Posted: July 1, 2017 |  AUTHOR: KEN FOX | CONTACT ME

 

The last flight of the Concorde, the combined British Airways and Air France supersonic jet was on October 23, 2003. Only 20 of those planes were ever built and they proved fast, but were not fuel efficient or economical to operate. One great barrier still on the books today is supersonic aircraft (except in China) cannot fly over land because of the sonic boom. Yet interest in supersonic flight is high. Multiple efforts are underway to develop new supersonic aircraft using various new designs and technologies to reduce the boom and sound effects of supersonic travel.

Four companies or organizations are facilitating design efforts for new and advanced supersonic aircraft. They are often supported by interesting partners, representing industry, government and wealthy investors.

1. NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration, USA)

NASA is committed to accelerate future research and development of advanced aviation projects through its Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. This directive has a budget of $790 million in FY 2017, and includes their long term (10 year) vision and strategy to develop a “bold series of new experimental aircraft and technology systems and demonstrations.”

NASA will be seeking proposals in August 2017 for a Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) low-boom demonstrator jet, with hopes of seeing its flight tests take place in 2021. This new contract will be awarded in 2018. Lockheed Martin had won a $20 million, 17 month NASA contract to determine the feasibility of designing an aircraft with a lower boom impact and a design plan for such a future aircraft. That Lockheed contract expired in June 2017.

The goal for Lockheed’s QueSST was to generate a shockwave registering 75 decibels on the ground compared to 105 generated by the Concorde. This would ideally be accomplished by aerodynamic shaping a long nose, and having a special wing and tail designed to break up shockwaves. Also, an engine inlet placement above the wing would help to shield noise from below.

The NASA QueSST is designed to fly at Mach 1.4 at an altitude of 55,000 feet. Lockheed is hoping to be awarded the new NASA contract.

Rendering of NASA QueSST Supersonic Jet

Much learning has taken place over the past decade. There is confidence in designing a quieter plane. However, supersonic jets consume fuel at a much higher rate than commercial jets, as evidenced by the Concorde. “When you go supersonic, you take a hit of two or three times or more fuel burn,” says Marla Drela, as aeronautics engineer at MIT. You want to make the airplane as thin, light and small volume as possible.

There are ways of designing future planes to help meet reduced fuel consumption goals by using composite airframe materials and new kinds of engine inlets and nozzles, to name a few.

Separately, Rockwell Collins has developed with NASA, a way to “visualize” a sonic boom. This technology will allow a pilot of a supersonic aircraft to adjust their flight plans to reduce the noise heard on the ground.

2. Boom Technology (based in Denver, Colorado, USA)

Baby Boom or XB-1

Boom Technology has been successful in raising funds from Silicon Valley and finding a partner with Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. Boom’s goal is to develop a 45-55   passenger commercial supersonic jet which will fly at Mach 2.3. Boom has raised $41 million in private funding to develop the company’s first, miniature supersonic jet, called the “Baby Boom,” or XB-1 prototype of the eventual full-sized jet. Baby Boom’s first test flight is planned for sometime in 2018. The first full-size Boom aircraft would carry passengers in an all business class configuration. It’s targeting test flights in 2020 and FAA certification by 2023.

  

The Boom designed supersonic jet would fly between New York City and London in 3 hours and fifteen minutes, between San Francisco and Tokyo in 5.5 hours and between Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles in 6 hours and 45 minutes.

Virgin founder Richard Branson in 2016 committed to buy Boom’s first ten commercial jets.

3. Aerion Corporation (based in Reno, Nevada, USA)

Aerion Corporation is a thirteen year old U.S. company backed Texas billionaire, Robert Bass, and in collaboration with Airbus. Aerion’s goal is to develop the first AS-2 Quiet Supersonic business jet. This jet is designed to fly at Mach 1.5 (1,140 mph) over water and land masses where permitted.  The 12 passenger business jet will be 170 feet long.

Aerion AS-2 Business Jet

CEO Robert Bass has assembled an impressive board of directors with talented and experienced aviation leaders, including the past president of Brazil’s Embraer, a past CEO of Delta Airlines, a past president of Learjet and the co-founder of Galaxy Aircraft (which was sold to Gulfstream, a unit of General Dynamics.), among others.

The Aerion AS2 is designed using a concept known as “Supersonic Natural Laminar Flow” (SNLF), which is intended to reduce drag by 90%. This will allow it to essentially use off-the shelf jet engines.

Airbus will supply significant components and manufacturing expertise. Aerion will work with GE Aviation on developing the appropriate engine.

Aerion has already received a fleet order for 20 AS2 aircraft from Flexjet.* Aerion expects AS2’s first flight in 2023 and certification by 2025. An early price given for the AS2 s $120 million before discounts. 

