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McDonnell Unveils Plane With Revolutionary Engine

February 04, 1988|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

An experimental jetliner that McDonnell Douglas hopes will eventually beat foreign and domestic competition in the 1990s made its public debut Wednesday in a one-hour flight from the firm's Douglas Aircraft facility in Long Beach.

The aircraft, with one revolutionary General Electric engine and one ordinary jet engine, is a forerunner of the planned MD-91 and MD-92 passenger jets that Douglas is now actively marketing to airlines.

The new GE engine, known as an unducted fan (UDF) engine, is most notable for its rear-facing propellers, which are sometimes called propulsors or fan blades. The engines offer as much as a 40% reduction in fuel consumption over current jet engines. When the new MD-91s and 92s enter commercial service, each will have two UDF engines. With a development cost of about $500 million, the planes will offer markedly improved fuel economy over past Douglas aircraft and over aircraft offered by Boeing and Airbus, the European consortium.

"This is as big a jump in technology as going from propellers to jets," said Walt Orlowski, program manager for the experimental aircraft. "We are at the forefront of aviation technology."

Aerospace analyst Wolfgang Demisch said Douglas "is under the most pressure in the industry right now to go ahead with a new jetliner. There are loud rumbles from airlines that they are looking at alternative aircraft" to the Douglas planes now in service.

Uses Far Less Fuel

The experimental jet, which carried reporters on a one-hour flight Wednesday over the Pacific, has been in flight testing since last May. During the past several weeks, representatives of 15 airlines have taken demonstration rides.

Douglas projects that its MD-92 jetliner will burn 27.2% less fuel per seat on a 500-mile trip than the Airbus A-320, the 150-seat European passenger jet that poses one of the biggest challenges to U.S. manufacturers over the next decade.

The MD-92 is a stretched version of the MD-87 and will carry 165 passengers with a range of up to 2,450 nautical miles.

Douglas officials say the price of the MD-92 will depend on future market conditions, but that they expect it to cost roughly $7 million to $8 million more than the $25-million MD-87 conventional jetliner now in service. The MD-91 will carry 114 passengers--about the same as the present MD-87--and will cost about $3 million to $4 million more than that plane's $25-million cost, Douglas officials said.

The higher cost is attributable principally to the new engines. General Electric officials said the cost of current development program for the new UDF engine is about $1 billion to $1.2 billion.

A major concern early in the UDF program was noise levels both inside and outside the plane. But the prototype engine demonstrated Wednesday--called a "proof of concept" engine--has apparently cleared up such concerns.

Vibration Still a Problem

Bruce Gordon, GE's UDF program manager, said the flight test program at Douglas has shown that the UDF is quieter by 5 decibels, a measurement of sound, than conventional fan jets. Orlowski, the Douglas engineer, said the company was able to eliminate more than 1,000 pounds of insulation and airframe structure because the sound levels were lower than expected.

Still, GE and Douglas have a job ahead in reducing vibration inside the passenger compartment. On the demonstration flight Wednesday, Douglas officials readily conceded that vibration levels are higher in some areas of the aircraft than airlines are willing to accept. But they believe that they are already on the way to a solution.

Each UDF engine has two rows of blades that rotate in opposite directions. The blades are made of carbon fibers and change pitch in flight to help control the aircraft's speed, Gordon said.

Douglas said it hopes to begin making offers to airlines for the new jet by this month and to launch development by July. It is hoping to have the first of the new jets government-certified by March, 1992.

"I want to build these airplanes in the 1990s at the same rate we are today, 125 (MD-80-class planes) per year," Orlowski said. "If we end up doubling that production, I will be the happiest person in the world."

The world market for such aircraft is estimated by Douglas at 2,400 planes by the turn of the century. Douglas officials believe that they will have a substantial advantage over Boeing and Airbus in having the only commercial jetliner with the new technology engines.

Even while Douglas is competing with Airbus, it is also holding negotiations with Airbus officials for some sort of cooperative production program. Lockheed officials are holding similar talks. Douglas officials said the talks have recently been elevated to a senior level, though it is not known whether an agreement is near.

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