The very idea of racing sound and beating it to its punch has an appeal that dates from the earliest days of supersonic flight tests. The ability to slice cross-country and transoceanic flight times by half sounds good to anyone who’s ever been trapped in the middle seat.
To those lucky enough to have witnessed a Concorde take off on an adjacent runway, its power and futuristic design were a thing of sheer beauty. But the Concorde’s record as a loss leader for British Airways and Air France, with untenable Mach 2 noise levels and fuel inefficiencies, gave supersonic transport (SST) technology a black eye.
“You can drive a brick supersonic, but you can’t do it practically and efficiently. That was the demise of the Concorde; it was absolutely inefficient to beat the band,” said Doug Nichols, the COO of Aerion Corporation, a startup with a patented design and financial plan for the world’s first-ever supersonic business jet (SBJ).
Although Boeing and NASA collaborated on a commercial SST airliner design in the mid-1990s, the program was ultimately cancelled. But in 2002, Aerion Corporation of Reno, Nevada, formed from an advanced engineering consultancy. Their ultimate aim is to partner with an existing manufacturer to produce a new line of SST business jets. In the meanwhile, this summer Aerion will continue testing its technology using F-15B aircraft at NASA’s Dryden Research Flight Center in California’s Mojave Desert.
At its maximum cruising speed of Mach 1.6, the Aerion SBJ will reduce New York to Paris flights to four hours and 15 minutes versus about seven and a half hours in existing subsonic aircraft. New York to Tokyo will take 9 and a half-hours, including an hour-long refueling and technical stop in Anchorage. That’s compared to 14 and a half-hours for conventional subsonic aircraft.
At 148 ft., or about the length of a narrow-body MD-80 commercial aircraft, Aerion’s cabin will be laid out to comfortably hold 8 to 12 passengers and fly overland in the U.S. at speeds of Mach 0.99, making a coast-to-coast journey of only four hours.
“On longer, over water routes, air traffic control lines everyone up one behind the other like ducks on a string,” said former NASA research pilot Charles Justiz, the Houston-based owner of JFA Aviation, a corporate aviation consulting firm. Justiz says that with the Aerion SBJ operating well outside the conventional speed range, its pilots will have to either go above or around normal traffic. While most business jets fly at 40,000 ft., the Aerion SST business jet will be FAA-certified up to 51,000 ft. And it will likely cruise at 45,000 to 47,000 ft.; well above conventional business jet traffic.
“Our technology really wasn’t possible 10 years ago,” said Nichols. “But advances in computational fluid dynamics and super-fast computing power have enabled us to use natural laminar flow.”
Although the supersonic natural laminar flow (SNLF) concept was pioneered in the late 1980s, Aerion’s aerodynamics technology is based on reducing the viscous drag on its carbon-fiber composite wings by up to 90 percent. That translates to a 20 percent reduction in the aircraft’s total drag.