Later this year, the Boom XB-1 supersonic test plane will soar to an altitude of 60,000 feet and settle into its cruising speed of Mach 2.2, more than double the speed of sound.
That initial voyage could mark the beginning of a bold new era of commercial aviation. One that will forever change the way we live and travel. Or, in the end, perhaps just another chapter destined for the science-fiction slag heap. Another failed futuristic dream, led by an entrepreneur with big thoughts.
The lessons of Icarus-like bravado aside, Denver-based technology entrepreneur Blake Scholl and foreign interests such as China’s Ctrip, Japan Airlines and Virgin Galactic, think it’s a chance worth taking.
Ctrip, one of China’s leading online travel sites, can see the writing on the wall — its undisclosed investment in the venture reserving valuable seats on flights for future travellers.
Scholl, founder and CEO of Boom Technology Inc. and one of the new breed of venture capitalists, envisages a state-of-the-art 55-passenger passenger aircraft operating commercially by the year 2023, and has so far raised US$85 million toward that effort.
The glory, says Scholl, is there, for the taking. We only have to reach out, and seize it. Could it be that simple?
Highlighting the fact that mankind has experienced “half a century of no progress in speed” of commercial air travel, Scholl says Boom will succeed where others, namely the Anglo-French Concorde, failed.
According to Scholl, aerospace and materials technology has advanced to the point where supersonic travel is not only feasible, but will be 75% cheaper than operating the Concorde. That’s right, 75% cheaper.
The Concorde was too big, says Scholl. Caught in a Catch 22 situation, it often flew half empty, and in the end, couldn’t pay for itself. The Boom supersonic is just the right size for profitability, he says, and with biz-class prices, it can and will survive.
Instead of paying $20,000 US for a roundtrip flight from New York to London, the Boom ticket would be pegged at $5,000 US, about the same as business class on most major airlines today.
Imagine Sydney to LA in 6:45 hours, instead of 15 hours, New York to London in 3:15 hours, instead of 7 hours, or San Francisco to Tokyo in 5:30 hours instead of 11 hours.
Pie in the sky? Listen to what billionaire Sir Richard Branson has to say.
“The next big thing, hopefully in my lifetime, will be supersonic travel coming back and people traveling around the world in next to no time,” Branson told Bloomberg Television in February. “And hopefully in a relatively environmentally friendly way.”
Ah yes, the friendly part. There lies a major stumbling block, and it has more to do with politics than technology.
The US banned supersonic travel over land in the 1960s, allegedly over noise concerns from sonic booms, but some suspect it was designed to deliberately halt the commercial progress of the Concorde.
Scholl, a former Amazon executive, told BBC earlier this year at the Dubai Airshow that the Boom airliner “will be quieter — or as quiet — as aircraft flying around Heathrow Airport today. Policymakers won’t be allowing new aircraft that make more noise,” he admits.
Due to the spike in global travel, Scholl says there are at least 500 commercial routes available for supersonic aircraft, with or without a change in US legislation.
The delta-shaped Concorde also featured a complicated drop-nose configuration to allow pilots to see the runway, but today’s glass-cockpit synthetic vision technology will preclude that need in the Boom airliner, another major cost savings. Expensive wind tunnel testing can also be replicated with advanced computer technology.
No one, including aviation experts, are saying this will be an easy task. In fact, environmental and noise regulations are a lot stiffer today.
“It’s very difficult and challenging, and if they pull it off, it would be quite a feat,” said Prof. Mark Drela, of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “Based on what I know, I wouldn’t bet money on it, but I wouldn’t bet against it either.”
Defeating noise pollution is one thing, said Drela. Being green, quite another.
“One thing that worries me, from an ecological viewpoint, is that it’s going to be a hard sell. These days, every new technology needs to be green. And even if they succeed, it’s not going to be very green, a rich man’s airplane … people spending a lot of money to put out a lot of emissions over the Atlantic. It’s going to be very open to that criticism.
“Cruise performance is the name of the game, and supersonic flight is relatively inefficient, compared to subsonic.
“The modern Boeing 787 Dreamliner,” Drela explained, “has a fuel burn per passenger mile comparable to two people in a Prius, assuming the jet is full — the Concorde is equivalent to driving solo in a Hummer.
“It’s an interesting project,” Drela concludes. “Technically I think it’s viable, but the whole issue is, is it going to be economical … can they make a business case for it?”
While the days of the X-15 and the legendary Chuck Yeager pushing the envelope above the Edwards dry lake bed are long gone, just last month NASA awarded a $247.5 million contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a supersonic X-plane — known as the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator — with the aim of exploring quiet supersonic technologies.
The piloted X-plane is set to be delivered to the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California by the end of 2021.
According to NASA, the secret to “quiet” supersonic travel was first theorized in the 1960s.
It all has to do with the unique shape of the aircraft hull. In a conventional aircraft, shockwaves coalesce as they expand away from the nose and tail, resulting in two distinct and thunderous sonic booms.
In newly designed supersonic aircraft, the shockwaves are sent away from the aircraft, in a way that prevents them from coming together in two loud booms. The result is much weaker shockwaves, and, perhaps a quick series of soft thumps heard on the ground, if it all.
In 2003, a NASA F5E Tiger jet fighter with a modified nose demonstrated the boom-reducing theory successfully.
Nevertheless, Scholl is gambling big on a private venture, hence the heavy hitters on his team — high profile types from Boeing, NASA, Lockheed Martin and even SpaceX. Virgin Galactic is also on board for technical assistance, including engineering, design and manufacturing services.
A smaller XB-1 demonstrator — affectionately known as “Baby Boom” — will undergo test flights later this year, and Scholl recently told the Daily Star that the advanced GE J85 turbojet engines — the key to the whole project — were soon to be delivered to the company’s hangar for assembly.
While Boom has attracted the likes of JAL and Virgin Galactic — both have 20 aircraft on pre-order — the project has also drawn the interest of China’s Ctrip, a Nasdaq-listed travel service provider.
The investment marriage is not an unusual one, as other online travel agencies have chosen similar partnerships in an effort to explore futuristic aviation tourism.
In the case of Ctrip, Boom would secure seats for 10 to 15 customers on certain supersonic flights at $5,000 return — well within the budget of corporate executives accustomed to the perks of business class.
“As a leading innovator in the commercial aviation industry, Boom will be positioned to provide exciting premium global flight options for Ctrip users,” said James Liang, co-founder and executive chairman. “Ctrip is making a strategic investment in the next-generation of travel.”
According to the International Air Transport Association, China is the fastest growing market and could surpass the US by 2022.