New York to Lon­don in three-and-a-half hours, at a fare you can af­ford … some­day

Boom is work­ing to bring su­per­sonic flight to the masses … ish “This is not sci­ence fic­tion”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Ash­lee Vance

If you’re ever stuck on a plane pin­ing for the glory days of air travel, hop on YouTube and search for “the Con­corde.” Among the re­sults are a bunch of first­hand ac­counts of peo­ple sip­ping Cham­pagne and scarf­ing down caviar on one of the by­gone su­per­sonic jets as they travel at 1,300 miles an hour. Try to ap­pre­ci­ate the joy on their faces, or at least re­mem­ber they paid as much as $20,000 round trip, when you’re crammed into a middle seat with noth­ing but an over­priced dol­lop of hum­mus and a few crack­ers.

Or per­haps find some so­lace in this: A Den­ver startup called Boom

Tech­nol­ogy plans to bring su­per­sonic pas­sen­ger travel back and to bring it to the masses … ish. While the fin­ished prod­uct is years away, on March 22, Boom un­veiled its de­sign for a 40-seat plane that can fly 1,451 mph (Mach 2.2). At that speed, a New York-to-Lon­don flight would take about 3 hours and 24 min­utes. Blake Scholl, Boom’s founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, says round-trip tick­ets will cost $5,000. “The idea is for a plane that goes faster than any other pas­sen­ger plane built be­fore, but for the same price as busi­ness class,” he says.

Scholl, 35, isn’t the ob­vi­ous choice to run a fledg­ling, high-risk aero­space com­pany. He’s a boy­ish coder and am­a­teur pi­lot who spent five years at Ama­zon.com, work­ing on things such as au­to­mated ad sys­tems, be­fore start­ing a mo­bile shop­ping app maker called Kima Labs. Groupon bought Kima in 2012, leav­ing him with money in his pocket and a yearn­ing to build some­thing more mean­ing­ful than coupon soft­ware.

Two years ago, Scholl be­gan brain­storm­ing. He’d been a pi­lot for al­most a decade and was con­vinced air travel could be im­proved, so he bought aero­space text­books and spoke with a ton of ex­perts. “The peo­ple we talked to looked over our plan and con­cluded it is tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble,” he says. “This is not sci­ence fic­tion.”

Buoyed by the pos­i­tive re­cep­tion, Scholl ditched Sil­i­con Val­ley for Den­ver and started Boom in his base­ment in Septem­ber 2014. He even man­aged to per­suade peo­ple with aero­space ex­per­tise to join him.

In Jan­uary, Boom moved out of the base­ment and into a hangar at Cen­ten­nial Air­port, a few miles from the Den­ver Bron­cos train­ing fa­cil­ity. There, rich peo­ple and hob­by­ists land their planes and park them amid dozens of rows of beige hangars. (Boom’s hangar used to be John Den­ver’s.) The smell of jet fuel wafts through the air while tum­ble­weeds roll down a run­way sur­rounded by moun­tains. The place has be­come home to a hand­ful of star­tups, in­clud­ing com­pa­nies work­ing on mil­i­tary projects, elec­tric planes, and ver­ti­cal-liftoff busi­ness jets, be­cause of its prox­im­ity to wide-open prairies

and open-minded air­port of­fi­cials.

To­day, Boom has 11 peo­ple, six of them pi­lots, work­ing in the hangar’s up­stairs of­fices. Un­like Scholl, th­ese folks have se­ri­ous in­dus­try bona fides. Joe Wild­ing, the co-founder and chief en­gi­neer, was a stand­out at three aero­space star­tups, de­sign­ing pas­sen­ger planes from scratch. Andy Ber­ryann, the head of propul­sion, used to work at Pratt & Whit­ney, build­ing parts of the en­gine for a su­per­sonic fighter jet. Other em­ploy­ees came from NASA, Lock­heed Martin, and a Northrop Grum­man sub­sidiary, Scaled Com­pos­ites.

The Boom en­gi­neers say new ma­te­ri­als and soft­ware made a Con­corde re­place­ment vi­able only in the last 10 years. Their plane will be built us­ing a car­bon-fiber com­pos­ite in­stead of alu­minum, mak­ing it lighter and able to travel faster. (Be­cause of the heat gen­er­ated by in­tense fric­tion, alu­minum soft­ens at speeds higher than Mach 2.) Boom’s soft­ware can also run mil­lions of com­puter sim­u­la­tions a day on its de­signs, so the startup doesn’t have to spend months tweak­ing things in wind tun­nels.

