Meet the Pathfinder: a zero-carbon emissions plane with a blended-wing design


JetZero wants to shake up the aviation industryJetZero wants to shake up the aviation industry
Commercial airline planes really haven’t changed that much over the past six decades. Sure, there have been attempts at modernization with airplanes like the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350, but when it comes down to it, the basic structures of both are still very similar to the planes from the 1950s.
A tube with wings has been the go to modelA tube with wings has been the go to model

As highlighted in an article on the subject by CNN, this enduring “tube and wing” configuration persists due to the industry’s prioritization of safety and its reliance on proven solutions, combined with advancements in materials and engines that have kept the traditional design relevant.

Meet the PathfinderMeet the Pathfinder

However, one company hopes to really shake things up. JetZero, a California-based company, recently announced its 1:8 scale “blended-wing body” demonstrator aircraft, the Pathfinder, has obtained an FAA Airworthiness certificate, paving the way for imminent test flights.

A massive leap in technologyA massive leap in technology

On JetZero’s website, the company explains its raison d’etre: “The JetZero Blended Wing is the biggest leap in commercial aircraft architecture since the dawn of the jet age and the best first step toward the ultimate goal of zero-carbon emissions aviation.”

The aviation industry is under pressure to reduce carbon emissionWhat are contrails?

Amid mounting pressure to reduce carbon emissions, the aviation industry faces unique challenges, given the entrenched nature of its core technologies. Yet, this issue presents an opportune moment for innovation.

Similar to a B-2 bomberSimilar to a B-2 bomber

The blended-wing body design resembles the “flying wing” utilized by military aircraft such as the iconic B-2 bomber (pictured), albeit with a more voluminous middle section.

Boeing and Airbus are experimenting with blended-wing designBoeing and Airbus are experimenting with blended-wing design

Both Boeing and Airbus are exploring this concept, and JetZero’s recent milestone brings the realization of a blended-wing aircraft, targeted for as early as 2030, a step closer.

50% lower fuel burn and emissions50% lower fuel burn and emissions

“We feel very strongly about a path to zero emissions in big jets, and the blended-wing airframe can deliver 50% lower fuel burn and emissions,” remarked Tom O’Leary, co-founder and CEO of JetZero, in an August 2023 statement to the press. “That is a staggering leap forward in comparison to what the industry is used to.”

Not a new conceptNot a new concept

The blended wing concept isn’t new, with its origins tracing back to the late 1920s in Germany, according to CNN. Pictured is the Horten Ho, a German aircraft with blended wing design from 1944.

The US worked on blended-wing design in the 40s alsoThe US worked on blended-wing design in the 40s also

American aircraft designer Jack Northrop’s jet-powered flying wing design in 1947 laid the groundwork, inspiring the B-2 bomber in the 1990s. Pictured, Northrop standing next to XB-35 circa 1948.

Generate lift, minimize dragGenerate lift, minimize drag

This hybrid design combines elements of a flying wing and a traditional fuselage, allowing the entire aircraft to generate lift and minimize drag.

NASA has experimented with it alsoNASA has experimented with it also

NASA, which has tested the concept using its X-48 experimental plane, notes on its website that this shape enhances fuel economy and expands payload capacity.

Fuselage pressurization has been a problemFuselage pressurization has been a problem

While Airbus and others have dabbled in smaller-scale demonstrators, challenges persist, particularly regarding fuselage pressurization.

Lighter yet robust structuresLighter yet robust structures

However, as highlighted on the JetZero website, advancements in composite materials offer solutions, enabling the construction of lighter yet robust structures.

Variants for passenger, cargo, and fuel tanker planes in the worksVariants for passenger, cargo, and fuel tanker planes in the works

JetZero aims to develop variants for passenger, cargo, and fuel tanker planes. JetZero claims that the unique design of the plane will offer a more comfortable cabin experience for passengers and crew, as the shape of the plane’s interior is more spacious.

Support from the US Air ForceSupport from the US Air Force

The U.S. Air Force supports the endeavor through funding for a military demonstrator. The recently approved Pathfinder, a scaled-down version, is slated for test flights, serving as a precursor to the full-scale aircraft.


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