THE FLIGHT OF THE NEXT CONCORDE Supersonic flight is once again poised to take off
Supersonic flight, long associated with the Concorde, is poised for a comeback, thanks to three aviation startups.
Although Concorde last flew in 2003, to many, it still represents what should be the future of aviation, not its past. Thanks to three startup aviation companies, commercial supersonic aircraft may again take to the skies as early as 2022.
In 1976, Concorde began jetting passengers across the world at Mach 2.0, most famously between New York and London or Paris. Each flight took under four hours, making it possible for a banker in London to fly to New York for a business lunch and return the same day to tuck her children to bed.
Unfortunately, Concorde was challenged by several limitations. First and foremost was expense. Owing to high operating costs, tickets were priced similar to subsonic first class or even higher, making it difficult for British Airways or Air France (the two principal operators) to attract enough customers to reliably turn a profit, especially in times of high fuel costs.
Second, the sonic boom caused by Concorde was disruptive enough that supersonic travel over the US and other territories was prohibited. This, in effect, limited Concorde to overwater routes such as the aforementioned US-Europe routes.
Third, the onboard experience of Concorde was often described as “cramped.” In reality, it was similar to today’s first or business class seating found aboard narrow body aircraft such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. However, for a flight that sometimes could be completed in a little over three hours, this seemed to be a small price to pay.
New technology, new possibilities
Advances in technology and the entrepreneurial spirit are behind the resurgence in interest for supersonic travel.
As the latest commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 have proven, building fuselages primarily out of carbon materials not only reduces weight but also results in stronger fuselages compared to traditional metal ones. Lighter weight translates into lower operating expenses and the greater potential for profitability by pricing supersonic travel on par with today’s business class tickets.
Equally important are recent advances in engine technology. Today’s engines are substantially more reliable and efficient thereby reducing operating costs.
Passengers aboard aircraft such as the Airbus A380 are often surprised at just how quiet flight is today. Building upon these advances, engine manufacturers are confident that they can reduce the classic sonic boom down to an inconsequential level. This, in turn, could open up overland city pairs such as New York-Los Angeles, presuming that regulators agree.
Third, evolution in onboard comfort delights business class passengers with a level of luxury that was not commonly offered even in first class a generation ago. Today’s business class passengers are increasingly treated to lie-flat beds, large high-definition televisions, and cabin pressure and humidity more similar to that found on the ground. These advances in onboard comfort are within reach for next-generation supersonic aircraft.
Startups leading innovation
Three aviation startups are vying to introduce next generation supersonic travel.
Boom is perhaps the most well known of the three startups, as it is primarily focused on commercial air travel. Backed by the Virgin Group among other investors, Boom already has an order for 20 aircraft from co-investor Japan Airlines. Boom’s aircraft, also named Boom, may enter into commercial service as early as 2022.
To meet such a demanding timeline, Boom has developed a smaller prototype for testing. Named XB-1, it will soon receive its three engines from General Electric to begin testing at the Mojave Air & Space Port in Southern California.
Boom is expected to carry up to 55 passengers as far as 5,179 nm. Speeds are planned to reach Mach 2.2, which would top Concorde’s top speed. The company estimates that New York to London would take just three hours and 15 minutes at a passenger cost of $2,500 each way – not out of line with today’s business class equivalent fares.
Business jet operators needn’t feel left out. Boom says that its airliner will also be available as an ultra-VIP business jet as well.
Business jet travel
While Boom seeks to revive the Concorde market, Aerion is taking a different approach by directly targeting the business jet market with its supersonic aircraft named AS2. By some estimates, there may be demand for at least 300 supersonic business jet aircraft.
Although AS2 may prove to be more expensive than today’s similarly-sized subsonic business aircraft, these aircraft will appeal to two less price-sensitive segments of business class jet operators. One seeks to fly in the very fastest aircraft available – think royalty and billionaires. The other is made up of VVIP executives for whom time is money and would not hesitate to spend more to earn more.
The AS2 is expected to cruise at Mach 1.4 with a range of 4,200 nm. While slower than Boom, this is still almost twice as fast as many business jets in the skies today.
Aerion hopes that through their engine technology, traveling at a slightly slower Mach 1.2 will result in a “Boomless Cruise,” meaning that the sonic boom the AS2 generates will be so minimal as to be inconsequential by the time the boom reaches the ground. At the appropriate time, Aerion plans to petition regulators for permission to fly at Mach 1.2 over land.
In the meantime, the AS2 can travel at Mach 0.95 without generating any sonic boom at all. The lower speed has the added advantage of minimising fuel so the AS2’s range is predicted to be 5,400 nm.
In late 2017, Aerion announced a partnership with Lockheed Martin to develop the AS2. Lockheed Martin brings deep supersonic development experience to the partnership owing to the company’s strong supersonic heritage in the production of military aircraft such as the F-16 and F-35 jets.
Operators of the AS2 will be able to configure their supersonic business jet similarly to subsonic business jets. For instance, while the AS2 could carry as many as 12 passengers, in a lower density layout it is possible to design a split cabin to provide a private bedroom complete with onboard shower.
Flexjet, the fractional aircraft fleet operator, has already announced its intention to purchase 20 AS2 aircraft.
If development remains on track, the AS2’s first flight will take place in 2023 with certification following two years later.
Last, but not least, there is Spike Aerospace who is developing an aircraft named S-512.
As envisioned by Spike Aerospace, the Spike S-512 will fit in between Boom and the AS2 in terms of capacity and performance.
It is expected to carry 12-18 passengers at Mach 1.6 for up to 6,200 nm.
Like the AS2, new technology will reduce the S5-12’s sonic boom to a fraction of that produced by Concorde. In fact, Spike Aerospace hopes that the S-512 will qualify
for flight over land even at the aircraft’s maximum speed of Mach 1.6.
Passengers will have much more than speed to look forward to thanks to an ambitious cabin design. Taking the place of traditional cabin walls with windows every few feet will be high-definition screens that will provide a real-time, 360-degree view outside of the plane. For times when the outside may not be so exciting to look at (think nighttime oceanic travel), the screens will be programmable to project images as well as movies and potentially even people via video conferencing. Spike Aerospace dubs this “Innovative Multiplex Digital Cabin.” By eliminating windows, the fuselage will be stronger and the S-512 quieter than traditional business jets.
Spike Aerospace hopes that the S-512 will begin commercial deliveries in 2023. In the meantime, the company has developed a prototype for testing purposes named SX-1.2. Already, the company has received interest from two airlines in addition to business jet operators.
Boom, Aerion, and Spike Aerospace each seek to create a renaissance for supersonic travel. Beyond their efforts is research into hypersonic transportation. In generations to come, today’s leading-edge subsonic aircraft may feel as obsolete to them as we feel about turboprop aircraft.
The nose of the Boom XB-1 prototype
A British Airways Concorde
TOP AND BOTTOM: The Aerion AS2 and Spike S-512