Ac­cord­ing to the sim­u­la­tions, Boom’s de­sign is qui­eter and 30 per­cent more ef­fi­cient than the Con­corde was. Its 40 seats will be split into two sin­gle-seat rows, so ev­ery­body has a win­dow and an aisle. To re­duce weight, the seats are of the stan­dard do­mes­tic first-class va­ri­ety, so no lay­down beds. To cut flight time, Boom’s plane will cruise at 60,000 feet, where pas­sen­gers will be able to see the cur­va­ture of the earth, while go­ing 2.6 times faster than other pas­sen­ger planes. Scholl says about 500 routes fit the craft’s mar­ket, in­clud­ing a five-hour trip from San Fran­cisco to Tokyo and a six-hour flight from Los An­ge­les to Syd­ney.

In­side the hangar, it quickly

be­comes clear all this re­mains the­o­ret­i­cal for now. The Boom en­gi­neers have built a mock cock­pit and pas­sen­ger cabin out of card­board and ply­wood. The black leather seats in the cabin came from Of­ficeMax, and Scholl asked his team to sit in them for a few hours each to ex­pe­ri­ence what the plane will feel like. (It’s a bit cramped.) On the floor of the hangar, tape has been laid out to mimic the de­sign of a one-third-scale plane, which Boom says it’ll build and fly by the end of next year.

The Con­corde failed for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons: ex­pen­sive tick­ets, sonic booms that nixed over­land travel, the slow­down in air travel af­ter Sept. 11. In the years since, the other cou­ple of ef­forts to build a su­per­sonic com­mer­cial jet fiz­zled, and the con­ven­tional aero­space wis­dom is that such projects are too ex­pen­sive and risky. “Very few peo­ple re­ally need to be some­where in three hours,” says Jeremy Con­rad, a for­mer U.S. Air Force of­fi­cer who runs hard­ware-fo­cused ven­ture firm Lem­nos Labs. “And have you trav­eled in­ter­na­tional busi­ness class lately? It’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Con­rad says blus­tery Sil­i­con Val­ley types of­ten un­der­es­ti­mate how tough it is to build aero­space hard­ware that tests the bounds of physics. There are some re­cent ex­cep­tions, though, most no­tably Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Be­zos’s Blue Ori­gin. Scholl and his team say a startup has the best shot at a pro­ject like theirs, be­cause it can get go­ing with­out loads of bu­reau­cracy and with rel­a­tively lit­tle money. To date, Boom has raised $2.1 mil­lion and says that will last it through the de­vel­op­ment stage, though it’ll even­tu­ally take tens or hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to take a plane to mar­ket.

Given the scale it’s plan­ning, Boom may have a chance, says Richard Aboulafia, an aero­space con­sul­tant at Teal Group. “At 40 seats, that is kind of in­trigu­ing,” he says. “It’s pos­si­ble that you would have enough routes with enough pas­sen­gers to jus­tify the de­vel­op­ment of this plane.” He’s more skep­ti­cal about the re­search and de­vel­op­ment costs. Boom says it’ll tweak offthe-shelf en­gines for su­per­sonic flight, but Scholl won’t say how. “You kind of de­sign a plane around an en­gine rather than the other way around,” Aboulafia says. “Let me know when we can hear their en­gine.”

Be­yond next year’s test flight, Scholl isn’t pro­vid­ing a time­line for reg­u­lar pas­sen­ger travel. He says only that a U.K.-based air­line he won’t name has signed a let­ter of in­tent to pur­chase $2 bil­lion worth of planes when they’re ready and that he’ll keep refining the de­sign to make trips way more af­ford­able. “I want to live in a world where you can get any­where in five hours for $100,” he says. “That will take decades, but I think we’ll get there.”

The bot­tom line Aero­space startup Boom is work­ing on what it says will be a rel­a­tively cheap jet that can fly at Mach 2.2.

Scholl, right, and Wild­ing say

they’ll have a one-third-scale plane ready by the

end of next year

1 ...

Model cock­pit

3

Tur­bine parts

3D-printed model

4

En­gine parts

5

...Mach Speed

Scale-model jet

2

Pro­to­type en­gine

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