By S. Clayton Moore
For one company to announce plans to develop a supersonic business jet was one thing. For two to launch full-blown campaigns to develop Mach one-enabled aircraft was one of the most significant developments at the National Business Aviation Association Annual Meeting & Conference this year.
“In terms of technology, supersonic is the future,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, which specializes in providing business intelligence for the aerospace and defense communities. “We don’t know exactly when in the future, but if you look at all the current market, industry and technology trends, it’s inevitable.”
Two companies believe the future for civil supersonic travel is sooner rather than later, but it remains to be seen which one will be successful. Billionaire investor Robert Bass backs Reno-based Aerion Corporation. The company is placing its bets on its natural laminar flow technology developed and patented by Dr. Richard Tracy. Simultaneously, Supersonic Aerospace International, led by Michael Paulson, is continuing the legacy of late Gulfstream founder Allen Paulson. SAI revealed at NBAA its secret three-year project to develop a Quiet Supersonic Transport, which relies on sonic boom mitigation for future success.
Both supersonic projects claim the capacity for eight to 12 passengers, a range of 4,000 nautical miles, sales prices of $80 million and entry into service by 2012. Both Aerion and SAI are pressing hard to demonstrate economic viability to investors and potential industrial partners, including airframe manufacturers.
Each project has its own advantages and challenges. While Aerion has deep pockets, it’s relying on a fundamentally new and untested technology yet still dependent on using an existing JT8D-219 engine that is cost-efficient but based on older technology. SAI has less financial stability but is partnered with the famous Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, which designed the F-117 Stealth Fighter and the F-35 Strike Fighter. SAI has already spent $25 million in developing an initial design in partnership with Lockheed Martin.
With the retirement of the Concorde in 2003, it might seem like a strange time for a dramatic reintroduction to supersonic travel, but Aboulafia said the nature of the business aviation market would drive supersonic projects forward.
“Any kind of mass travel using supersonic technologies is a losing proposition, but there’s an extreme top end of the private aviation market where there’s zero elasticity,” Aboulafia said. “They’ll pay any price for that speed. You have not seen that demand at all in scheduled air service, but we’ve seen ample evidence of it in business jets.”
He said there’s a lot of progress being made.
“You couple that demand with advances in sonic boom mitigation and power plant technology and there’s a confluence of events that sooner or later will create a new product,” he explained.
Dassault has investigated SSBJ projects in the past and Allen Paulson looked into partnering with Russian manufacturer Sukhoi, but neither project materialized. While both SAI and Aerion expressed strong confidence in their progress, no one in the industry, including the leaders of those two companies, believes that multiple projects can succeed.
“Given the existence of many stupid investors, there’s certainly room for two of these projects, but it would be a fiscal bloodbath,” Aboulafia said. “This has to come down to one. What you’re seeing is companies putting up a flag and hoping to attract industry partners and investors on the strength of a better approach. They don’t have any illusions and no one involved thinks they can do this on their own. It could be that a third or fourth party has things up their sleeves that we don’t know about, but right here and now, these are the companies pitching their tents and waiting for the cash to flow.”
Higher, further, faster
Brian Barents, vice chairman of Aerion and the former CEO of Galaxy Aerospace Corporate and Learjet, Inc., said they felt the time was right to begin in earnest to launch their project.
“We are a 100-year old industry with 30 years of ability to fly supersonic transport for commercial purposes, and today we don’t have that ability,” he said.
One of the biggest differences in Aerion’s approach is that their product is designed to fly subsonically over land, which doesn’t violate the Federal Aviation Administration’s current sonic boom regulations. Aerion’s 90,000-pound design utilizes a thin, unswept leading edge wing and T-tail to achieve natural laminar flow at a Mach 1.5 maximum range cruise.
The aircraft’s tremendously light structure results in a lower weight aircraft. Aerion’s aircraft will use engines derived from an existing Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 rated sufficient for supersonic cruise. The aircraft’s 125-knot approach speed would allow it to operate from airports with 6,000-foot runways.
A predecessor company, the ASSET Group, led by aerodynamicist Dr. Richard Tracy, conducted the study of natural laminar flow technology over a decade. That company performed supersonic flight tests on the wing technology in collaboration with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.
“We’ll be willing to live with a low-boom, high-subsonic aircraft,” Barents confirmed. “We believe there’s a case where we can probably fly at Mach 1.1 without creating a boom. With the efficiencies of the natural laminar flow wing, we don’t pay a fuel penalty for flying at high subsonic speeds. We believe that by designing an airplane that can fly under the current rules, we’ll mitigate that risk and be the first to the market.”
One point of debate is that Aerion estimates its supersonic business jet will cost between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion to develop. That cost is less than half of what some analysts have speculated such a project would cost and significantly under the $2.5 to $3 billion that SAI anticipates for its QSST.
