JetZero, a Long Beach-based company striving to make tube-and-wing airplane design a thing of the past, was awarded a massive government contract Wednesday to expedite the development of a greener aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force will invest $235 million over the next four years for the production of a blended wing body aircraft prototype. The investment will be going to JetZero, which has been refining the decades-old design since it was founded in Long Beach in 2021.
“It’s a huge shot in the arm,” co-founder and CEO Tom O’Leary said in an interview Wednesday, adding that the infusion of government money will expedite his company’s work.
While the military has grand plans for new transport configurations and refueling tankers, the company’s original focus is commercial flight and freight.
JetZero has finished the conceptual phase for its Z5 aircraft, O’Leary said, which is designed to carry up to 250 passengers with a range of more than 5,754 miles. The four-year development phase will culminate in a test flight in the Mojave Desert in early 2027, he added.
As opposed to the traditional aircraft with clearly defined tube-shaped bodies with protruding wings, a blended wing body does not have a clear divide between wing and fuselage. The planes are also typically tailless.
The design decreases aerodynamic drag by at least 30%, according to the Air Force announcement, and provides additional lift, which increases efficiency, meaning extended range and loiter time.
The joint body-wing shape allows the entire aircraft to generate lift—rather than just the wings—which reduces fuel consumption by up to 40%, according to Kevin Michaels in Aviation Week. Combined with sustainable aviation fuel, airplane carbon emissions could be reduced by more than 80%, Michaels said.
Having two rear-mounted engines also will offer a quieter trip for passengers.
The government funding is substantial, but much more will be needed to get the concept across the finish line, O’Leary said. He declined, though, to divulge exactly how much funding the company will need to sink into the prototype, saying only, “we need to match their funds.”
JetZero currently occupies a small space at Long Beach Airport, just north of Donald Douglas Drive. A relocation is already in the works, however, O’Leary said, adding that he could not give specific details, but that the larger headquarters will also be at the airport.
Long Beach’s aerospace sector has taken several big hits over the last few years.
JetBlue, which used to be the city’s leading air carrier, left in October 2020. They were followed closely by Gulfstream, which unexpectedly announced it was leaving the city that same month, taking nearly 700 jobs with it in a move that blindsided city officials.
Earlier this year, satellite launch system developer Virgin Orbit, one of the city’s first small satellite launch endeavors, collapsed spectacularly. The Richard Branson company filed for bankruptcy in April and ultimately laid off nearly 800 workers before selling the operation off in pieces.
“We’ve seen way more positives than negatives,” Mayor Rex Richardson said in an interview Wednesday, noting specifically Rocket Lab’s move to purchase assets from Virgin.
Richardson, who toured JetZero’s facility last week, praised the innovation of the company, saying the startup’s ambitious goals are “historic.” During his visit, Richardson said he got to experience the company’s custom flight simulator.
“I took off on the first shot, I was banking my turns—pretty sure you can’t do the things I was doing with an actual aircraft, but in the simulator you can get bold and do some ‘Top Gun’ stuff,” Richardson said, adding that he completely missed the runway on his landing attempt.
“This is a significant investment,” Richardson said on a more serious note. “The size of the government contract is a big thumbs up on the design.”
Richardson also was hyped on the designs he saw that he said will be more comfortable for passengers than current commercial flights. He said he is looking forward to the future of commercial air travel aboard these BWBs as well as the jobs that will be created the company.
JetZero has about 75 employees and direct contractors, O’Leary said, but he added that the figure is expected to double over the next year.
“We’re just happy to be in Long Beach, where there’s such great aviation history,” O’Leary said, noting that founder and Chief Technology Officer Mark Page was a former McDonnell Douglas program manager who, along with Bob Liebeck and Blaine Rawdon, is credited as the inventor of the blended wing body.
“We’re happy to be bringing new opportunities to the community in the aviation space.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Mark Page’s last name.