Aerion makes design changes in supersonic business jet

05/28/2014 2:04 PM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

Aerion has revamped the design of its supersonic business jet to a larger-cabin, three-engine model that can fly farther, a redesign made to meet changes in the market, company officials say.

The changes were the result of a new market study that assessed customer demand – especially in emerging markets such as Asia – and preferences in a corporate jet that can fly fast enough to break the sound barrier.

“It’s very exciting. There’s clearly a preference for larger airplanes and more range that can bring trans-Pacific city pairs into play,” said Brian Barents, Aerion vice chairman and a former Cessna and Learjet executive who lives in Wichita. “We believe the airplane is going to offer a lot of value in the marketplace.”

Market dynamics have changed since Aerion first introduced the Aerion Supersonic Business Jet in 2004, he said.

“That’s a result of the dynamic changes that are taking place in the emerging markets for airplanes in this (large-cabin business jet) category that are indeed selling well,” Barents said.

Aerion, based in Reno, Nev., is holding conversations with engine suppliers and airplane manufacturers about building the plane.

“The next milestone would be to collaborate with an airplane manufacturer that would do the detail design, certification and production of the airplane using our design as the basis,” Barents said.

Barents said he hopes the company will conclude discussions with the airframe manufacturers within the next 12 months.

The updated supersonic jet, called the AS2, will have a substantially bigger cabin than originally planned, with dimensions similar to those of the Gulfstream G550.

The design retains the supersonic natural laminar flow wing, the key technology behind efficient supersonic and high-subsonic flight.

The new configuration will improve runway performance, external noise and maximum range, the company said.

“The message from many of today’s long-range business jet operators is very clear,” Doug Nichols, Aerion CEO, said in a statement. “They want a supersonic jet sooner rather than later, a cabin comparable in comfort to today’s long-range jets, a range of 5,000 nautical miles or better, and they are willing to pay more than $100 million for such an aircraft. That is the supersonic jet we are working to deliver.”

In the revamped design, the jet will have two “sweet spots” where range and efficiency are at a maximum.

One is at about Mach 0.95, or 723 mph, in places where supersonic flight is prohibited. The other is at a supersonic speed of Mach 1.4, or 1,066 mph. The plane is expected to have a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, or 1,218 mph.

Aerion’s market study – its third study in the past decade – was completed earlier this year.

The latest study confirmed demand for more than 600 units over 20 years, but it found a desire for a larger cabin and more range, the company said.

The study was conducted by aviation consultant Rolland Vincent of Rolland Vincent Associates. Vincent held interviews with high net-worth individuals and companies that operate long-range business jets, he said.

The interviews focused on operators in China, the Middle East, Russia, Europe and the U.S. Those areas make up 85 percent of the demand for large business jets, he said.

Earlier studies conducted for Aerion surveyed mainly U.S. operators.

Desire for supersonic transportation is strong, and the buyers are there, Vincent said.

The price tag of about $110 million is not a deterrent.

It’s like a Ferrari, he said.

“Sometimes, the higher the price, the more prestigious it is,” Vincent said. “Price is not the first thing on their minds. They’re sensitive to it. They’re more intrigued by the product and the ability to go fast.”

The bigger question is when it will be available, he said.

The company expects first deliveries within five or six years after an industrial partnership is formed and the program is formally launched.

If a deal can be reached in the next 12 months, the plane’s entry into service is expected in about 2021, Barents said.

Collaborating with industrial partners will take a new financial commitment from Aerion, he said.

Aerion will sponsor and finance the full-scale development program itself, which takes the financial risk off the table for participants, Barents said.

Aerion is prepared to provide project financing in excess of $3 billion, Barents said.

The money will come through equity and debt financing backed by Aerion investor and billionaire Robert Bass, Barents said.

“That would be available to the partners that participate in the program,” he said. “That has been somewhat of a game changer, because it mitigates the risk that any potential OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partner may otherwise have.”

Barents figures most of the partners will want a stake in the company because the business case is compelling, he said.

To date, Aerion has invested more than $100 million to develop technologies and design tools.

In the meantime, Aerion is moving forward with the plane’s advanced design and with continued testing.

It recently concluded a series of low-speed wind tunnel tests at the University of Washington Aeronautical Laboratory to assess various high-lift flap configurations.

The company will conduct additional wind tunnel tests on other configuration elements in June.

Aerion Corp. was formed in 2002 to pursue the development of supersonic transport aircraft.

The recession that began in 2008 slowed Aerion’s discussions with potential manufacturing partners for the jet, but research and development has continued.

When it started taking orders in 2007, Aerion said it immediately took 50 orders backed by refundable deposits.

The company recently informed those potential buyers of the new design and that it won’t be producing the earlier model as expected, Barents said.

The customers can retain their delivery position if they choose to upgrade to the new model, he said.

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