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