“First of all, we’re using a conventional design, conventional materials and an existing engine,” Barents said. “Choosing an existing engine takes a substantial amount of risk out of a development program, both in time and money. We believe that we’re very much in the ballpark at the $1.2 to $1.4 billion mark. By taking the path of least resistance and not changing the rules, we believe we can be first to the market by a minimum of five years.”
While Bass’ financial contribution is critical, Barents said that it wasn’t undertaken lightly.
“Mr. Bass’ resources are considerable, but he isn’t a foolish investor,” Barents said. “He spent a year and a half going through the project to make sure that Dr. Tracy’s patents were enforceable, meaningful and had a financial value. One thing I’ve noted about Bob’s involvement is that he isn’t only financially committed, but he’s intellectually committed as well. That makes for a nice marriage when you’re looking for a financial partner.”
Aerion also counts Michael Henderson, a veteran Boeing engineer who led its supersonic transport program in the 1990s, among its management team. The company will spend the next 18 months refining its design while it assembles a consortium of established manufacturers to share its risk. Its five-year program plan includes three flight test vehicles.
“Reaction has been very positive,” Barents said. “Frankly, based on the enthusiasm and commitment that we received even prior to the announcement, we feel very confident that we won’t be lacking for participants in our program.”
Barents anticipates a market of 300 aircraft over the next 10 years; fractional and charter operators are expected to be 40 to 60 percent of the identified market for Aerion’s SSBJ. Richard Smith, vice president of NetJets, sits on Aerion’s five-member product review board.
“We believe that since the Wright brothers’ first flight, the quest for aviation has been higher, further, faster. With the retirement of the Concorde, we’re now achieving that objective. It’s a matter of balancing the technology available today with the economics to ensure that there’s an economic case to make the investment to go forward.”
The cloaked trail
SAI may have announced their Quiet Supersonic Transport project at the same time as Aerion, but they’ve been working on it for more than three years. The QSST design continues the legacy of aerospace pioneer Allen Paulson, who left funds in trust for his son Michael to use for the project.
“He knew that subsonic transportation was going to reach a wall,” Paulson said of his father, who died in 2000. “We believe that we’ve already hit that wall. You cannot tweak the current line of business jets any further. You can change the avionics a little, but the only revolutionary way to change transportation is to go supersonic and make it available to the business and government transportation markets.”
To that end, SAI has been pursuing a course that Tom Hartmann, their program manager at Lockheed Martin, calls “the cloaked trail.” For more than three years, SAI has been secretly funding the design process at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, which has confirmed the viability of a quiet supersonic business jet.
SAI’s QSST is a 153,000-pound, low-boom aircraft designed to allow supersonic flight over land. Its swept-wing design combines low drag, light weight, an inverted V-tail and revolutionary sonic boom mitigation technologies outlined in 27 pending patents to achieve a maximum cruise speed of Mach 1.6 to 1.8. The current design requires a runway length of 8,000 feet. Its most significant technological advantage is integrated sonic boom mitigation that reduces the boom signature of the QSST of less than 1/100th of the Concorde. Although engines haven’t been selected yet, SAI is in discussions with GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce.
SAI’s biggest challenge outside of financing is changing the rules to suit their design. Current Federal Aviation Regulation Sec. 91.817 prohibits sonic booms over U.S. land and as much as 200 miles from shore. Additionally, new FAA regulations regarding noise level, known as Stage Four, are anticipated to be in place by 2006.
“The regulation that is out there today was written in response to a congressional mandate that was directed at Concorde, which had no sonic boom mitigation at all. The advances in technology have shown that it is possible to mitigate sonic boom,” said Robert Metzger, an aerospace industry expert and partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Metzger has been consulting on the project since its inception. SAI has also been drawing council from Bob Cooper and Clay Lacy, a longtime friend of the elder Paulson.
SAI has been actively engaging the FAA to convince them to amend FAR 91.817, allowing for no-boom supersonic flight over the continental U.S. On the international front, SAI is looking for partners and working with regulatory agencies in Europe and Asia, to which the QSST would expect to travel.
It’s also following closely the work of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Committee for Aviation Environmental Protection, which is also working on the FAA’s regulatory criteria. In some overland areas, SAI anticipates using existing supersonic corridors over sparsely populated areas such as northern Canada and Siberia. Paulson has admitted that if the regulations weren’t altered, the QSST would suffer a 10 percent penalty in range.
“We’ve been acutely aware of the need to satisfy every potential constituency,” Metzger said. “When Lockheed Martin announced that it believed in the QSST design and solved the sonic boom problem, suddenly the issue of how to regulate supersonic business aircraft was no longer an abstract or academic question. Now, technology has matured to the point where the FAA will have to deal with the emergence of a real aircraft.”
