Works will then use data obtained from the first series of flights to refine wing effectiveness models and design the AAW flight control software. The second phase of research flights to demonstrate the AAW concept with effective software control laws should begin in mid- to late 2003, almost 100 years after the Wright Brothers' first powered flight on December 17, 1903.

AAW research could also enable thinner, higher aspect-ratio wings on future aircraft, which could result in reduced aerodynamic drag, allowing greater range or payload and improved fuel efficiency. Data obtained from flight tests at Dryden will provide benchmark design criteria as guidance for future aircraft designs.

"We are very excited to begin the flying phase of the program," said Pete Flick, AAW program manager for the AFRL Air Vehicles Directorate. "Acquiring the parameter identification flight data is a major step toward our ultimate goal of designing wings with the AAW philosophy."

"This first flight milestone is one we've been waiting for, and it's only the beginning of a new chapter in the combination of aerodynamics, structures and flight controls into a single integrated system," said Bob Krieger, president of Boeing Phantom Works. "Our AAW teaming effort with NASA and the Air Force is unique, and everyone has worked very hard to reach this point. I look forward to the next few months when we will verify this concept with additional AAW flight tests."

The AAW F/A-18A, provided by the U.S. Navy, has been modified with additional actuators, a split leading edge flap actuation system and thinner wing skins that will allow the outer wing panels to twist up to five degrees. The traditional wing control surfaces—trailing edge ailerons and the leading and trailing edge flaps—are used to provide the aerodynamic force needed to twist or "warp" the wing. Project engineers hope to obtain almost equivalent roll performance of production F/A-18s at transonic and supersonic speeds without using the horizontal stabilators and with smaller control surface deflections.

The AAW program is funded by the AFRL's Air Vehicles Directorate and NASA's Office of Aerospace Technology. Boeing's Phantom Works performed the AAW F/A-18 modifications under contract with the AFRL Air Vehicles Directorate.


Note to Editors: Still photos are available to support this release on the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center Internet web site, URL: /centers/dfrc/Gallery/Photo/AAW/index.html Video B-roll footage of the first flight is also available. For video dubs please call the Dryden public affairs office at (661) 276-3449.

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