Fall 2011

The Future of Flight

Robert H. Liebeck

Manager of Blended-Wing-Body Airplane Program

  • BS, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, 1961
  • MS, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, 1962
  • PhD, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, 1968

Robert LiebeckAs a world-renowned authority in the fields of aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and aircraft design, Dr. Robert H. Liebeck is leading his Boeing team in the development of a 500-passenger flying-wing advanced-concept subsonic transport aircraft that offers a 30 percent reduction in fuel burn, when compared to a conventional tube and wing configuration. The BWB X-48B, a subscale prototype with a 21-foot wingspan, is undergoing development by Boeing in collaboration with NASA. In his Lecture, Liebeck will present a detailed description of the design and fabrication of the X-48B, along with a video of the first flight at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center on July 20, 2007.

The futuristic X-48B—an 8-percent sub-scale flight demonstrator of the Boeing Blended Wing Body (BWB) subsonic transport—was named one of the year’s top inventions by Time magazine in 2007. Recognized for its innovative design and potential to be more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly than today’s airplanes, the research aircraft is providing data that will transform air transportation.

To date, 93 test flights have established that the X-48B flies like a normal airplane. Five test pilots (three from Boeing and two from NASA) have observed, “It is a very nice airplane to fly.” Edge-of-the-flight envelope testing also has been successful.

The X-48B is a joint project between the Boeing Company, NASA, and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. Cranfield Aerospace of United Kingdom constructed the airplane.

Dr. Liebeck also contributed to advances in propeller design, windmill analysis, wing design for supersonic transports, and the design of high-altitude aircraft. In his 49 years at Boeing, he served as program manager on several classified advanced-concept airplane programs. He has an extensive list of technical publications, and his airfoil work is discussed in several textbooks on aerodynamics. He attained world recognition starting in the 1970s with his novel designs for high-lift “Liebeck airfoils.”

Liebeck also holds the position of Professor of the Practice of Aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and teaches courses in aerodynamics, flight mechanics, and airplane design as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine.

As a consultant, he has designed wings for racing cars that won in Indianapolis 500 and Formula One races, and his wing was selected for the NASCAR “Car of Tomorrow” recently. He also designed the keel section for the yacht that won the America’s Cup in 1991, and he designed the wing for a World Championship aerobatic airplane.

Robert Liebeck received the Daniel Guggenheim Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in aviation, in 2010. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Boeing Senior Technical Fellow, AIAA Honorary Fellow, and a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He is a recipient of the AIAA Aerodynamics Award, AIAA Aircraft Design Award, AIAA Wright Brothers Lectureship in Aeronautics, ASME Spirit of St. Louis Medal, ICAS Award for Innovation in Aeronautics. He received the Engineering at Illinois Alumni Award for Distinguished Service in 1994.