EBACE Convention News

With SSBJ, Aerion looks to revive supersonic flight

 - April 28, 2010, 7:47 AM

The airline industry did not embrace supersonic speed the first time around in the 1970s, and today, mired in a recession and struggling to cope with reduced passenger demand for cheap, old-fashioned travel at Mach 0.80, mere survival is consuming all its resources.

There’s certainly no passion for contemplating a successor to Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic transport (SST) that British Airways and Air France retired in 2003. With those airlines’ 13 surviving Concordes consigned to museums or other static roles, business aviation is taking the reins to reintroduce supersonic passenger travel on a simultaneously smaller and larger scale. Smaller, in that the cabin will seat just a dozen or so people rather than Concorde’s 100; and larger in that Aerion, the more visible of the two teams penning an SSBJ (the other is SAI with its QSST), sees a market for 300 SSBJs (as defined by the $80 million airplane Aerion proposes) in 10 years and a total fleet of 500 in 15 years. “First to market has a clear advantage,” asserted Aerion CEO Brian Barents.

Chicago to London, Aerion Style

What might a flight in the Aerion supersonic business jet be like? On its Web site, Aerion considers a trip from Chicago to London.

Eight passengers board for a noon departure. Minutes later the airplane is lined up on Midway’s 6,500-foot Runway 4R. Twin Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines provide a prodigious kick in the pants and the nosewheel lifts off at 147 knots. You are up and away.

Fifteen minutes later, somewhere over Lake Huron and about 150 miles down range, you level at 45,000 feet. Speed builds quickly to Mach 0.98, which is maintained until crossing into Labrador. And here comes the fun part. The throttles go forward and you are suddenly through Mach 1 and accelerating to Mach 1.5 over the next 167 nm. Passengers can marvel at the bulkhead flight data display as the speed builds, or gather around a conference table for a meeting. Or perhaps trade e-mails with the home office.

Once at cruise speed, the pilots climb to the final altitude of FL510 for a quick Atlantic crossing (about two hours). A working lunch is served.

 Approaching Ireland, the pilots throttle back to just shy of Mach 1 and prepare for the approach into Farnborough. In the back, passengers finish up calls to the U.S., where the work day is just concluding. Landing time is about 10:45 p.m. local (five hours and 42 minutes after takeoff). Still time for a night cap in the hotel lounge and a good night’s rest before a busy day. The worst effects of jet lag have been avoided by not flying through the night and a productive day has been preserved.   

These numbers emerged from a recent study by Alden & Associates that, unlike an earlier study for Aerion, includes the very promising Bric market (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Aerion is holding $250,000 deposits (in escrow and refundable until an OEM partner is chosen) on an order book it says is worth $4.5 billion. At $80 million apiece, the math suggests that about 55 aircraft have been spoken for so far since the order book opened at the Dubai Air Show three years ago.

Airline demand for Concorde fizzled primarily because of the SST’s economics, and there was some element of reluctance by U.S. airlines to buy foreign after Boeing had proposed and then shelved an American SST. The economic case against Concorde was compelling in that airlines were investing serious money in newly developed subsonic jetliners, which were reducing the per-seat cost of air travel.

Widebodies, introduced at about the same time that Concorde’s marketing teams were in high gear, further widened the gap between the price of a subsonic and supersonic air ticket. The airlines could not afford to see an SST render their jets prematurely obsolete, which is what had happened to their fleets of late-model DC-7s and Constellations when the 707 and DC-8 swept onto the scene in the late 1950s.

Concorde burned as much fuel as a 400-seat 747 to carry 100 people across the Atlantic, but such was the price of making the crossing in three hours versus seven
or eight. Aerion predicts its aircraft will burn 35,000 pounds of fuel to carry eight passengers from Farnborough to Teterboro in 3 hours 51 minutes, versus 25,000 pounds of fuel for a Gulfstream G550 to carry the same people on the same route in 6 hours 40 minutes.

