Bill Sweet­man Tech­ni­cally Speak­ing

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - Bill Sweet­man

The one be­fore the Dream­liner

FOR NEARLY TWO YEARS, from five months be­fore the 9/11 at­tacks un­til 15 months af­ter­ward, Boe­ing ap­peared to be con­vinced that the clas­sic en­gines-un­der-swept­back-wing air­liner shape, which it had in­vented in the early 1950s, was old hat. In­stead, Boe­ing re­lent­lessly in­canted the praises of the Sonic Cruiser, a tail-first air­plane with two ver­ti­cal fins and a cranked-delta wing. It would fly at Mach 0.98, 15 per­cent faster than most jets but only half as fast as Con­corde.

Be­fore it was an­nounced, on March 29, 2001, only a few po­ten­tial cus­tomers knew about the Sonic Cruiser, and they had been sworn to si­lence. Boe­ing stalled media re­quests for brief­ings un­til the Paris air­show in June, where all would be re­vealed.

Or not. The Paris event was more re­vival than brief­ing. Fu­tur­ol­o­gist John Nais­bitt led with a 25minute ser­mon. Nais­bitt had just sold his houses in Telluride, Colorado, and Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, and moved to a flat in Vi­enna. He had vis­ited a Ger­man beer­house in Seoul. “We are liv­ing in the time of the paren­the­sis, a great and yeasty time,” he con­cluded. “Make un­cer­tainty your friend.”

I barely had time to won­der what the bleep­ing bleep that “yeasty” bleep had to do with avi­a­tion when Alan Mu­lally, Boe­ing’s com­mer­cial air­planes boss, launched into some holy-rolling tub-thump­ing: “Can it be done? Ab­so­lutely! Can we do it eco­nom­i­cally? Ab­so­lutely! Is it the right thing to do for the trav­el­ers of the world? Ab­so­lutely!”

On its face, the Sonic Cruiser was a dum­ber-than-dirt idea. The in­dus­try’s shared, con­sis­tent ex­pe­ri­ence of su­per­sonic flight was that you did not want to cruise at Mach 0.98; cruis­ing at a faster speed would ac­tu­ally re­duce drag. Boe­ing knew this, and ad­mit­ted that the Sonic Cruiser would need to have big­ger en­gines and burn more fuel than a clas­sic sub­sonic jet, but the com­pany ar­gued that pas­sen­gers would pay the pre­mium fare nec­es­sary. How much more would they pay? No one knew. Boe­ing had done no stud­ies or sur­veys, be­cause that would have blown the se­cret pro­ject’s cover.

Boe­ing had been hav­ing a tough few years. It had spent most of 2000 push­ing warmed-over ver­sions of the 767 and 747, with no suc­cess, and was los­ing ground to Air­bus. It seemed to me that Sonic Cruiser was ei­ther a des­per­ate gam­ble or a public di­ver­sion. But the ir­re­press­ible Mu­lally would not be stopped. In July he told unions that it was “a 100 per­cent go.”

The story got weirder. In an online NASA pre­sen­ta­tion from late 2000, I found a Boe­ing de­sign that looked ex­actly like the Sonic Cruiser, ex­cept it was skin­nier, sharp-nosed, and de­scribed as a su­per­sonic trans­port. Chief engi­neer Walt Gil­lette dis­missed the re­sem­blance as su­per­fi­cial, but his boss’ boss, Boe­ing pres­i­dent Harry Stoneci­pher, had a dan­ger­ous habit of say­ing what he was ac­tu­ally think­ing. De­sign­ing the Sonic Cruiser as though it were a faster-than-sound air­craft “was the se­cret to com­ing up with some­thing that we liked,” he told me. “Be­fore, ev­ery­body tried to take a sub­sonic air­craft and speed it up, and ran into all sorts of trou­ble.”

This was an era when U. S.- Rus­sia re­la­tions were happy, and in the late 1990s Boe­ing was work­ing with Sukhoi on a su­per­sonic busi­ness jet. The Sonic Cruiser’s su­per­sonic an­ces­tor never got a des­ig­na­tion and looked noth­ing like any prior U.S. de­sign, but with its aft-set, com­pound-sweep wing, it looked a good deal like Sukhoi’s su­per­cruis­ers, de­scended from the com­pany’s T-4 su­per­sonic bomber. The air­plane that was sup­posed to save the U.S. in­dus­try’s ba­con had more Rus­sian DNA than a Ro­manov fam­ily re­union.

“Don’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing you read in the news­pa­per,” Gil­lette told Boe­ing’s own mag­a­zine in July 2002. “We are talk­ing with very se­nior peo­ple at the air­lines, and there is a lot of in­ter­est.”

I didn’t be­lieve the news­pa­pers, but I did set a lot of store by the views of Air­bus’ mar­ket­ing guru, Adam Brown, who had told me five months ear­lier that he had writ­ten the Sonic Cruiser off com­pletely. Post-9/11, the air­lines lost in­ter­est in speed; they cared about noth­ing ex­cept op­er­at­ing cost. Brown was proven right in De­cem­ber, and in the fol­low­ing month Boe­ing started talk­ing about the new, 0.85-Mach 7-“E for effiency”-7. To­day, that’s called the 787. ■ ■ ■

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