Now that it has completed its initial design, SAI will move on to a $50 million second phase with a push towards “risk mitigation.” Its activities will include further negotiations with regulators, the expansion of SAI’s management team to handle technical and financial functions, further polishing and engineering of the QSST design and, like Aerion, the assembly of a global consortium to build the QSST. Phase three is expected to start in 2007 with a first flight targeted by 2011. SAI expects the QSST to enter service in 2012.
SAI’s management team anticipates a market for 300 to 400 aircraft over the next 10 to 15 years.
“We have a product that offers some unique advantages to those who have employed business aircraft, whether they are business executives, those who need to transport high-value goods rapidly, or government leaders,” Metzger said. “We think there’s a clear trend that has been established over the past 25 years. If someone can offer a vehicle that will go faster, the market will gravitate towards it. That’s been shown amply by the success that Cessna has enjoyed with the Citation 10 that offers just a 10 percent speed advantage. Our aircraft offers a nearly 100 percent speed advantage and has a realistic capability of receiving permission to fly at supersonic speeds everywhere in the world.”
In a larger scope, SAI’s management is also thinking about a future in which more people will be able to take advantage of supersonic flight. It’s already examining growth derivatives of its design that could potentially seat as many as 40 passengers. The company’s leadership anticipates that the introduction of a supersonic jet will provide a transition for larger commercial jet ventures to proceed.
“This aircraft will serve to introduce to the public the benefits of a quantum improvement in intercontinental range travel. With a supersonic business jet, where the technology challenges aren’t as formidable and the financial side is not as formidable as a large high-speed transport, it’s a natural stepping stone to a much larger transportation potential.”
Although it’s never been explicit in the designs of either Aerion or SAI, it’s been noted that a low-boom supersonic jet could potentially be applied to military or other government functions.
“There are direct applications, such as selling a supersonic business jet for rapid deployment or head-of-state missions, but then there’s also the technology benefit that could come out of such a program to create a supersonic stealth strike program or even a cruise missile,” Aboulafia said. “Stealth and speed have never been combined in the history of strategic strike. They’ve always been irreconcilable, but if they were to be put together it would be a fairly good objective for the Department of Defense.”
SAI has looked at military derivatives as part of their design process, but said that no direct military application is on the table.
“Our focus has been on the civil market,” Metzger said. “The aircraft hasn’t been designed with any military characteristics such as stealth or suppression in mind. We believe its acceptability to the world will be enhanced if it’s manufactured on a global basis and sold to civil users. That said, we certainly would anticipate that the aircraft would be acquired by the U.S. government and used by military leadership for transport services and perhaps for special purposes just as the Gulfstream V has been acquired by the Department of Defense. It’s a low priority in our planning at this point.”
Winner takes all
Both companies naturally expressed doubt about their competitor’s ability to succeed.
“Pursuing supersonic over land is going to require a substantial investment in both time and money and also the requirement for a rule change, which we think brings a lot of risk,” Aerion’s Barents said. “When you look at making a change like that, you don’t know where the goal line is.”
Bass’ track record as an investor and his faith in Tracy’s design provides a strong argument to potential investors. But SAI is convinced that it is further along in the process of creating the first supersonic business jet.
“They are essentially where we were four years ago,” said Hartmann. “Four years ago, when Michael and his father came to us and asked if a supersonic business jet was feasible, we told them that we didn’t know, but we knew what it took to find out. That has been the effort over the past four years. There have been moments when we started questioning whether certain design challenges could be overcome and we have succeeded. I’m not sure that Aerion has tackled those challenges yet.
“Even if their concept were that mature, it’s not intended to be capable of supersonic flight over land. There’s no sonic boom mitigation technology in their design and the nature of it is that it’s not something you can just add at the end. It’s inherent in every aspect of the design.”
Industry reaction has been mixed, but all the major airframe manufacturers are paying attention to the projects despite the high risk involved. Both companies also have major challenges ahead.
“Aerion’s project looks like an extreme sort of interim step,” Aboulafia said. “It looks as though they have one shortcut, which is their wing technology, and the rest is being cobbled together to race that technology to market. It’s hard to tell if that is a good approach or not.”
On the other hand, SAI will also have their hands full in trying to change the aviation regulations not just in the U.S., but also worldwide.
“I can’t imagine the FAA changing that rule,” Aboulafia said. “Boom over land needs some minor tweaking and modification, but the noise rules in this country and around the world have only gone one way—more stringent, not less.”
Aboulafia explained that the nature of the build process should eventually narrow down the field to one.
“It really shouldn’t be a race, because there’s nothing in the market that’s screaming for it. Wise investors should look closely at the technology, but you can’t always predict investor behavior. Fortunately, this takes a lot more money than a couple of investors. It takes big industrial partnerships and with that kind of coalition, you have to go through due diligence. This is not like Howard Hughes building the Spruce Goose because he felt like it.”
“For the sake of everyone involved, the resources should be limited to one,” Aboulafia concluded. “Given the amount of resources it would take to bring a supersonic project to market, two teams are almost unthinkable.”