The shape of things to come

As well as looking pretty cool, new aircraft design may dramatically decrease fuel usage.
As well as looking pretty cool, new aircraft design may dramatically decrease fuel usage. Supplied

THE first time I ever flew must have been about 1960 in a Grumman Widgeon amphibian, piloted by the famous Freddie Ladd.

I was among a group from the 1st Devonport Scout Troop who won a flight for earning the most money in the annual bob-a-job week.

As you can imagine, we were incredibly excited as we climbed aboard the plane at Mechanics Bay, trundled down the ramp, bounced across the choppy waters of the Waitemata and then, with Ladd's trademark cry of "a shower of spray and we're away", took off.

I can still remember my utter fascination - so great it swept away any nervousness - at what Auckland looked like from the air. One of my schoolmates had a very fancy electric train set in the basement of the family home and I remember thinking that the view from the plane was quite like the setting for his trains with matchbox houses, dinky cars, miniature trees and Lilliputian people.

It was the start of a love affair with flying which - despite a few mildly unpleasant experiences - has never ended. And it's always particularly exciting when I get to fly for the first time in a new type of plane - sadly, I missed out on the Concord - or even a new airline or a different class to the usual (I even flew First Class once...but that's another story).

Surprisingly, though the planes we fly in these days may be vastly bigger and faster than that little amphibian, they're still roughly the same shape.

That, however, may be about to change.

A recent article in the Economist magazine drew attention to new designs being developed which would change the way aircraft look as well as halving the amount of fuel they burn.

Perhaps the most unusual is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which would replace the usual cylindrical cabin with a much wider one basically made up of two partial cylinders - wide enough to allow an extra aisle - with a small twin tail and three engines right at the back of the plane.

The designers reckon it will fly a bit slower than a Boeing 737-800 but because of the extra aisle should be much quicker to board - making the actual trip time for passengers a bit shorter - and one version made of new high-tech materials is predicted to burn 71 per cent less fuel per passenger.

The fuel-saving sounds amazing but I'm even more excited by the prospect of maybe one day getting the chance to fly in such a radically different aircraft.

Nothing could match the thrill of that long-ago first flight, and I don't suppose the pilot will say anything as stimulating as "a cloud of spray and we're away", but it would be marvellous to experience what may be the next step forward in aviation.

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