Planes

Busi­ness travel is poised to get a whole lot faster—if only it can get a lit­tle bit qui­eter, writes Stephen Short

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

Busi­ness travel is poised to get a whole lot faster—if only it can get a lit­tle bit qui­eter

on­corde, a Con­corde, my king­dom for a Con­corde! My, how the stun­ner of the skies is missed. To watch Con­corde scythe through the strato­sphere, to fly faster than a bullet, was a fan­ci­ful leap like no other. Way back in 1976 it looked like the fu­ture, but its eco-cre­den­tials (or lack of them) con­signed it to the past.

No amount of gilt-edged glam­our can blind us to the re­al­ity that jet avi­a­tion has be­come no faster in the past decade. Fly­ing time is the true dif­fer­en­tia­tor of the skies and re­mains the big­gest win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for air­craft mak­ers. And in the high-value niche mar­ket of su­per­sonic busi­ness jets, the win­ner will most likely be the first to mar­ket.

De­spite burn­ing twice the fuel of a stan­dard Boe­ing 747 while car­ry­ing a quar­ter of the pas­sen­gers, and though it was banned from fly­ing over­land at su­per­sonic speed due to its po­ten­tially win­dow-shat­ter­ing sonic boom, Con­corde’s svelte de­sign brought the cat­walk to the skies un­til its re­tire­ment in 2003.

Planes to­day are lighter, more en­er­gy­ef­fi­cient and eco-con­scious, but noth­ing has come close to match­ing the supreme bird of par­adise for speed. The Con­corde rou­tinely cruised at 2,180km/h—about Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. To­day’s Gulf­stream G650 strug­gles to fly nearly half as fast. Con­corde was Mach-tas­ti­cally fast, fu­tur­is­tic and 50 years ahead of its time.

Com­peti­tors tried but couldn’t catch it. Most re­cently in 1999, Boe­ing and Nasa aban­doned a 10-year, US$1 bil­lion plan to build a 300-seat com­mer­cial su­per­sonic air­liner. Although tech­ni­cal break­throughs were made, Boe­ing deemed the pro­ject eco­nom­i­cally im­prac­ti­cal and with­drew. The case wasn’t helped by US avi­a­tion laws that for­bid su­per­sonic flight over­land un­til the sonic boom can be re­duced to safer lev­els.

Just as Boe­ing pulled out of su­per­sonic mode, pres­ti­gious pri­vate jet op­er­a­tor Gulf­stream moved in. Small is beau­ti­ful to su­per­sonic ears. It makes more sense to de­velop su­per­sonic busi­ness jets than com­mer­cial air­craft, as the smaller size re­duces the sonic boom.

Given its cus­tomers were pre­pared to spend US$50 mil­lion on a pri­vate jet that flew only as fast as a Boe­ing 747, Gulf­stream fig­ured it had clients who would pay twice that amount to travel twice as fast if it could lick the sonic boom. War­ren Buf­fett was quoted as say­ing his firm would take 100 su­per­sonic busi­ness jets as soon as they hit the pro­duc­tion line.

In 2007, Gulf­stream and Nasa col­lab­o­rated on a pro­ject called Quiet Spike. A seven-me­tre com­pos­ite lance was at­tached to an F-15B jet fighter, through which it fired three par­al­lel shock­waves to the ground, thereby mit­i­gat­ing the sonic boom formed at the front of the air­craft. The same year, Gulf­stream sub­mit­ted draw­ings and a patent ap­pli­ca­tion for a quiet su­per­sonic busi­ness jet iden­ti­fied by the trade­mark Whis­per.

Fast-for­ward to 2012 and Gulf­stream re­leased draw­ings show­ing a craft with a tele­scop­ing nose, high-sloped fuse­lage and vari­able-ge­om­e­try wings. It also re­sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion for the Whis­per trade­mark in con­nec­tion with a su­per­sonic air­craft that fea­tured “qui­et­boom tech­nol­ogy.” As if there were any doubt about Gulf­stream’s in­ten­tions, the man­u­fac­turer has also been as­signed an ex­per­i­men­tal air­craft des­ig­na­tion by the US Air Force for an undis­closed su­per­sonic air­craft called the X-54.

Con­tacted by Hong Kong Tatler, Gulf­stream head­quar­ters in Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia, would only say, “Our cur­rent ef­forts are fo­cused on sonic-boom mit­i­ga­tion and work­ing to lift the ban on su­per­sonic flight over­land. Un­til such time as the ban is lifted, we don’t see a busi­ness for a su­per­sonic busi­ness jet.” How­ever, Scott Evans, a se­nior Gulf­stream pi­lot, re­cently told the Fi­nan­cial Times that a su­per­sonic jet was un­der re­view. “If it reaches a tech­no­log­i­cal readi­ness that makes sense, it’s in the con­sid­er­a­tions next time,” he said.

The sonic boom re­mains the catch. There can be no progress un­til the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity re­vises its ban on su­per­sonic flights over­land, but the au­thor­ity will only re­scind it if the reg­u­la­tory body sees suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence of “quiet” su­per­sonic flight.

“Less­en­ing sonic booms is the most sig­nif­i­cant hur­dle to rein­tro­duc­ing com­mer­cial

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