JetZero, an aerospace startup focused on fuel-efficient jets, will build and fly a sleek new prototype aircraft that could one day join the Air Force’s mobility fleet, the service announced Wednesday.
The Z-5 airframe — a blended wing body design with an oblong fuselage and long, skinny wings that looks more like a B-2 Spirit bomber than it does a Boeing 747 — was chosen over one other competitor in a yearlong contest led by the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit. JetZero will ready a full-scale prototype for its first flight in 2027.
The decision marks a new milestone in aircraft design and offers a glimpse into a more capable, greener future for the Air Force inventory. Service officials praised the offering as a key development that will position the U.S. military to outpace Chinese technology and outmaneuver its forces in a potential conflict.
“We’re going into this new area where it’s all about bringing capabilities … to the Air Force, the warfighter [and] the commercial space,” JetZero Chief Executive Officer Tom O’Leary said at an Air and Space Forces Association event to unveil the plan.
The Pentagon’s renewed focus on the Pacific as its top priority has placed a premium on assets that can travel farther and faster without breaking the bank. Cargo and tanker aircraft are expected to fly into harm’s way more often, spurring the military and defense industry to reimagine the large, slow platforms for contested areas.
And the sooner that mobility assets can reach their destination, the more flexibility it gives the rest of the joint force on the battlefield.
“Greater range increases lethality. Fuel efficiency conserves our energy resources and allows us to generate more sorties,” said Ravi Chaudhary, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment. “In an era in which installations will no longer be the sanctuary they were in previous conflicts, this capability is going to be critical.”
The service last summer described blended wing body design as “one of the single most impactful technology opportunities for future U.S. Air Force aircraft.”
That approach flattens a traditional tube fuselage into a more aerodynamic, somewhat triangular shape to carry payloads where the wing meets the body and be less visible on radar.
The comparatively lighter design could be around 50% more efficient than a traditional mobility aircraft and able to travel twice as far — a goal that, if achieved, could substantially shrink one of the Air Force’s significant annual expenses as well as its environmental footprint. Air Force aircraft and bases guzzle around 2 billion gallons of fuel, costing many billions of dollars, each year.
JetZero’s partnership with Northrop Grumman on the Z-5 has received $40 million in government funds in fiscal 2023, Chaudhary said. The military will put $235 million toward the initiative through 2026, plus more from private investors.
If flight tests are successful, Air Force officials may consider a version of the JetZero aircraft to replace the C-5 and C-17 transport aircraft or to follow the KC-46 tanker.
Chaudhary said the Air Force will simultaneously build up the supply chain and other logistics it needs to transition the prototype to a full-fledged program, if the service taps it to make the jump into real-world operations.
But Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, Air Mobility Command’s director for strategy and plans, cautioned against viewing the jet as the sole solution for the Air Force’s next-generation airlift and air refueling programs.
At the least, it could offer a new perspective on the fuel efficiency and stealth qualities that workhorse aircraft will need in the future, he said.
The Air Force said in a press release the same day that “several military transport configurations are possible” using blended wing body aircraft. Officials also hailed its potential applications for commercial air travel as well.
“This project is a win-win for the commercial industry as well as for the DoD,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said. “This is going to be a pathfinder project that’s going to make a big difference.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.