How to Cut the Soaring Cost of Air Travel? Famed Theorist R.t. Jones Has An Rx: the Oblique Wing

updated 03/14/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/1983 01:00AM

It has odd names—the flying scissors, the oblique or antisymmetrical wing—and an even odder look. And so far the design has appeared only on a 38-foot NASA test plane. But this doesn't faze the quiet, largely self-educated inventor, Robert Thomas Jones, 72. "After all," he chuckles, "nobody's ever seen even a bird fly with a crooked wing."

R.T., as he is known, is no kook, even though he has no degrees and dresses more like a baggage handler than a top theoretical engineer who has won nearly every aeronautical award around. In fact, says NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark, Jones was instrumental in "getting the jet age off the ground." In a long NASA career (he retired from the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif, in 1981 to teach at Stanford) Jones developed the theory behind the swept and delta wings that enabled planes to break the sound barrier in the '40s and are in common use today. He long ago devised the oblique wing, which was soon shelved because of its radical appearance. Now Jones believes its time has come. With such a wing, he argues, a jetliner could fly 750 mph, 200 mph faster than current craft, while maintaining good fuel economy. If the money-losing supersonic Concorde had it, he insists, it could double its 100-passenger load. Laments Jones: "It takes a while for new ideas to sink in."

Gradually, however, the oblique wing is winning interest. In tests for NASA, Boeing engineers found the design very efficient at or near supersonic speeds. Several U.S. and Japanese firms are now looking seriously at the concept. Mounted on a pivot at the top of a plane's fuselage, the wing can be turned back and forth by the pilot. On takeoff, the wing stays at right angles to the fuselage for maximum lift. At cruising altitude, it is turned so that one tip points forward, the other backward. "Swinging the wing cuts fuel consumption by as much as 25 percent, increases speed, and reduces sonic booms," Jones says. Reason: The two halves interfere less with each other, in terms of air reaction, than even swept-back wings do.

The son of a self-taught lawyer, Jones built model planes as a boy in rural Macon, Mo. He left the University of Missouri after a year to be a mechanic with a barnstorming team called the Marie Meyer Flying Circus, then got an engineering job at a small plane-making firm. When it folded after the 1929 stock market crash, Jones moved to Washington and ran an elevator in the Capitol while auditing courses at Catholic University taught by the German aerodynamicist Max Munk. In 1934 he landed a job at the Langley Laboratories near Washington and began his long career with what is now NASA.

Today Jones buzzes around Los Altos Hills, Calif., where he lives with third wife Barbara and their two sons (21 and 23), in an old Ercoupe, a two-seater he helped design in 1935. ("Perfect for inept pilots," he says.) On the side, he has built high-powered telescopes and electric violins, and sometimes seems moved to redesign the family pets. For a while, says Barbara, "Robert kept complaining a crow we owned was the only bird that didn't know how to land properly."

If his oblique wing takes off, Jones won't profit. His major patents have been assigned to NASA. The only financial return he has gotten on this design was a $15,000 NASA award—and a court ruled that was not tax-free, but ordinary income. Yet that hasn't cooled Jones' ardor. The wing "isn't a personal crusade for me," he insists. "But as long as I know we can fly more efficiently with it, I believe it's my duty to tell the world."

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