 A graph on Aerion’s Web site shows that the projected operating cost (fixed and direct combined) of its SSBJ will be between $10 and $11 per nautical mile at Mach 1.5 and closer to $12 at Mach 0.95, compared with Conklin & de Decker figures of $11 per nautical mile for a G550 and close to $16 for both the BBJ and ACJ bizliners. Each dollar figure assumes utilization of 550 block hours per year.

When you consider that the Gulfstream G650 now under development to lead the subsonic, large-cabin, long-range business jet segment is pushing $65 million, a supersonic business jet for today’s market is less vulnerable to economics if Aerion (Booth No. 839) can meet its price goal of $80 million than it is vulnerable to perceptions of environmental damage and wretched excess by the wealthy.

With its four afterburning turbojets, Concorde was something of an environmental hooligan, a child of the Sixties, but only 14 of them ever plied the North Atlantic and flew occasional charters worldwide, and their annual utilization was the lowest in the airline industry.

The Aerion SSBJ, by contrast, will be powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 turbofans, essentially the same engine that made a career of propelling MD-80s. The JT8D might not be as clean and quiet as new-generation engines, but it’s environmentally much better behaved than Concorde’s Olympus 593.

Barents told AIN that his company is still working with Pratt & Whitney on the inlet design and that the choice of engine remains sound. Other minor refinements, he said, include fine tuning the flaps and (for better buffet boundary) the strake design. A larger section of the Aerion wing is destined to undergo flight-testing on a NASA F-15 to validate Reynolds number assumptions when that airplane is revived from phase maintenance.

Technically, the Aerion will be a significantly simpler project than Concorde was, and currently “the wild card is industry recovery,” Barents said, predicting that this will not happen before the second half of next year.

The Aerion’s max cruise speed will be Mach 1.6, thus avoiding the heat-related complexities that attended Concorde’s sustained Mach 2 cruise; for example, at Mach 2, Concorde’s nose-probe temperature became the performance limiting factor when it reached 127 degrees C. At that speed, the wing leading edges reached 99 degrees C, and these blistering temps were reached despite the frigid ambient environment at the airplane’s 60,000- foot ceiling.

The Aerion is being developed for (and its market research predicated on) not only supersonic overwater cruise but also high subsonic cruise as necessary under the assumption that the U.S. ban on overland supersonic flight will endure. The Aerion will have a range of more than 4,200 nm at Mach 1.5 and about 4,600 nm at Mach 0.96 or 0.97. On a U.S. transcontinental flight from Teterboro to Los Angeles LAX with a 41-knot headwind, for example, an Aerion cruising overland at Mach 0.98 will arrive 41 minutes sooner than a jet making the same trip at Mach 0.85–four hours 19 minutes versus five hours, according to Aerion.

Subsonic Overland Flights
Aerion regards it as highly unlikely that regulators will change the rules for 500 wealthy aircraft owners, despite the work done by Gulfstream and NASA to that end. “It’s a sensitive issue,” noted Barents, who concedes that “we could sell more aircraft if overland supersonic were allowed.”

Announced at the NBAA Convention in 2003, the Aerion depends on a natural laminar flow supersonic wing designed by chief technology officer Dr. Richard Tracy. With a length approaching 150 feet and its natural laminar flow wings spanning just 64 feet, the Aerion bears a certain resemblance to the F-104 Starfighter. Without doubt, it is going to have ramp presence like no other executive express. Inside, the cabin will offer seating for eight to 12 passengers (or 18 in a seemingly unlikely high-density configuration), illuminated by a dozen windows on each side.

The big question mark for Aerion at this stage is related less to the technical challenges of an SSBJ and more to the industrial challenges of bringing its design to fruition. Barents told AIN he is in “meaningful discussions with potential partners, and with one OEM in particular [identity and nationality undisclosed at this stage]. Not many companies can take on a project like this, and I’m optimistic about a deal before the end of this year.”

Once Aerion has signed with a partner, the plan is to proceed with a proof of concept and, assuming that passes muster, shoot for certification of the airframe and engine in five years at a cost of $3 billion in 2007 dollars.

If Barents can ink his dance card by year-end, that schedule puts an SSBJ on the ramp, ready for duty, by the end of 2015, marking the end of a dark age in the history of aviation when passengers were forced to ponder how fast air travel used to be.