When it comes to airplanes, the air cargo industry has almost always been stuck with the leftovers. Even the minority of all-cargo planes built as freighters typically hail from the tail end of the production line and feature an airframe design already on its way out of favor.
But with growth in air cargo trade actually outpacing the passenger business and drawing more attention from the world top airplane manufacturers than ever before, the tide may turn soon.
Perhaps the growing importance of time-sensitive shipments in the express package industry will even spur on the long-anticipated spread of supersonic transport, an advance in flight capability that has fallen victim to economic and environmental concerns. Trends in manufacturing and distribution may, in fact, push aircraft makers and operators to press for the high-speed advances that business travelers have not stimulated.
Some forecasters see the proliferation of Asian manufacturers with super-tight supply chains paving the way for a super-jumbo, mammoth airplanes that passenger business cannot sustain alone. Others envision revolutionary aircraft designs that can accommodate twice the freight in half the wingspan to meet market forces that demand some of the world’s busiest airports double their cargo traffic without compromising loading times.
There are certainly enough next-generation aircraft designs out there to enliven a discussion on future freighters. Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautical Systems division alone has a large portfolio of designs that could be central to the future of air transport. A box wing is the centerpiece of its proposed “super freighter,” which would be be capable of hauling 160 tonnes of freight yet use existing ground equipment.
Wing designs have been relatively unchanged for decades, but engineers are working on new outlines that would vastly improve aerodynamic efficiency, capacity and range. After over five years of studying some 50 next-generation transport aircraft configurations, Lockheed still has high hopes for an airliner with a strut-braced wing, one with a joined wing, and yet another with a blended wing-body configuration.