NBAA Convention News

Aerion’s tech subsidiary brings laminar flow to subsonics

 - October 10, 2011, 7:20 AM
Aerion continues development of its eight- to 12-seat, Mach 1.6 supersonic business jet. The company says its has $4 billion in orders for the future jet and is seeking manufacturing partners for the project.

Supersonic business jet developer Aerion Corp. (Booth No. N5707) says it has gained traction among aircraft manufacturers with its new aerodynamics consultancy–Aerion Technologies–since the subsidiary was launched in May at the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE).

Aerion Technologies was formed to help original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) apply its natural laminar flow (NLF) airfoil design expertise for faster and more efficient subsonic aircraft. Aerion, based in Reno, Nev., says it has developed one of the industry’s most extensive portfolios of NLF test data and methodology for aircraft design, manufacture and operation.

“We’ve been quite busy,” Aerion vice chairman Brian Barents told AIN. “Since the time we announced the [Aerion Technologies] initiative we have engaged with a number of OEMs on their internal projects and we continue to work with them on those projects.”

Barents declined to identify the aircraft manufacturers with which Aerion Technologies is working, but said the subsidiary is “under contract and actively involved” in specific projects using its NLF design tool in high subsonic and transonic flight regimes. Aerion CFO Doug Nichols explained, “The projects are focused on assessing the performance improvements that can be gained from an application of Aerion technology, either in terms of substantially higher speed or substantially improved efficiency–that is, longer range for a given fuel load or substantially less fuel for a given mission, which then involves this virtuous cycle of lower gross weight, lower fuel, lower thrust.”

Mach 1.6 SBJ in the Works

Launched in 2002 and led by billionaire businessman and philanthropist Robert Bass, Aerion continues engineering development of its own design–the eight- to 12-seat, Mach 1.6 Aerion supersonic business jet (SBJ), although the company had no manufacturing partners at this writing.

Aerion says it has $4 billion in orders for the future jet, based on letters of intent (LOI) backed by $250,000 refundable deposits. The LOI establishes a base price for the SBJ of $80 million in 2007 dollars; identifies a base configuration for the aircraft, including range, maximum weight and general interior configuration; and ensures a delivery position. Aircraft deliveries would begin five to six years after the formation of a joint venture to complete SBJ development, production and certification, the company has said.

The LOI backlog has held up through the economic downturn, said Barents, formerly chief executive of both Learjet and Galaxy Aerospace. “We’ve had some movement in and out of the order book. For all intents and purposes, we’re at about the same level [of $4 billion]. We look at that as being successful, particularly considering that we haven’t had any major announcements to make with regard to putting together the consortium to develop and build the airplane.”

With regard to manufacturing partners, Barents said, “I don’t think there’s any question that the state of the economy has had some adverse effect on discussions with potential risk-sharing partners to develop the supersonic airplane. Having said that, looking at the market in general, it’s almost been bifurcated such that the small and medium-size jets are still struggling, but the larger airplanes that sell for in excess of $30 million or $40 million are still doing quite well, not only in the U.S. but in some of the developing markets around the world. From an interest point of view of the Aerion airplane, we’ve been in that category.”

F-15B Test Bed

Last year at the NBAA convention, Aerion announced preliminary results of five data-gathering flights using a flat-plate aerodynamic test article mounted on an F-15B fighter operated by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Static pressures recorded at 60 points on the flat plate at varying speeds and altitudes were compared with values predicted by aircraft computer models. The test flights were designed to map the flow field under the F-15 in order to calibrate instrumentation for the next test article, which Aerion plans to fly by year-end, subject to the availability of NASA’s aircraft.

The first test article “was instrumented in such a way that we could really understand the very complex aerodynamic flows underneath the aircraft, given that it’s a fairly dirty environment with the large inlets of the engines and all of the other flows that are going on where the test article is attached,” Nichols explained. “The key engineering challenge was to accurately map those existing aerodynamic flows so our instrumentation could account for them, and we could then accurately collect and understand the data we’re going to develop under this next series of tests.”

He described the next test article as “a representative, nearly full-chord, but limited-span airfoil. It’s more than a flat plate.” The structure is attached to the underside of the F-15 to measure laminar airflow over its surface. “This series of flight tests will be focused on a test article that will allow us to assess surface quality robustness requirements in order to maintain a large expanse of laminar flow across full chord,” Nichols said. “This next phase is really quite important to us and we expect to complete it by the end of the year, subject to NASA’s schedule.”

As Aerion continues its pursuit of the SBJ, a newer venture has joined the field of supersonic business jet developers. At the Paris Air Show in June, HyperMach Aerospace Industries unveiled plans for the SonicStar, with a blistering cruising speed of Mach 3.5. “I think the fact that there are other entities that are talking about the need for speed and a market for that type of airplane just lends credibility for what we’re doing,” said Barents.