High flier

With a wealth of experience from air combat in Vietnam to Pentagon adviser, Boeing’s air force programmes chief is pushing the boundaries of aviation technology. Philip Sen reports.

George K. Muellner is a man of many parts. His extensive aeronautical experience, from flying Phantoms in the Vietnam War to directing the acquisition of military equipment for the US Air Force at the Pentagon to overseeing cutting-edge aerospace research, has given him a unique insight into aerospace engineering.

From 1998 until this August – when he became Boeing’s vice-president and general manager of air force programmes – Muellner managed Boeing’s multi-billion dollar dedicated technology division, Phantom Works. Under his tenure it developed a range of transformational aviation technology, such as the X-45A unmanned combat craft which had its maiden flight in May.

‘I think it’s going to revolutionise air warfare,’ he says. ‘It will allow an unmanned vehicle – still with a human in the loop when necessary – to do what people have said are the dull, dirty and dangerous missions. The only time there would be human involvement would be to make a decision on the deployment of weapons and to verify that they were aimed at the right target.’

He cites the X-50A Canard Rotor Wing, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter but flies like a fixed-wing aircraft. Says Muellner: ‘It’s going to totally change the way rotary-wing aircraft are used because it has all the strengths of a rotary wing without the drawbacks of slow speed and limited agility. The opportunities are also there for that eventually to creep into the commercial marketplace as a private plane. To have something that can take off and land in my back yard and still do 400-520mph is very compelling.’ The prototype is set to fly in the next few weeks.

In addition to its aircraft research Phantom Works is also a centre for space technology. Muellner believes that one programme, Orbital Express, is going to change the way we think about satellites. Rather than allowing them to burn up in the atmosphere or drift off into deep space, this government-sponsored initiative aims to provide autonomous servicing. ‘With Orbital Express we’re going to be able to go up there and repair them,’ says Muellner. ‘We’re going to be able to refuel and reposition them in space.’

A clue to Muellner’s interest in far-reaching technology lies in his earlier life. An engineer by training – he holds degrees in aeronautical engineering and aerospace systems management, plus a Masters in electrical engineering – his aviation experience goes much further.

While taking his first degree at the University of Illinois in the 1960s Muellner joined the US Air Force as a pilot. The Vietnam War was at its height and, aged 21, he found himself flying combat missions in an F-4 Phantom jet based at Camh Ranh Bay, South Vietnam.

There followed a spell as a test pilot and engineer including, in the late 1970s, what Muellner describes as ‘the opportunity to move into what we used to call the black world, or classified aircraft programme testing’. One secret aircraft he flew was the first known stealth plane, the F-117.

This period helped influence his attitude towards the design of future aircraft. ‘I think you get a better appreciation of what the customer is really interested in and also the problems of delivering it,’ he says.

During the 1991 Gulf War Muellner put his engineering and military expertise to use while leading the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) project – a converted Boeing 707-300 that conducted ground surveillance and fed the data to other aircraft.

‘It was probably one of the most significant intelligence and surveillance assets in Desert Storm,’ says Muellner. ‘It changed the way the Iraqis operated because if it was bigger than a bicycle and it moved we saw it and we tracked it and were able to kill it.’

He says Joint STARS was an example of using technology for urgent requirements before it’s supposed to be ready. ‘We had PhD engineers from industry flying aboard the plane every evening. Even the designer flew every night to make sure the system kept operating.’

Muellner continued to rise through USAF ranks, and in 1993 began working on the concept of what is now perhaps the world’s key aviation project. Starting with ‘the compelling technologies’ of the time, Muellner helped unite a design around a family of aircraft with a high degree of commonality. This eventually became the Joint Strike Fighter.

When he left the air force to go to Phantom Works, Muellner took with him that same innovative approach to management that had served him so well in his military career. ‘I think that what we have found over the last couple of years is that the aerospace industry has not been as aggressive as other sectors at exploiting technology,’ he says.

‘So 18 months ago we started a process to take a really good look at what the future potential might be, and where Boeing wants to be in that future. So we put together a large group of our top engineers, we call them ‘conceivers’, who take those engineering technologies and put them together in products or concepts.’

Muellner then brought in a company of futurists, Toffler Associates, to help facilitate the process. ‘We took that all the way down to identifying some of the key technologies we needed to exploit and set some very bold, far-reaching goals.

‘We wanted to reduce the process for designing and fielding a new aircraft by 50 or 60 per cent, and cut the cost, in some cases by 75 per cent. We were also keen to reduce maintenance requirements so you had schedules that were measured in days, weeks or months rather than in hours. From a support point of view we were after systems that would function autonomically, so they would automatically report failures, have appropriate parts replaced and preposition for replacements without the operator having to think about it.’

A result of this approach is that self-repairing materials, once thought to be merely the stuff of dreams, are now closer to reality. Muellner explains: ‘If, for instance, a composite becomes cracked due to a collision, the crack actually repairs itself by releasing resin to fill in the crack and mend it. We have those composites functioning in the laboratory right now.’

Despite its reputation as a secret military research centre, another of Phantom Works’s immediate concerns is the development of ‘clean’ aerospace technologies. ‘Until somebody figures out the secrets of teleportation, or whatever they use in Star Trek, we want to build ever more efficient aircraft,’ says Muellner. An example of this is the blended wing body research with Cranfield University.

Looking further ahead, Muellner aims to produce an electrically powered aircraft. He says that driving a jet engine’s fan with an electric motor rather than a turbine is not out of the question. ‘If you can come up with efficient power sources and fuel conversion like fuel cells might provide, then it could be possible for aircraft to be powered by fuel cells.’

Phantom Works is known for its cutting-edge, sometimes unusual research, but earlier this year Muellner was in the headlines after a press report suggested the company was seeking the Holy Grail of aeronautical engineering: anti-gravity. Muellner is dismissive of the furore over his remarks, but he remains open to engineering possibilities beyond the accepted laws of physics. ‘With anti-gravity we don’t yet understand all the basic principles,’ he says.

What he does suggest is that magnetic levitation rails, for instance, exemplify how localised anti-gravity is already with us. ‘I think the challenge with all those areas is there is so much we don’t know about the physics and its application. Our interest in it to date has been for things like sled tracks and test environments. We’re not investing in building a magnetically levitated or an anti-gravity powered plane right now. We certainly would love to, but the technology is not there.’ As a Boeing executive, Muellner explains that he could not endorse putting ‘significant investment’ into pursuing an immature technology.

Ambitious innovations such as the electric aircraft, or indeed anti-gravity, will not come overnight. ‘I think eventually we’ll move to being able to leverage this magnetic field around us. We’re not there yet, but we will get there.’

For the record

Born in 1946, Muellner took aeronautical engineering at the University of Illinois and joined the USAF in 1967. After combat in Vietnam, he returned to the US as an instructor at the fighter weapons school.

He worked on various fighter aircraft programmes, attending test pilot school in 1976 and gaining an extra degree in aerospace systems management and a Masters in electrical engineering.

In the 1980s, he was assigned to the Pentagon, where as chief of staff for requirements he oversaw acquisition of fighters, bombers and weapons. From 1995 to 1998 he was military acquisition director of the air force, and director and adviser of the USAF scientific board.

In 1998, he joined Boeing, first as vice-president and in 2001 president of Phantom Works. He oversaw a number of hi-tech programmes, established a sister technology company in Madrid and helped set up investment and R&D relationships with several firms and universities, including Cambridge, Cranfield and Sheffield. He is now Boeing’s vice-president and general manager of air force programmes.