SCOTT SIMON, host:
Look up there, in the sky. It's a bird; it's a plane. It's a Pelican. The Boeing Company has designed the world's biggest airplane ever, and it's called the Pelican. One football field long with an almost two-football-field wingspan, the Pelican could transport thousands of soldiers or tens of battle tanks across the ocean with unprecedented economy and efficiency. Now the name derives from the bird who takes greatest advantage of that aerodynamic phenomenon that reduces drag and conserves fuel, the pelican that is. And like its namesake, the Pelican aircraft is designed to fly low over water. Blaine Rawdon, is the Pelican project manager for Boeing. He joins us from Huntington Beach, California.
Mr. Rawdon, thanks for being with us.
Mr. BLAINE RAWDON (Boeing): It's my pleasure.
SIMON: And how low exactly?
Mr. RAWDON: The height that you fly over the water depends on how rough the sea is, but we envision that much of the time, you would be able to fly at about 20 feet.
SIMON: Oh, my word. Twenty feet. You wouldn't want to be under it, would you?
Mr. RAWDON: No, of course, if there's something under it, we would fly higher or fly around it.
SIMON: Why would you want to fly that low anyway?
Mr. RAWDON: By flying very close to the water, like a pelican, we reduce the drag on the airplane, which means that you burn less fuel, and if you burn less fuel, especially if you go a long distance, you can carry more payload, so you get a double benefit from this effect. When an airplane flies, it derives lift by deflecting air downwards. It's as if you're walking on a sandy beach and each time you take a step, your foot sinks down. So then, in effect, when you're walking on a sandy beach, you are stepping up--you're climbing all the time. And airplanes do this with the air. The air falls out from below the airplane, and each time it moves forward, it has to sort of step on the air.
By getting very close to the water, it makes the air, in essence, much denser and it accelerates out from the airplane much less so the airplane's no longer flying uphill relative to the air. That effect is sensitive to the airplane's speed. If you fly slower, this effect gets worse. But if you get very close to the water, you can fly slower and that effect is so small that it's not made much worse, but the drag from friction with the air by flying slower is reduced. So you can fly the airplane more efficiently by flying slower and the benefits are substantial.
SIMON: But you can go higher if you've got to fly over, hmm, let's say, Los Angeles or Chicago?
Mr. RAWDON: Oh, yes, we can go high enough to go over the Rockies.
SIMON: Now how big exactly is this biggest plane? How much bigger is it than anything we might actually see in the sky right now?
Mr. RAWDON: Well, it's--well, I should point out that the airplane is a concept right now and we have not come to a conclusion about what the optimum size is. But as a working version to enable us to study it, we've chosen a version which is 500 feet in span and about 400 feet long. And that is roughly on the order of twice as big as any existing airplane.
SIMON: I have to ask, I mean, if it's used to transport entire divisions of soldiers or dozens of tanks or heavy cargo, wouldn't it be a big, fat target in the sky?
Mr. RAWDON: Yes, it would. And in general, the military would operate such an airplane at a safe distance from any threat.
SIMON: Would there be any future for the Pelican in commercial air travel?
Mr. RAWDON: Yes, we believe that the big market for the airplane is in the commercial world. Right now if you want to send something across an ocean, it either goes via ship, which is relatively slow, or by an airplane, which is relatively expensive. And we believe we have a solution that fits in between those and can serve quite a few customers.
SIMON: It occurs to me, Mr. Rawdon, this might be the first aircraft, were it ever to fly, that you actually could play a football game inside of it.
Mr. RAWDON: Ah, let's see. Well, it would be a little bit like stadium football, but...
SIMON: Or like arena football, yeah.
Mr. RAWDON: Arena football, yes, excuse me. And, yes, I think you could.
SIMON: Yeah. Of course, you'd have to be careful about punting.
Mr. RAWDON: Well, yeah, but you might want to use a round ball and then it would bounce off the ceiling.
SIMON: Mr. Rawdon, thanks very much.
Mr. RAWDON: You're welcome. It's been my pleasure.
SIMON: Blaine Rawdon is the Pelican project manager for the Boeing Company's Phantom Works division in Huntington Beach, California.