For many years, the Concorde supersonic airliner flew wealthy passengers across the ocean from London to New York and back.
Purchased by only two airlines, British Airways and Air France, it was not allowed to fly supersonic in the lucrative North American market, due to the resultant sonic boom, although some suspect it was because the Boeing SST was in competition with the Ango-French Concorde.
While it seemed to be a worldwide hit, its clientele was limited to the rich and famous, as well as a horrendous 100-seat capacity. Over time, it would not be either profitable or practical, and the crash of an Air France Concorde in 2000 sealed its fate.
At the end of the day, it seemed the dream of a supersonic airliner plying the skies was just not feasible — at least, not yet.
Half a century later, following quantum improvements in aerospace design and technology, we have a new horse race — several companies are now aiming to restart the supersonic era.
Crucial to the success of post-Concorde supersonic flight will be reducing the sonic boom by developing “boomless cruise” technology, whereby the boom refracts off a denser, lower layer of air, never reaching the ground.
According to CNN Travel and ExecutiveTraveller.com, one of the companies in the running is Florida-based planemaker Aerion, which recently unveiled its Aerion As3 concept, a Mach 4+ commercial airliner that will be able to carry 50 passengers at a range of 7,000 nautical miles.
“Our vision is to build a future where humanity can travel between any two points on our planet within three hours. Supersonic flight is the starting point, but it is just that — the beginning,” said Aerion’s chairman, president and CEO, Tom Vice.
“We must push the boundaries of what is possible.”
Earlier this year Aerion expanded its ongoing partnership with NASA’s Langley Research Center, with a specific focus on commercial flight in the Mach 3-5 range.
To put that in layperson’s terms, that’s 2,300 to 3,800 mph, or 3,700 to 6,200 km/h — or up to seven times as fast as a regular long-distance passenger plane.
Fancy darting from Sydney to Singapore in just under three hours? Or making the trans-Atlantic hop between London and New York in closer to two hours, meaning you’d ironically spend more time at the airport than in the air?
Conceptualization and design work is currently under way, with more details set to be revealed later in 2021.
Dubbed the AS3, it’s faster and larger than the AS2, which will be Aerion’s first supersonic foray and is slated to begin production in 2023.
Whereas the AS2 is a private jet for 8-12 passengers with a speed of Mach 1.4 (1,728 km/h) over a range of 8,400-10,000km, the AS3 will fly for up to 13,000 km at up to Mach 4 — almost 5,000 km/h, and just short of the Mach 5 “hypersonic” milestone.
(By comparison, the likes of an international Airbus or Boeing jet will redline around 1,000 km/h.)
Aerion sees the AS3 as a commercial jet with stronger appeal to airlines keen not to miss out on a slice of the supersonic market, even if that’s a small but moneyed one of corporate travellers, luxury leisure passengers and other movers and shakers who want to spend less time shuttling around in the skies.
“At Aerion, our vision is to build a future where humanity can travel between any two points on our planet within three hours,” said Vice.
Aerion is working with General Electric to design a new engine and won backing from Boeing two years ago.
“High-fidelity weather models will be coupled into the Aerion’s Boomless Cruise technology to compute an optimized flight plan” favouring supersonic speeds, said Vice.
Aerion is focused on speeds around Mach 4.3 for the AS3 because of heating, shock waves and other tricky engineering issues that emerge at Mach 5 and above, he said.
However, Aerion doesn’t expect to have the supersonic skies to itself.
Boom Technologies plans a US$200 million supersonic jet that can carry 65 to 85 passengers at more than twice the speed of sound, which it said will enter service by 2030. The company has orders for 30 jets from Japan Airlines and Virgin Group.
Virgin Galactic surprised investors last year with plans for a Mach 3 aircraft seating as many as 19 people, an interim step on the company’s path toward eventual hypersonic point-to-point travel.
Virgin’s supersonic project is being assisted by Rolls-Royce, which is also working with Boom on supersonic engine technologies.
A fourth player, Boston-based Spike Aerospace, plans a 12-18-passenger supersonic jet that cruises at Mach 1.6 and has range to cover nonstop flights from London to Hong Kong and Dubai to New York.
Aerion boss Vice argues that Aerion has an advantage when it comes to engine development, pointing to its partnership with GE and its plan to build the first commercial supersonic power plant in more than five decades.
The design is exclusive for Aerion, said Vice, who declined to disclose how much the engine development will cost or how it’s being financed.
“Somebody else wanting to build a supersonic business jet – they’re going to have to go find a different engine,” Vice said. Aerion “for sure” will be the first new supersonic commercial aircraft to market, he predicted. “We’ll get there years ahead of anybody else.”
Aerion said it scoured the world for an engine, including Russian designs that would meet noise restrictions, fuel-burn requirements and reliability over thousands of hours of high-speed flying. No existing engines fit the bill, though.
Instead, the company turned to GE to build an engine with 20,000 pounds of thrust, special acoustic linings to reduce take-off noise and dual turbo-fans that don’t require fuel-guzzling afterburners.
GE’s Affinity engine will also be the first designed to run on traditional kerosene and synthetic fuel made in part by capturing carbon dioxide from the air.
“I think it’s really exciting, frankly, that there are a number of companies now in this space thinking of high-speed flight,” Vice said. “I’m encouraged by that.”
Vice is keen to prove the new technology can work and “once regulators see that we can do that reliably, we’ll have the first aircraft in history that can fly supersonic over land, and nobody on the ground will hear the boom.”
He reckons that “boomless cruise,” coupled with carbon-neutral operations, will deliver compelling productivity advantages for prospective customers.
“We analyzed how business owners fly. We looked at a company out of New York that flew business jets around the world, and when we substitute an AS2 for them and rerun those flights for every person who flew on their airplane, AS2 saved them 142 hours a year.”
And as we all know, time is money.
Sources: CNN, Simple Flying, ExecutiveTraveller.com, Wikipedia