Aerion logs commitments for SSBJ

 - December 27, 2007, 7:01 AM

Aerion now has commitments covering at least 20 of its proposed supersonic business jet (SSBJ) since it started signing letters of intent with prospective customers in November. The letters of intent come from 20 different clients in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America; operators committing to the program most recently include Pakistan-based executive charter firm Princely Jets and an undisclosed customer from India.

At a December 11 press conference in London, Aerion vice chairman Brian Barents said that it might take until the end of this year to conclude a production agreement with one of several possible OEM partners. The company had previously indicated that it might reach this stage by the middle of this year but insisted that a partnership at year-end will not compromise the rest of the projected timetable, which calls for a program launch in the second quarter of next year, first flight in the second quarter of 2012 and service entry by the end of 2014.

Barents said that the airframe design is effectively frozen but that systems cannot be defined further until Aerion selects the program partners. He said that some engineering work with likely suppliers will be continuing before the OEM agreement is finalized.

Separately, it now transpires that Saudi Arabian businessman Tarek Bin-Laden has not yet paid his $250,000 refundable deposit for an SSBJ despite publicly signing a letter of intent during November’s Dubai Airshow. In November, Aerion appointed Zurich-based ExecuJet Aviation its exclusive sales representative outside the Americas. ExecuJet, which also represents Bombardier in parts of Europe and the Middle East, is approved to offer 40 early delivery positions for the SSBJ to customers in its extensive territory. ExecuJet chief executive Niall Olver said he expects to see further letters of intent signed with customers in Russia, China and India.

Barents indicated that long production backlogs and constrained engineering capacity at the numerous airframers with which Aerion has held talks are the main obstacles to the company’s signing a production agreement. He said that none of the possible partners has required that a specified number of letters of intent be signed before a deal can be reached.

The Comfort of a Super-midsize Cabin

Development costs for the Aerion SSBJ are now estimated at $2.3 billion. This does not include the cost of modifying the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines. Much of the upgrade to this 1980s-vintage powerplant is being done by the engine maker through the Boeing-Northrop Grumman E-8 JStars command and control program for the U.S. military. However, the Aerion engine will require its own new combustor and some other hardware changes.

The revamped JT8D will incorporate some technology from Pratt & Whitney’s new PW6000-series turbofan to meet anticipated environmental limits on noise and emissions. With a mix of sub- and supersonic operations, the projected time between overhaul for the powerplant will be 6,000 flight hours. According to Aerion, fuel burn per passenger will be similar to that of current large-cabin, long-range business jets such as Bombardier’s Global Express and the Gulfstream G550.

The $80 million Aerion SSBJ’s cabin will be of comparable size to a current super-midsize business jet such as Bombardier’s $20 million Challenger 300. Barents said that the main justification for the SSBJ’s premium (four-fold) price tag is the supersonic speed made possible largely by its advanced laminar flow wings and tail.
He compared it to the price differential between the similarly sized Cessna Citation Sovereign and the Mach 0.92 Citation X, although the gap between these is just $4 million.

Aerion’s SSBJ business plan is markedly different from those being considered by rivals Gulfstream, SAI and Dassault Aviation in that it assumes the aircraft will have to operate within existing regulatory constraints. ICAO rules covering overland flights require that jets fly no faster than Mach 1.15 to generate no discernable sonic boom at ground level. The U.S. still bans all supersonic flights over its territory–a move initiated to stifle operations by Europe’s now retired Concorde. Over water or deserted land areas such as eastern Russia, northern Canada and the Australian interior, the SSBJ will be able to cruise at its top speed of Mach 1.6.

Aerion predicts demand for 297 SSBJs over a 10-year period, even if the U.S. supersonic ban remains in place. “We chose to limit our top speed to Mach 1.6 because this allowed us to use existing technology to minimize the program’s risk and get us to market first,” said Barents. Aerion believes its rivals would take until at least 2017 or 2018 to get their all-supersonic models operational with the necessary rule changes.

According to Aerion’s wind-tunnel testing, the natural laminar flow over much of the lower and upper wing surfaces of the SSBJ’s carbon-fiber wing and all of its tail will result in 50 percent less drag than previous supersonic applications. This also allows for the lower approach speeds needed to meet the balanced-field length target of 6,000 feet that will allow the jet to operate into popular business aviation airports near city centers. This same mission also required that the mtow for the metal-fuselage aircraft be kept below 100,000 pounds. At the same time, the design promises reduced transonic drag to avoid diminished range when operating at speeds of below Mach 1.

The range of the aircraft is slated to be 4,500 nm at high subsonic speeds and more than 4,000 nm at supersonic speeds. For a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York, the SSBJ promises a trip that is 40 percent faster than in a conventional long-range business jet, with a projected flight time of four hours 14 minutes. The SSBJ will operate below 51,000 feet to minimize the impact of its engine emissions on the ozone layer.

Barents said Aerion has had initial talks with the FAA, which has indicated that it will not treat the SSBJ as a different category of aircraft for certification purposes. No discussions have been held yet with the EASA.