Supersonic flight for commercial and business travel is in the midst of a revival – at least on paper.
It has been 13 years since the retirement of the last supersonic jet, the Concorde. In 2003, Air France – followed by British Airways – retired their Concordes from 27 years of service because of high fuel prices and maintenance costs and a $9,000 or more ticket price for passengers.
But in the past few years, three companies have emerged with plans to develop more efficient supersonic jets, with two of them aimed at business aviation: Aerion Corp. and Spike Aerospace.
This year, a third start-up, Colorado-based Boom, has proposed a supersonic airliner.
None of the three has yet to produce a full-scale jet.
Advances in scientific processes and materials used to build sound-barrier-breaking aircraft have made this second wave of supersonic civil aircraft possible, the companies and experts said.
And while advancements in technology have made designing more fuel-efficient and less costly supersonic jets possible, translating those concepts from paper to certified jets still poses a significant challenge.
Desire to go fast
Aerion is probably the most familiar supersonic jet developer to Wichitans, in part because of co-chairman Brian Barents, a former senior vice president of sales at Cessna Aircraft and former president and CEO of Learjet.
Reno, Nev.-based Aerion is aiming to bring to market its $120 million AS2 supersonic business jet. Barents said the company’s top priority now is selecting the right engine for the AS2.
“That will be the pacing item for development of the airplane,” he said.
“We are narrowing down the engine candidates … but I will tell you they are existing engine cores that are widely used in commercial airline industry.”
Barents said whatever engine Aerion goes with will likely have to be adapted to comply with engine noise takeoff requirements.
But “we’re very close to a solution,” he said.
Also in the process of engine selection for its $100 million S-512 jet is Boston-based Spike, said CEO Vik Kachoria.
“We’re going through our analysis of what makes sense,” he said.
Kachoria said Spike is aiming for a late 2018 first flight of an S-512 prototype “to give people a sense of what can be done.”
Aerion, on the other hand, expects first flight of the AS2 in 2021 followed by entry into service in 2023.
Both executives said advancements in aircraft design processes and materials such as composites in the past decade have made it possible to bring to market a more cost-efficient supersonic jet.
“The technology has just exploded in the last 10 years,” Kachoria said. “Rapid iterations and modeling (can be done) in days rather than weeks or months. You can do almost all of it on computers before you bend metal.”
They said they are confident demand for their jets is there.
The world is smaller, they said, and many companies have operations or do business in multiple countries that require face-to-face interaction. Supersonic flight allows those companies and its leaders to reach those operations and customers more quickly.
For instance, Aerion says its AS2 will fly from Washington, D.C., to Paris in four hours and 48 minutes, compared with seven hours and 48 minutes on a conventional, subsonic commercial flight.
Spike says its S-512 can fly from New York to London in 3.3 hours compared with six hours on a conventional airliner.
“I think the attention brought to the segment is the desire for the consumers, the users of airplanes, to go fast,” Barents said. “If there weren’t a market … there would be no incentive for us to take the risk.”
‘Fishing in a new lake’
Scott Miller, professor and chairman of aerospace engineering at Wichita State University, said that improvements in aircraft materials – such as lighter-weight carbon fiber, or composites – will make supersonic flight less costly than the days of the Concorde.
“Historically, we’ve always known how to do (supersonic),” he said. “From the commercial perspective … costs were really the big drivers. It was just so expensive.”
Miller said one of the biggest advances in aerospace that could lead to more affordable supersonic flight is in jet engines.
“Really the technology side, especially on the propulsion, has just made huge strides,” he said. “The fuel economy on (new) engines is just spectacular.”
Jim Ladesic, associate dean of the College of Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said he thinks improvements in computational skills and capabilities in aerospace engineering have contributed much to the plausibility of cost-efficient supersonic flight.
But turning that design into a real-life aircraft and then getting it type-certified by a government regulator such as the Federal Aviation Administration will be a big challenge. That’s largely because it’s never been done before, at least on a jet aimed at the business user.
“That’s going to be the long pole in the tent,” Ladesic said. “That’s, I think, the largest single challenge any air framer is going to face.”
Miller agreed that type-certification will be a hurdle because of the unknowns associated with a first supersonic jet aimed at the business market.
“You’re fishing in a new lake, and you don’t know where all the snags are,” he said. “There will just be a variety of new things that will have to be addressed.”
How they compare
Here is a performance comparison of Aerion Corp.’s AS2 and Spike Aerospace’s S-512 supersonic business jets based on their published specifications.
5,300 nautical miles
5,580 nautical miles
8 to 12
Sources: Aerion Corp. and Spike Aerospace