Phantom flyers to conjure up spectres of the future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 12:00am


Related topics

The magic words Phantom Works suggest an occult organisation devoted to conjuring up ghosts. Granted, just about every product biotechnology wizards make these days glows in the dark.

Eyesores that spring to mind range from the genetically modified rabbit known as Alba, TK-1 - the Frankenstein fish designed by Taiwan's Taikong Corporation - and, doubtless coming soon from some outfit even more whacked out than the Raelians, Starchild, the world's first bioluminescent human.

Technology has, however, yet to achieve that degree of sophistication. Unless you count vaporware (promised software that may or may not eventually emerge), concocting ghosts appears beyond the capabilities of science's leading lights - probably because your average ghost is not technically alive.

So what might the Phantom Works, which with Ethernet vies for the title of the spookiest term in the electronic field, actually be?

The answer of course is the whiz-bang headquarters of a huge company famous for its jumbo jets, whose very name is an anagram of 'big one', and which certainly does not need any free publicity even if it is in a steep nosedive. We are talking about Boeing, of course.

The counterpart to Lockheed-Martin's Skunk Works, the Phantom Works, was founded in 1986 and is responsible for some of the most commanding machines ever to take to the skies. The Phantom Works website ( boasts particularly about an invention which comes across as the best since the Wright brothers launched a glider from North Carolina's Kill Devil Hills in 1900: the Pelican ULTRA large transport aircraft.

The choice of name may seem peculiar since the bird in question is noted for its marine plunge-dive manoeuvre. That said, the craft does reflect another of the creature's attributes which, if more is more, ranks as positive: its size. Designed to carry 1,400 tonnes over 16,000 kilometres, the Pelican will be longer than a football field with a wingspan of about 500 feet (150 metres). The wing-surface area will cover more than an acre (exceeding 4,000 square metres).

For lovers of gee-whiz statistics, the Pelican's dimensions may seem like justification enough for the big bird's existence. Naturally, however, this machine does have a purpose other than cutting a presence, which will come as no surprise: abetting slaughter.

The Pelican ULTRA will supposedly be capable of carrying 17 M-1 battle tanks on a single mission at speeds 10 times those of container ships. Designing aeroplanes on this Incredible Hulk scale requires more than a handful of geeks equipped with pneumatic screwdrivers, drive and vision.

In fact, it takes a whole division: 4,000 staff working across the United States on almost 500 advanced technology projects. Boeing highlights the development of 3-D modelling tools which supposedly cut design cycle times and costs in half.

Other projects even less people-friendly include new kinds of Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs), alleged flying laser cannons, and the so-called Super Frog, which can hop onto a landing strip about the size of a lily pad.

Apparently unsatisfied with its latest array of terror toys, Boeing modestly plans to 'invent the future'.

In the next two decades, Boeing will manufacture a new generation of lightning-fast X-planes. These aircraft, whose name invokes visions of Mulder and Scully from the X-Files and Marvel mutants, will look appropriately strange: a cross between a hammerhead shark and a stealth jet.

Such visually striking machines are complemented by all manner of Boeing inventions which all come under the rubric of 'black'. That is, like Area 51, they officially do not exist. They are as elusive as, well, phantoms.

Confused by computer jargon? E-mail [email protected] with your questions