4. Spike Aerospace (based in Boston, MA, USA)

Spike S-512 Private Jet

Spike Aerospace is developing the Spike S-512 Quiet Supersonic business jet. It is being designed to fly at Mach 1.6 (1,100 miles per hour) and hold 12-18 passengers. The design or the S-512 offers a windowless Multiplex Digital Cabin. It represents a new paradigm in in-flight entertainment. There will be full length panoramic and high definition displays offered at every seat to view outside the aircraft, 360 degree views, and movies from laptops or movies on demand. Noise reduction is also achieved by the elimination of windows and its redesigned delta-shaped wing. The tail has been modified to reduce drag and improve control and stability.

The range of the S-512 private jet is 6,200 nautical miles. The company states the expected user cost will be $100 million and it be available in ten years. 

Some interesting facts regarding the Concorde seem appropriate:

  • The first commercial flight took place on January 21, 1976 when a British Airways jet flew from London to Bahrain, and an Air France flight flew from Paris to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar.
  • The aircraft seated 100 passengers.
  • It accommodated a crew of nine, two pilots, one flight engineer and a cabin crew of six.
  • A typical London to New York crossing took less than three and a half hours versus an eight hour subsonic flight.
  • Concorde had a take-off speed of 220 knots (250 mph) and a cruising speed of 1,350 mph, more than twice the speed of sound.
  • The plane could fly up to 60,000 feet (over 11 miles) and from there passengers could see the curvature of the earth.
  • The Concorde’s last commercial flight was from JFK in New York to London Heathrow Airport on October 24, 2003.

Commentary

Demand for supersonic aircraft seems high. Reasons include more people flying, rising middle incomes in Asia and elsewhere, and lower fuel costs, among others. Also, new composite materials facilitate reducing aircraft weight and lowering maintenance costs. Many questions and challenges remain, mainly regarding the sonic boom. Namely, if it can it be eliminated or significantly reduced so legislation can be passed allowing supersonic jets  to fly over land.

Also, there remains the challenge of new competition. I would guess Boeing is working on a future supersonic plane as well as possibly Russia. The latter was the only other country which had a supersonic passenger jet flying for a short while.**

It is encouraging wealthy and successful business executives like  Robert Bass and Richard Branson show confidence in the future of supersonic aircraft being available over the next 5-6 years. Having Virgin Airlines be first to buy supersonic commercial airplanes may pave the way for others to follow. 

Another challenge, will consumers, business people or film stars continue to pay potentially exorbitant fares for the time saving convenience, and will prices eventually come down?

The real positives are time saving flights especially from North America to Asia or across continents such as a London to Sydney flight. The time savings and more time to enjoy new destinations favor supersonic travel. I hope these companies are able to optimize the  engines and airplane designs to make travel safe and comfortable, and have favorable pricing for all.

*Flexjet, based in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, is the second largest fractional ownership and private jet leasing company in the world.

**The Tupolev Tu-144, which flew from 1969 to 1978, but was discontinued after several crashes, one in 1973 at the Paris Air Show and in May 1978.

  

Resources

  1. Supersonic Passenger Planes Move Closer to Takeoff as NASA Reveals plans for 2021 X-Plane Flight Test., Cheyenne Macdonald, Dailymail.com, June 13, 2017
  2. Boom! Supersonic Passenger Jet Coming by 2020, Kacey Deaner, LIVESCI=NCE, May 5, 2017.
  3. Boom Lands $33 million to Test Supersonic Aircraft, Jon Ostrower, CNN Money, March 24, 2017.
  4. Aerion and GE Aviation Launch Joint Engine Study for AS2 Supersonic Power plant, PR Newswire, May 22, 2017.
  5. Four Companies Leading the Return of Supersonic Air Travel, Presented by IWC Schaffhausen, gearpatrol.com, June 2, 2016.
  6. NASA Thinks it Can Make a Supersonic Jet with No Boom, Wired, March 4, 2016.
  7. NASA Selects Lockheed Martin to Design Supersonic X-Plane, Stephen Trimble, Flightglobal.com, March 1, 2016.
  8. The High Price of High Speed: at $120 Million each, Can Aerion Sell Enough Supersonic Jets to Earn a Profit?. Dan Reed, Forbes, November 19, 2015.
  9. Flexjet to Become First Fleet Customer for Aerion Supersonic Business Jet, Aerion Corp. Press Release, November 17, 2015.
  10. How Real is the Hypersonic Aircraft Revolution, Miquel Ros, CNN, July 4, 2016.
  11. Why We Don’t Have an SST?, Bill Sweetman, Air & Space Magazine, August 2014.
  12. NASA Aeronautics 10 Year American Aviation Plan (2017)
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©2017, The Global Galaxy blog is produced by The Soundings Group, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, www.thesoundingsgroup.com. The company is an international business consulting firm, specializing in new market assessments, market entry strategies and marketing guidance. The scope of Global Galaxy is to cover timely international trends, issues and business building ideas. Its purpose is to educate, inform and stimulate thinking for business opportunity analyses.

 

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