Aerion has seen the business aircraft market change substantially since it announced development of a supersonic business jet (SSBJ) design at the 2004 NBAA convention, but the company remains bullish about market demand for such an aircraft, and its plans to bring its design to fruition. Ahead of NBAA ‘12, Aerion (Booth No. 1112) announced a second round of test flights to validate final engineering specs for the aircraft’s tapered bi-convex wing design, which the company states is significantly more efficient than delta-wing configurations like the Concorde. As with an initial round of flights conducted in 2010, the latest round of testing involves mounting an Aerion test article under a NASA F-15B and measuring its flow qualities while operating at speeds up to Mach 2.0.
“Compared to the version of the aircraft announced in 2004, there have been many small changes to the Aerion design,” Richard Tracy, chief technology officer for Aerion, told AIN. “All were the result of computational optimization testing to reduce supersonic cruise drag, also with an eye toward high subsonic activity, as well as low-speed wind tunnel tests to refine and adjust the final configuration.”
The 40- by 80-inch planar wing test surface works in conjunction with airflow over the F-15’s wings, Tracy said, to give Aerion an accurate representation of the final design’s supersonic laminar flow qualities. “The tests under way now aren’t so we can prove that laminar flow works; we’ve known that a long time,” he added. “What we’re doing specifically with these tests is gathering and refining the data to understand what exact manufacturing tolerances and surface qualities need to be.”
Developing a supersonic aircraft intended to operate from conventional airports (a maximum 6,000-foot takeoff distance is one criterion for the design) certainly seems like a daunting task, though Tracy termed the program’s technical challenges significant, but not impossible. “Everything up to now has been manageable, and we see a clear path to the aircraft being technically achievable,” he said. “These are engineering tasks the aircraft industry does every day, and few are ever easy.”
The greatest concerns facing the Aerion program have been more earthbound in nature. “The most daunting challenge confronting us has been the aftermath of the worldwide financial meltdown,” said Douglas Nichols, Aerion’s COO. “That set in motion a series of events that have particularly affected the business aviation market and the OEMs serving those markets. The attitude and appetite for OEMs to partner with us to build the SSBJ changed as a result. A number of those OEMs had major aircraft programs under way and the meltdown left many of them with more on their plate than they could handle,” he added.
Despite that setback, Nichols remains highly confident that Aerion will find a home for its design, as well as other potential applications for its wing technology. “Talks remain intensive and productive toward moving to the formation of a joint venture with a premier OEM,” he said. “We’re also working with manufacturers to apply Aerion’s natural laminar flow technologies to existing or derivative platforms, an area that has demonstrated substantial opportunities for the company.”
The ability to apply Aerion’s technology to other platforms comes from what Tracy termed “overwhelmingly the wonderful surprise of this venture,” a wing design not only optimized for flying at Mach speeds, but one that is also highly efficient while operating below the speed of sound.
“We found through early analysis and testing that our wing design has really good performance at high subsonic speeds,” he said. “Even though we were focused on supersonic operation and improving supersonic efficiency, we discovered that it’s a much better wing than expected for high subsonic conditions. You can’t fly everywhere supersonic, and past designs lost range at high sub conditions. That opened the door for making this a substantial business case.”
While the economic downturn has affected the company’s timeline for partnering with a manufacturer to build the SSBJ, Nichols is adamant about the need for such an aircraft. “Our internal and external studies of the market for the SSBJ point generally to the same conclusion,” Nichols said. “The market is very large and is ready for such an aircraft, with somewhere between 400 and 600 deliveries over the first 15 years or so of the program. Our technology is also highly scalable, for aircraft smaller or larger than our 12-passenger design. The overall market for the Aerion aircraft is enormous.” The knowledge that they are working on something never before seen in the business aircraft market appears to drive the Aerion team. “All of us who have been involved in dozens of aircraft programs,” Nichols concluded, “have never been involved in a program as intellectually arresting as this one.”