Hugh Schmittle's and Odile Legeay's dream of making planes with movable wings received further credibility yesterday as the owners of Freewing Aircraft accepted a Discover magazine technology award for aviation and aeronautics.
"When you have a wing on a plane that wobbles, you ought to have a good reason," said Mr. Schmittle, Freewing's president, as he accepted the award during a reception at the University of Maryland College Park.
And Freewing, which is moving to the Carroll County Regional Airport from the university's Technical Advancement Program, has a good reason.
Company tests have shown that the flexible wing -- an innovation that was rejected after the Wright Brothers successfully flew a fixed wing craft -- makes planes more stable during turbulence and less likely to stall.
"Affiliation with [the University of Maryland] has brought credibility to our project," said Ms. Legeay, Freewing's executive vice president. "When I first tried to explain what we wanted to do, people laughed."
Discover publisher Michael Rooney said 40,000 entries were submitted for the award in seven categories: automotive, aviation and aerospace, environment, computer hardware, computer software, sight and sound.
From the approximately 500 entries in the aviation and aerospace category, the magazine's editors chose finalists, and independent judges determined the winner.
"This is a very practical innovation that we will all feel the benefits of," said David Fishman, the magazine's director of business development.
He said Freewing's innovation beat several NASA projects to win first prize.
"These are major, fundamental changes in aviation that don't come along that often," Mr. Fishman said. "The aviation community is very excited about this."
Mr. Rooney said, "This is a time when big science is moving to the background and practical science is moving to the forefront."
How it works
Unlike the fixed wings on traditional aircraft, freewings are hinged on the fuselage, which allows them to adjust to the optimal position to take advantage of wind currents while the plane's cabin remains relatively stationary.
The flexible wing's ability to bounce during turbulence also makes flight smoother and less dangerous during turbulence, Ms. Legeay said.
Pilots of traditional airplanes must adjust the wings themselves. And, because a plane's cabin and wings are somewhat inflexible, the entire craft tilts up and down during turbulence.
"The two main advantages are that the plane cannot stall because of the wing being set at too high an angle of attack . . . and comfort," Ms. Legeay said.
"With a sudden gust of wind going through, this is more comfortable than a Boeing 747."
The stability of the company's unmanned aircraft gives reconnaissance instruments a steady platform for better resolution in photographs, Ms. Legeay said.
The unmanned aircraft also can take full advantage of the freewing technology by tilting the plane's body as much as 45 degrees, which slows the aircraft.
The plane will not stall because the freely moving wings will adjust to catch the wind properly, Ms. Legeay said.
Making the plane's body parallel with the ground will allow it to fly as fast, or even faster, than traditional aircraft, she said.
"This gives us the performance of a helicopter and a fast plane in the same craft," Ms. Legeay said.
Freewing manufactures unmanned aircraft for defense and law enforcement and a two-seater passenger plane.
The manned craft is available in kit and pre-assembled forms.
Idea began in early 1900s
The "hero" of Freewing Aircraft is George G. Spratt, who initiated the movable wing concept in the early 1900s, Ms. Legeay said.
Mr. Spratt, an engineer and inventor, developed the first freewing in 1935.
Mr. Schmittle became interested in the concept when he found some articles that George G. Spratt Jr., now in his 90s, wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"He [the senior Mr. Spratt] worked all his life on the concept," Ms. Legeay said. "But he wasn't a businessman or a marketeer, so he wasn't able to turn it into a business. Thanks to his work, we were able to start working with it."
Judges in the aviation and aerospace category were former astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Scott Carpenter, Mae Jemson, Walter "Wally" Schirra and Deke Slayton.
Other finalists included an environmentally friendly passenger jet, a system to override jet controls that have frozen, a spacecraft that collected data that supported the Big Bang theory and a system that detects abnormal wear in aircraft engines.