Concorde, 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 energy- efficient 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 “quiet- boom 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 Indonesia 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 supersonic flight,” says Peter Coen, head of Nasa’s high-speed project at the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington. “Other barriers include high-altitude emissions, fuel efficiency and community noise around airports.”
“We are offering a select group of forward-thinking business aviation users the opportunity to fly faster and to make history with us as we reintroduce commercial supersonic flight,” says Aerion chairman Robert Bass. Aerion appointed China-based transport and luxury goods trading group Sparkle Roll as its representative for AS2 business jet sales in Despite his reservations, Nasa in June set up the Commercial Supersonic Technology Project, a US$3.6 million research initiative focusing on quieter, greener supersonic travel, which involves universities and industry players. The eight participants include MIT and Honeywell. In the meantime, manufacturers and entrepreneurs, sensing supersonic travel’s hour may be at hand, are paying through the nose-cone to get there first. Aerion Corporation of Reno, Nevada, has teamed up with Airbus to develop the Mach 1.5 Aerion AS2 supersonic business jet, for which orders started in May at a price of US$120 million.
The jet, with a range of 6,450 kilometres, will accommodate eight to 12 passengers and could shave six-and-a- half hours off the flight time between San Francisco and Singapore. Delivery is expected by 2022 and thus far the company claims to have 50 orders. Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. “Sparkle Roll knows our market, knows the customer base for the AS2 and will play a key role in introducing routine supersonic flight in China and beyond,” says Aerion co-chairman Brian Barents. “Chinese business leaders will save hours on every long-range flight in the AS2 versus a subsonic jet,” explains Li Xuefeng, CEO of Sparkle Roll’s aviation division. “There is no question that the benefit of substantially greater speed will be highly valued in our markets.”
Airbus also filed a patent in August for a jet that could fly from New York to London in one hour. The craft could fly at 4,025km/h, almost four times the speed of sound, according to the filings in the US. Airbus says the market for the new jet would be “business travel and VIP passengers requiring transcontinental return journeys in one day.”
Boston-based Spike Aerospace says it will deliver its Spike S-512 supersonic jet, which will fly at Mach 1.8, by 2018. Expect surprises, too—windows are passé except in the cockpit. Building a plane without windows reduces drag and cost; the cabin will come with display screens to live-stream what’s outside. The anticipated price tag is US$60–80 million.
“Flying supersonic is clearly the future of aviation,” says Spike’s CEO and president, Vik Kachoria. “It makes the world smaller and more accessible. For any competitive global business, cutting flight times in half will have significant value.”
It’s not just the sonic boom contretemps such companies face. In any supersonic endeavour, there are always trade-offs. If you have high performance, you typically won’t have fuel efficiency. The more passengers you carry, the more you lose out on speed and range. Such trade-offs must be juggled to design an aircraft that can be engineered, built and sold at a price customers will pay.
And then there’s SonicStar, a supreme passenger jet envisioned by renowned aerospace executive Richard Lugg, CEO of HyperMach. SonicStar aims to fly further and faster, with its hybrid engine cutting emissions and fuel bills in half. It expects to cruise at Mach 3.1, close to the capability of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird military reconnaissance plane, which has held the speed record for manned, air-breathing aircraft since 1976. As much a time machine as a civilian supersonic aircraft, it would cut journey times so dramatically—New York to Sydney in four hours—that it would redefine the way we do business. HyperMach has yet to put a price on its accelerated ambition, but it expects to deliver by 2021. “People are ready for something new in aviation,” says Lugg. “It was disappointing when Concorde stopped flying. SonicStar is prescient, the next leap forward in the technology of flight.”
The aircraft would enable a new era, he says. “The lives of busy international business executives will completely change—they will be able to travel across the world to meet a business partner and be back at home to put the kids to bed.”
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the realm of next-gen flying.