NBAA Convention News

Aerion continues to search for OEM partner on SSBJ

 - October 5, 2008, 10:29 AM

Aerion executives still hope they will secure an OEM partner by the end of the year to build the company’s supersonic business jet, but vice chairman Brian Barents told NBAA Convention News that the company won’t “fall off a cliff” if the deadline passes without an announcement.

“There’s potential to move the timeline to the right,” Barents said, “but we’re very optimistic that we’ll have something to report later this year.” The company (Booth No. 714) originally planned to certify the airplane in 2014, with the assumption that a partner would have been selected this year. A delay in selecting an OEM partner could affect the planned certification date.

Barents said discussions with potential partners are going “quite well,” but he declined to name specific companies Aerion has approached. He added, however, that there “aren’t a lot of companies that have the capability to do this.” He also said Aerion is in discussion with OEMs in the U.S. and Europe.

When asked if the OEMs in question are well-known companies, chairman Robert Bass replied, “Certifying an airplane is not for a novice.” He also admitted that the selected OEM would eventually brand the aircraft and support the project well into the future, with Aerion staying on as a partner. Barents said the company would expect the OEM to make a “major financial commitment.”

Gulfstream is not likely to be among the potential partners. The OEM has called a federal rule that bans supersonic flights over land “a major hurdle” and questioned whether market demand for a supersonic jet that would be prohibited from traveling at supersonic speeds nationally would be enough to justify the investment.

Barents dismissed Gulfstream’s concerns yesterday. “While we respect their position, it’s clearly not the direction that we’re going in,” he said. “We have an aircraft that’s very fuel efficient at both high subsonic speeds as well as at 1.26 Mach cruise speed.” The jet would be able to fly from New York to Paris in four hours and 14 minutes, and New York to Los Angeles in four hours and 19 minutes. “We’re not assuming we’re going to be all things to all people. But we do assume that there’s sufficient demand to justify investment to bring the product forward,” he said.

To date, Aerion said it has received more than $4 billion in orders for the $80 million jet and expects the NBAA Convention this week to spark renewed interest. Barents acknowledged, however, that the current financial crisis altered the orders. “There has been some movement, both positive and negative,” he said. “Some rescheduled, but others moved in right behind. So overall there hasn’t been a significant change.”

Barents also acknowledged that the economic downturn could impact the industry as a whole. “The economy leaves a lot of questions as to where we’re going,” he said. “But we’ve been here before. We’re not immune to swings in the economy.” He added, however, that the industry’s “very robust backlog” should diminish the effects of the downturn. “We’re still optimistic about the long-term future of the industry.”

Barents also expressed hope that international interest will keep the industry– and Aerion–afloat. International buyers make up 70 percent of the company’s orders. “I think that’s indicative of the dynamics of the marketplace,” he said. “In the previous five years there has been a dramatic shift, and almost 60 percent of the market is now international. That’s clearly something that will dampen the effect of the peaks and valleys that we have traditionally seen in our industry as we go through economic cycles.”

Bass said the industry shouldn’t expect a short recession but expressed confidence that the U.S. will recover eventually. He tentatively predicted that the economy should start recovering in two to three years. He added that the financial crisis would have a small effect on the company’s plans. “This shouldn’t affect our schedule,” he said.

Wind Tunnel Tests
In August, Aerion concluded wind tunnel tests at the European Transonic Wind Tunnel facility near Cologne, Germany. The “historic” tests simulated supersonic laminar flow wing performance at cruising altitude and proved to be very successful, according to chief technology officer Dr. Richard Tracy. Before those tests, the company had not been able to reproduce flight conditions at supersonic speeds.

“That had never been demonstrated, but when you’re planning a multibillion-dollar project, people want you to prove that it works,” Tracy said. “This test was really successful. We saw full supersonic laminar flow, and it was right on the money. This was a milestone in aerodynamic research.” Achieving supersonic laminar flow can reduce drag up to 90 percent, the company said.

The wind tunnel tests were conducted at Mach 1.35, slightly slower than the proposed Mach 1.6 speed of the Aerion jet. Tracy said the figure was “high enough to establish supersonic flow,” however, and explained that laminar flow is more stable as Mach numbers increase. “If laminar flow is present at Mach 1.2 and 1.35, then it will only become more robust as speed increases to Mach 1.6,” he said. “We are therefore unequivocally delighted with the results of the test.”

In addition to wind tunnel tests, the company is also testing scale versions of the engine exhaust nozzle to reduce noise,  and it has made “many small design refinements” to the original model.

The company also has two new board members: Doug Nichols, a Boeing veteran who also contributed to the Bombardier C Series, has joined the company as chief financial officer; and John Holding, a former junior engineer for British Aerospace who contributed to the development of the Concorde’s variable engine intake system and served as Bombardier Aerospace’s executive vice president, Integrated Product Definition and Planning Engineering, has joined Aerion as a special advisor.