Since the retirement of the Concorde in 2003, aircraft manufacturers have invested relatively little in new supersonic technologies, despite the obvious reductions in point-to-point flight times. While Gulfstream, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and others are doing interesting work in the area of mitigating sonic boom, this technology is far from mature. To date, no established original equipment manufacturer is producing an aircraft based on a low-boom design.
The largest hurdle for civilian supersonic jets is not sonic boom mitigation, but meeting stringent airport noise standards during takeoff and landing — a concern voiced by airport neighbors ever since the first business jets took flight.
Those first aircraft entered service more than 50 years ago, and were as noisy as military fighters. By the early 1970s, the FAA and other agencies mandated lower noise standards for jet aircraft: standards the Concorde couldn’t meet.
There is no single sonic boom that occurs when a jet reaches the speed of sound. Rather, as the aircraft flies faster than Mach 1, the sonic boom continues, but is heard only once as the jet flies over. A first generation supersonic jet like the Concorde can operate at low supersonic speeds (up to about Mach 1.2) overland without a boom heard on the ground, and up to Mach 1.5 over water. Moreover, it can meet current airport noise requirements. Newer designs may incorporate boom mitigation technology to allow unfettered cruise over land at speeds up to Mach 1.6 and beyond.
So, will we ever fly supersonically again? Will you be able to reduce trans-Atlantic time by three hours, or longer trans-Pacific routes by six hours or more? Regulatory and technological hurdles remain high:
- The FAA prohibits flight at Mach 1 or above over land in the U.S. More liberal international rules dictate that no boom reaches the ground. But there is no single, worldwide standard as to how loud a supersonic boom can be, or the minimum altitude for supersonic flights.
- The FAA and its foreign counterparts have lowered the noise bar further for the newest aircraft.
- Aircraft wings optimal for subsonic travel and fuel consumption are not optimal for supersonic flight.
- High fuel consumption remains a challenge, despite improving aircraft aerodynamics.
Solutions to these issues will not be quick or simultaneous.
That said, market studies indicate a demand for 600 supersonic business jets in the next 20 years, even with the proviso that such aircraft would be restricted to subsonic speeds over land. That demand has prompted accelerated development of three new supersonic business jets:
- Aerion Corporation and GE Aviation are partnering with Lockheed Martin to develop the Aerion AS2, a supersonic business jet. First flights are planned for 2021, with a sale price of $120 million.
- Boston-based Spike Aerospace is developing the Spike S-512 Supersonic Business Jet, with a planned introduction by 2023.
- Denver-based Boom Technology is planning a supersonic aircraft test flight for 2019, with commercial flights in five years.
Supersonic flight will increase users’ mobility exponentially – a transition comparable to that of piston-powered to jet aircraft.
What are the advantages for you? The typical user of today’s long-range business jets could expect to save as many as 200 hours annually – time to reach more destinations, meet with more customers, confer more frequently with partners, and complete more deals. Supersonic speed can enable a major boost in executive productivity, and reduce travel-induced physical and mental stress.
A first generation supersonic business jet, cruising at Mach 1.4, would shorten a San Francisco-to-Singapore trip from more than 17 hours to about 12 hours. Or enable a New York morning departure to Paris for a half-day meeting, with return home to New York that evening.
The case is compelling, and the technology is within our grasp. Expect to see a faster future within a decade, and probably sooner. BAA