- Since 2003, supersonic flight has been absent from the aviation industry.
- Aviation companies are hoping to introduce a new generation of supersonic jets over the next decade.
- They’re touting new designs and materials they believe will improve performance.
Since the Concorde was retired in 2003, supersonic flight has been absent from the aviation industry. Fifteen years later, three startups and a major defence contractor are plotting its return.
The Concorde made its first commercial flight in 1973, and for nearly 30 years, it allowed customers to cut overseas trips in half. A flight from New York to London would take about three hours and thirty minutes on the Concorde, compared to about seven hours on a standard, subsonic flight.
But the supersonic jet was expensive to operate, and the combination of a deadly accident in 2000 and an economic downturn after 9/11 led to its retirement in 2003.
Boom Supersonic wants to make flights affordable
The companies working on the Concorde’s successors believe improved designs and materials will result in superior performance. But their aircraft will still be expensive to operate and, given current regulations, unable to fly over land in the US and many other countries due to the loud sonic boom they produce.
Due to those constraints, the next generation of supersonic planes will focus primarily on business travellers and the kinds of wealthy clients who fly on private jets instead of commercial aircraft.
But one startup, Boom Supersonic, thinks its customers will be able to buy tickets on its 55-seat, XB-1 aircraft for a price similar to today’s business class fares. The company says it will be able to fly at Mach 2.2 (Mach 1 is the speed of sound), which would make it the fastest commercial aircraft in history.
The XB-1 will be made from carbon composites and use design features the company says will improve its aerodynamic qualities. Boom has received over 75 pre-orders for the aircraft, which it plans to deliver in 2023, from customers including Japan Airlines and the Virgin Group. On Tuesday, Ctrip, China’s leading online travel agency, announced its investment in the company.
Spike Aerospace believes it has conquered the sonic boom
Boom’s competitors will focus on business executives who can afford to pay a premium for reduced travel times. Like Boom, they’re touting their designs and materials.
Spike Aerospace CEO Vik Kachoria said the company’s 18-seat, S-512 jet will reduce its sonic boom to a level that could be acceptable for flights over land due the jet’s “cranked delta wing” shape, which resembles the Concorde with a lower portion of its wings removed. The company says the jet will be able to fly at Mach 1.6 and produce a perceived loudness level of less than 75 PLdB, lower than the Concorde’s 105 PLdB. NASA has said 75 PLdB is the level at which supersonic aircraft could fly over land without creating a disruptive amount of noise.
“Engineering tools that weren’t available when the Concorde was designed now enable us to really look at the aircraft and optimise it in a number of ways that make it more fuel efficient, make it quieter when it’s flying-reduce that sonic boom-and provide a better experience for the passengers,” Kachoria said in an interview with Business Insider.
The aircraft’s main cabin replaces windows with wraparound screens that allow passengers to watch movies, display PowerPoint presentations, or watch footage captured by cameras on the jet’s exterior. Spike plans to deliver the aircraft in 2023.
Aerion Supersonic hopes to be first to market
Spike will compete most directly with Aerion Supersonic, which is aiming to deliver its 12-seat AS2 jet, with a maximum speed of 1.4 Mach, in 2025. The company has received an order of 20 aircraft from the fractional-ownership company Flexjet, and executive chairman and CEO Brian Barents said the aircraft will be the first to hit the market.
“We are on a clear path to bring this aeroplane to the market and be first to market,” he said in an interview with Business Insider.
Barents emphasised the importance of using carbon fibre to build the AS2, and said the sturdy and lightweight material is one of the most significant developments in supersonic technology since the Concorde went out of commission. He said carbon fibre allows the jet to achieve supersonic natural laminar flow, a proprietary technology the company says can reduce drag on the wings by as much as 20% compared to the Concorde.
“Those design tools are not available to anyone else in the industry,” Barents said.
In December, Aerion announced a potential partnership with Lockheed Martin that could result in a collaboration on the AS2. At the time of the announcement, Lockheed said it would spend a year deciding whether it wanted to join the project.
Lockheed-Martin is working with NASA
David C. Richardson, the director of air vehicle technologies at Lockheed’s Skunkworks, said other companies have approached it about potential collaborations on commercial supersonic aircraft over the past 15 years, but Lockheed turned down those proposals for various reasons, including insufficient funding, underdeveloped markets, and a reliance on regulatory changes.
Richardson said Aerion’s proposal stood out because of the engineering behind the AS2 and the way Aerion described its commercial potential.
“It was the rigour of their technical work on the AS2 and their marketing and business story that led us to want to learn more and discover for ourselves what the potential could be of working together,” he told Business Insider.
Lockheed may also have the best chance of influencing the regulations that forbid supersonic flight over land. Earlier this month, NASA announced that Lockheed had won a $US247.5 contract to build an experimental aircraft designed to fly at supersonic speeds without producing a disruptive sonic boom. Lockheed will deliver the aircraft to NASA in late 2021, at which point the agency will test it over US cities to evaluate the amount of noise it emits.
Timelines for delivering aircraft may be optimistic
It’s easy to become excited listening to the next generation of supersonic aircraft builders describe their products’ capabilities, but aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt said some of their claims should be taken with a grain of salt.
Harteveldt, like Kachoria and Barents, doesn’t think supersonic flight will be allowed over land in the next decade. In the near term, he said the aircraft companies like Aerion, Boom, and Spike are promoting can’t be built with today’s engine technology.
“Right now, we still have not made enough progress with the aircraft engines,” he told Business Insider. “These are virtual aircraft that exist only in very slick video presentations and PowerPoint presentations and CAD designs. These are nothing more than RV campers with wings right now that will go nowhere without the engines.”
While he believes the timelines set forth by Aerion, Boom, and Spike are optimistic (he expects supersonic flights to become available between 2027 and 2030), Harteveldt thinks that may be a good thing. Setting out ambitious, public objectives, could motivate them and ultimately improve their products.
“It’s always good to have goals, right? If you don’t have goals, you don’t push yourself,” he said.
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