Take one young, ambitious pilot who’s also the president of an aircraft charter company and an entrepreneur. Add a few aerospace engineering geniuses with a high-flying vision. Mix them together and fasten your seatbelt. Rocket-powered airplanes are preparing for takeoff.
Private air charter may very soon cost a lot less and fly a lot faster than ever before, even possibly taking us into suborbital travel from Los Angeles to New York in 58 minutes. Have your doubts? Think back to some 100 years ago when naysayers warned that if God had meant for man to fly, he would have given him wings. And remember what happened in Bill Gates’ garage when two college dropouts put their minds together?
Jeff Runyan, president of Runjet Aviation at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif, says this is the goal of Runjet’s recent alliance with Aerospace Technology Group, Inc. Runyan redefines the term “entrepreneur” with his independent, assertive, “take no prisoners” attitude and his “customer service first” approach to problem solving and solid business building of the company.
Runyan put both his wife and himself through school while working fulltime as a pilot and qualifying to fly 17 different types of aircraft. His years of corporate experience in air charter piloting taught him the fundamental rules of operation upon which he has established Runjet Aviation: service, quality and performance.
Though charter pilots’ salaries were descending in the 1980s, Runyan still kept flying, and flying. He saw duty hours go right out the window and watched as pilots dangerously continued their charter flight duties, exhausted, but nonetheless committed to the job and in need of making a decent living. He also observed pilots acting too important or simply too tired to help passengers with their carry-on bags. Runyan decided that his company policy would always be to pay careful attention to passenger pampering while maintaining safe duty hours for pilots.
Then, very light jets landed on the market, and Runyan’s vision gained altitude. He felt certain the VLJ would transform charter business travel and was determined to find a way to become a part of it all. He also knew that for years, large charter companies were making money on “dead legs” and decided he could run a charter business where the dead legs weren’t being charged to the customer.
Today Runyan and his Runjet manager, Matt Harlin, also a pilot, are solid businessmen with an ambitious vision. They maintain that pilots need to talk to pilots, and that the day-to-day operations of Runjet are much more effective because of their own pilot experience.
Runjet was created with a “charge less, pamper more, perform efficiently, and they will come,” business strategy, according to Runyan.
“Great charter service is all about solid value and distinguished, personalized service. Customers want efficiency, quality and attention. We decided in the beginning to maintain uncommon standards of excellence, and to work hard and smart,” declares Runyan.
It really is rocket science
Fate threw a dazzling curve ball to Runyan’s charter aviation vision this year. Along came Dr. John Kalogeris, president and director of engineering at Aerospace Technology Group, Inc., in Palm Springs, Calif. Under Kalogeris’ direction, the company’s group of highly experienced, innovative, “old gang” engineers were developing three types of before-unseen jet aircraft.
The six-man, tightly knit group of retired aerospace engineers had been laying down plans to build a hybrid rocket and jet-powered plane, which would take passengers from Los Angeles to New York in less than an hour, when they met up with Runyan. All were immediately impressed with one another’s visions and practical business applications, and a partnership was formed.
“We’re a bunch of old codgers,” Kalogeris declares. “We’re literally rocket scientists who helped design spacecraft and intercontinental ballistic missile systems for the government while working for defense contractors such as General Dynamics. Now we’re interested in more efficiently delivering people instead of nuclear bombs.”
Kalogeris, who has the keenness of a seasoned engineer, worked for General Dynamics for several decades. A resident of La Quinta, Calif, he says he’s been working on the technology involved in the planes since 1965. But he became insatiably determined to design and finally build his dream space jet after watching Burt Rutan win the $10 million Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne, which on Oct. 4, 2004, became the first private manned craft to fly more than 62 miles above Earth’s surface.
Shortly after Rutan’s winning flight, Congress passed a law to regulate the nascent industry. To encourage commercial suborbital flight, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which is in effect through 2012, states, in effect, that the commercial space transportation department of the FAA will oversee permits for licensed launches of suborbital passenger flights and will intervene only if a serious or fatal accident occurs.
Kalogeris’ core research and development team of aeronautical engineers collectively bring esteemed credentials in the areas of advanced weapons system deployment, high-altitude training programs, re-entry vehicle capability, nuclear transport, structural dynamics development and flight operations safety.
“Our design group consists of some of the best technical minds in the world,” proclaims Kalogeris. “We’re all part of the original group who developed the technology back in the 1950s and early ’60s when aeronautical theory went from subsonic to hypersonic. We all worked with the FAA, NASA, the USAF, and in civilian aviation. In a five-to-ten year period back in the ’60s, technology infusion was at its peak; we’re using those advanced elements today for a new breed of flying machines.”
The plan calls for a “mini-jet” similar to the VLJ of today, but closer in size to a six-seat corporate jet. It will carry five passengers and one pilot, using Pratt & Whitney high-bypass, twin-turbofan jet engines to climb to an altitude of 38,000 to 40,000 feet. A 5,000-pound thrust rocket engine fueled by nitrous oxide will then be fired, hurtling the craft to an altitude of 350,000 feet.
“At that height, the plane will coast above the earth in an orbit-like trajectory similar to a ballistic missile, until it reaches a point within 100 miles of its destination,” says Kalogeris. “Inertial guidance systems and computer-controlled thrusters will guide the plane back down to 35,000 feet, where its jet engines will start up and the pilot can fly the plane to its launching spot.”
