Back Up to Speed Again?

 - April 2, 2007, 10:37 AM

SSBJ UPDATE: Elsewhere in this issue (“In The Works,” page 78) is word of Sukhoi’s continuing work on feasibility studies on the S-21, a supersonic business jet that, according to the company’s general director of civil aircraft, could not appear before 2010 or 2012. Sukhoi’s technical director, however, reckons it will take 10 years or so from now to reduce the sonic boom to the point that an SSBJ could be certifiable for overland operation above Mach 1. In that case, even 2014 would likely be optimistic.

Perhaps this internal difference of opinion explains why the Russian manufacturer recently revealed plans for a transonic jet as a more expedient vehicle for the company to secure a place in the business aircraft market. A model seen by AIN’s CIS correspondent, Vladimir Karnozov, at the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft engineering center in Moscow, called the Transonic BJ and 098 Sukhoi, mates the supersonic S-21 project’s fuselage with an airliner-style wing carrying two pod-mounted engines. The 098 designation, presumably, refers to a cruise speed of Mach 0.98.

At the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) in Geneva, Switzerland, in late May, Dassault Aviation chairman Charles Edelstenne said that while his company has no development work under way on an SSBJ, research continues into ways to reduce the sonic boom to the point that supersonic overland operations could be approved. Edelstenne further noted that there is no room for several competitors in the SSBJ market, meaning any such project would have to be a joint venture among several manufacturers.

Dassault Aviation vice chairman Bruno Revellin-Falcoz said at the same convention that the powerplant hurdle for an SSBJ remains the cost and financial risk of developing an engine that is happy to operate for long periods at Mach 1.8 or so (a mission that does not apply to fighter engines, which usually venture into the supersonic realm only for brief dashes).

400 SSBJs?

The daunting financial risk of making an SSBJ continues to temper the enthusiasm of would-be developers uncertain of just how many airplanes they might expect to sell. NetJets executive vice president Richard Smith, based at the fractional provider’s Columbus, Ohio operations center, remains receptive to the prospect of offering a supersonic airplane costing possibly $100 million a copy. Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia predicts a market for approximately 400 SSBJs over 20 years, each costing perhaps $80 million. Aboulafia was recently quoted in Fortune as saying, “The supersonic business jet is the last untapped aerospace market. People will pay anything at the top end.”

Movers and shakers in business aircraft manufacturing speak of an underlying demand for more speed in business aviation, as well as the government VIP and even express freight markets. The question remains, however, as to whether that demand will be sturdy enough to stomach the price. Concorde, the pioneer of civil supersonic operations, lasted 27 years serving a clientele that was willing to pay top dollar for top speed, but eventually even that faithful following fell off, and now the airplanes silently gather dust in museums. Concorde’s case was not helped by the fact that its boom relegated it to overwater routes and, in the end, just London and Paris to New York.

The vacuum created by the SST’s retirement seems to be unlikely to endure. The subject of SSBJs has returned to prominence in the nine months since civil supersonic travel went away, and the prevailing wisdom now is that an SSBJ is the most likely “replacement,” and while the timeframe might be unclear now, it’s still just a matter of time.