Aerion: viable market for SSBJ

 - October 9, 2006, 4:42 AM

Last month at the Paris Air Show, Reno, Nev.-based Aerion said its market research, conducted over the past nine months by aerospace market research and strategy firm I2, indicates that there is sufficient demand to proceed with development of the company’s proposed supersonic business jet (SSBJ). Aerion publicly unveiled its SSBJ program last October at the NBAA Convention in Las Vegas, saying the natural-laminar-flow-wing aircraft could be in service by 2011.

“This extensive research makes it clear that there is sufficient demand to justify investment going forward,” said Aerion chairman and lead investor Robert Bass. “Leading corporations have told us conclusively that they attach a high value to speed. This should come as no surprise given the premium being paid today for the fastest subsonic jets and given the increasing travel by executives in a global economy.”

I2 surveyed operators of business jets delivered from 1998 through 2003, including all large and intercontinental business jets, in addition to the Mach 0.92 Citation X. Survey participants included only executive decision makers or senior flight department personnel from leading companies.

Together these companies own, operate and manage about 9 percent of the worldwide business jet fleet. This equates to more than 1,100 aircraft, of which nearly 500 are late-model, “high-end” machines. The respondents represented numerous Fortune 500 companies, aircraft management companies and fractional providers.

The recently released report shows a market for between 220 and 260 Aerion SSBJs over a 10-year period, with approximately 20 percent of sales coming from the fractional market. Production over a 20-year program life could exceed 500 units, Aerion noted.

According to Aerion vice chairman Brian Barents, the opinions of senior management and their flight departments were closely aligned and respondents expressed exceptional interest in the Aerion SSBJ concept. Eighty-six percent of respondents were receptive to the Aerion concept, and 27 percent of respondents said they would buy the proposed Aerion design if it were currently available.

Aerion’s commissioned study validated the supersonic twinjet’s cabin size, performance and $80 million target price. As proposed, the Aerion SSBJ has a stand-up 12-passenger cabin that falls between that of current super-midsize and large-cabin business jets.

The aircraft’s range will exceed 4,000 nm and its sea-level runway requirement is expected to be less than 6,000 feet. Aerion says its focus on aerodynamic efficiency results in a SSBJ with a 90,000-pound mtow, which not only reduces costs but also aids in mitigating the supersonic boom signature. The Aerion twinjet design is expected to achieve boomless flight at up to Mach 1.1.

Further, Aerion said the study backs its concept of an aircraft that can cruise efficiently just below the speed of sound wherever supersonic flight is prohibited by current regulations and at supersonic speeds, up to Mach 1.6, elsewhere.

The possibility of a quiet supersonic aircraft design introduced after the Aerion aircraft did not diminish purchase interest in the Aerion concept, the study found.

The Aerion concept is innovative, yet intentionally limited. Using patented supersonic laminar-flow technology developed by Richard Tracy, chief technology officer, the Aerion jet, which will be powered by a pair of 18,000-pound-thrust (derated) Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines, is expected to push the cruise-speed envelope of current business jets by a factor of two, while also maintaining fuel efficiency at subsonic speeds of about Mach 0.98.

Progress on the SSBJ itself continues on schedule. Recently completed low-speed wind-tunnel testing of an 8-percent scale model has shown the need for some refinements of Aerion’s SSBJ design.

The company said it has completed three series of low-speed wind tunnel tests, leading to minor aerodynamic refinements and confirming projected performance in such areas as stall speeds, takeoff and approach speeds and runway requirements. Each of these series entailed several hundred configuration changes, and each run involved force measurements over a wide range of angles of attack, yaw or flow visualization.

“These tests were critical to validating a number of design objectives,” said Aerion COO Mike Henderson. “Based on these tests, we now have high confidence that the Aerion design meets low-speed-handling objectives and will be able to operate from relatively short runways.”

According to Henderson, the wind-tunnel tests validate a balanced field length of less than 6,000 feet at a takeoff weight of 87,000 pounds and under standard conditions. They also validate a landing distance of less than 5,000 feet.

The tests assessed the effectiveness of control surfaces and confirmed lift and drag predictions for a range of flap-up and flap-extended configurations. Using wide-chord, full-span flaps, the Aerion SSBJ will be able to achieve an approach speed of 125 knots at typical landing weight, Henderson said.

Wind-tunnel testing identified two areas for improvement. Changes were made to the tail and strakes, and retesting produced positive results. In addition, the wingtips, trailing-edge flaps and spoiler systems were refined for improved maximum lift, longitudinal stability and lateral control.

Aerion modified the horizontal tail from a T tail to a conventional low-tail configuration after initial wind-tunnel runs indicated excessive downwash on the T tail from the wing and strakes.

Changing the tail design to a more conventional configuration improves stability and eliminates the potential for deep stall, Aerion claims. Strakes were also redesigned to improve low-speed and high-speed performance and to improve stability.

Aerion intends soon to begin a series of high-speed wind-tunnel tests. Meanwhile, discussions with risk-sharing partners are ongoing, and the program could get an official launch next year.