Kalogeris predicts that any airport in the country with a 3,000-foot runway can be used, eliminating the congestion and traffic of municipal airports. He says the jet will land on 950 feet of runway and take off fully loaded on 1,950 feet of runway. He calculates that the aircraft will travel at Mach 3.5, or up to 2,600 miles per hour, with fuel consumption at flying altitude around approximately 50 gallons per hour, compared to 100 to 300 gallons per hour for competitors of today. He assures it’ll travel a distance of 1,980 miles with 230 gallons of fuel and have 45 minutes reserve, if relocation to another airport is required.
“The entire aircraft/spacecraft is designed for 350,000 feet altitude pressurized to 10,000 feet. It will be constructed with state-of-the-art, high-temperature, carbon-filament materials that are bonded to a Kevlar core, so that the thermal stress and fatigue associated with aluminum, titanium and stainless steel will not limit the capability of the Aerospace Plan Series,” claims Kalogeris. “An expert at Creative Composites of Oregon is building our plugs and molds for the first five prototypes. The company has been in fiberglass/carbon layups for more than 30 years, having designed and developed the production tooling for the very successful Lancair aircraft.”
It may sound like science fiction, but Kalogeris doesn’t have time for the naysayers. He anticipates that Federal Aviation Administration certification will take about two years and cost between $30 million and $40 million, with the aircraft itself costing around $2 million to build, with a complete glass cockpit and an inertial guidance system. The Rocket Propulsion Engineering Company at the Mojave Space Port is developing the proposed rocket engine.
Innovation quietly operates in the California desert
Current headquarters for Aerospace Technology Group is in Palm Springs, Calif. The prototype vehicles will be assembled at nearby Thermal Airport in Thermal, Calif. The initial flight, flight testing and structural testing are scheduled for a remote private airport at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif. Long-term future plans are for all production as well as the Flight Safety School to move to the island of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Kalogeris, who served eight years in the U.S. Air Force as a combat pilot in Korea before leaving the service in 1955, says the team plans to first get the plane flying equipped with the jet engines. Once the jet-powered plane is tested and certified, he says they will do the same with the hybrid rocket-powered version.
“We should be carrying passengers commercially within five years,” he claims.
However, Paul Reukauf, a hypersonic engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research
Center—where Dr. Hugh Dryden declares the facility’s mission is to “separate the real from the imagined”—says that won’t be easy. Reukauf designs aircraft that move much faster than the speed of sound. He worked on the X-43, a plane that set the world speed record in November 2004, by flying at nearly 7,000 mph.
Reukauf agrees with Kalogeris that the technology to put a plane in space isn’t new, but says there are many more challenges to doing it for commercial flight. Issues like FAA approval, passenger safety, G-forces, rocket fuel weight, and pressurized flight suits needed for above 60,000 feet, and many more hurdles, make Reukauf cautious regarding this mission.
Runyan has already designed a national infrastructure of several hundred of the rocket-powered jets strategically based throughout the nation to accommodate charter travelers with supersonic efficiency.
Along with the rocket-powered jet, Aerospace Technology Group is also designing and near completion for a VLJ said to have twice the range and twice the payload of any VLJ on the market today. Already, Runjet has on order to receive the first 200 of Aerospace Technology’s anticipated VLJs. However, Runjet’s operations are expanding at an unprecedented rate, forcing Runyan’s team to enlarge its fleet now to keep up with customer demand.
“Fortunately, Runjet’s growth is off the charts, so we’re looking monthly to expand our fleet. Runjet can’t just sit and wait until this is all done, because, realistically, it’ll be a while. As for the rocket-powered aircraft, that’ll just be a matter of getting people used to the idea. I’m the charter part of it. I’m confident we’ll get people used to it and soon thereafter demanding it. We’re going to reduce air charter travel costs by unheard of percentages and we’ll be unbeatable in the industry,” claims Runyan.
Runjet is also currently setting up licensing for reproduction and sales of its state-of-the-art software scheduling system, which Runyan himself designed. He claims this software system rivals any on the market today in efficiency and accuracy, and says it was born of need, not just invention.
As for the rocket-powered jet, the group claims that the U.S. government will be welcome “for purchases only.” They don’t want to answer to governmental bureaucracy. They’re eager themselves to show the government what works. No more $5,000 hammers—and these guys know all too well about $5,000 government hammers.
“The government will be welcome. They’ll be interested in this aircraft for training especially. The aircraft will be able to accelerate a pilot’s training time and save hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Runyan.
According to Runyan, who is a perfectionist himself, Kalogeris knows how to get things done. He knows the right people for this skeletal crew to make this happen so that approval is met as soon as possible. With an age range of 65 to 90 years in Aerospace Technology’s core team, there just isn’t time for all that excessive waste of time they previously experienced in dealing with government projects.
“This will eventually put a lot of airlines out of business. It’ll create the way for more Southwest Airlines—that is, commercial airlines that want more ease of travel, security, safety, and time. This, in my opinion, will redefine charter business travel, saving money and time for the passenger while greatly increasing demand for charter,” says Runyan.
Will it happen? One need only reflect on the comparable strides that have been made in computers. The old IBM punch cards and the 7094 computer housed in a 200,000-square-foot building at General Dynamics are an all-too-clear memory for many of Aerospace Technology’s core team. That computer required minutes to run a trajectory that can now be done in a nanosecond, on a small laptop, with thousands of bits more memory than the original monstrosity. And aren’t we all glad that not enough people listened to the fearful cries of a few warning mankind against the Wright brothers’ genius?
Rocket-powered passenger planes might just be around the bend, so buckle up. Skies are clear. It’ll be a thrilling ride.
For more information, visit [http://www.flyrunjet.com] or contact Jeff Runyan at 866-FlyRunjet or John G. Kalogeris at 760-771-2384.