NBAA Convention News

Aerion’s Supersonic Ambitions Are Boosted by Airbus

 - October 21, 2014, 5:10 PM

Aerion’s long-awaited AS2 supersonic business jet (SSBJ) program received a major boost last month when Airbus signed up for a partnership involving an exchange of knowledge and capabilities in design, manufacturing and certification. According to Aerion, the collaboration will support the Mach 1.6, $100+ million AS2 through to certification. Although the industrialization plan for the new jet has still to be confirmed, the Reno, Nev.-based group said that this will happen “over the course of the next year” and confirmed that it is no longer searching for a manufacturing partner.

Engineers from Airbus Group’s Defence and Space division and Aerion have already started working together in Reno. Europe-based Airbus (Booth 5099) will be supporting Aerion (Booth 2220) in specifying and sourcing propulsion systems, airframe structures, avionics and other equipment during the design phase. The companies hope to fly the new three-engine SSBJ design–unveiled at the EBACE show in May–in the third quarter of 2019, achieve FAA certification in the third quarter of 2021, followed by service entry in the second quarter of 2022.

“This agreement accomplishes two major objectives,” said Aerion CEO Doug Nichols. “It provides validation from the industry leader in aerospace innovation, and it decisively kicks the program into high gear. Each company will benefit. Aerion moves quickly toward building a supersonic jet, and Airbus Group gains exclusive access to our research andtechnology.”

Aerion will be tapping Airbus’s strong know-how in managing complex aircraft development programs. “We want their experience,” Nichols told NBAA Convention News. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel for tasks such as drafting standards and drawing release capability.”

Nichols explained that the Airbus team would play a key role in specifying systems for the AS2. “These are people with deep experience in propulsion, stability and control, structures and materials, certification, supply base management and negotiating supplier agreements,” he said. The Airbus division working with Aerion is responsible for programs such as the Eurofighter and the A400M transport. Airbus engineers seconded to Aerion’s Reno headquarters will be supported by colleagues based at the group’s Spanish facilities Madrid and Seville.

The partners have not disclosed whether any money is changing hands as part of the co-development agreement. But Nichols said that both companies are making a very significant commitment in terms of resources. Airbus reserves the right to use the supersonic technology to develop its own aircraft. Under the leadership of Jean Botti, Airbus’s head of innovation works, the group has invested heavily in various space-related projects and plans for suborbital flight.

“Airbus gains exclusive access to Aerion proprietary research and technology and to proprietary multi-disciplinary design tools whose accuracy has been validated in flight-tests,” Nichols said. These technologies include Aerion’s extensive research in natural laminar flow airfoils, design tools and patented aerodynamicdesigns.

Airbus has not explicitly committed to being involved in the manufacturing phase, but Aerion expects to be able to finalize this part of the plan ahead of an anticipated full program launch in 2016. “Decisions relating to overall industrialization strategy will be taken over the course of the next year,” Nichols told AIN. “We are focused today on completing the advanced design phase of theprogram.”

However, it is clear that the scope of Airbus’s role in the development phase will extend into the preparatory stages of industrialization. The European group has a significant North American footprint that includes construction of a new factory at Mobile, Ala., where it is due to start building A320 airliners in 2015. On this side of the Atlantic, Airbus also has a structures design center in Wichita and its Airbus Helicopters manufacturing facilities in Texas.

Technology Advances

According to Aerion, the core facets of its supersonic technology are “very far along and fundamentally proven.” Development work completed so far includes extensive wind-tunnel testing on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as some flight-testing of aerodynamic structures, including recent testing with NASA to validate the robustness of airflow data. “The patents that we have are key to achieving the natural laminar flow over the wing and we keep adding to the patent portfolio in areas such as the design of the strake and main aircraft body,” explained Nichols. “This [program] is more than just a new wing. We have to have it completely integrated into the aircraft and we are well down the road in terms of developing supersonic laminar flow.”

The next key task will be selecting the powerplant for the AS2, now that Aerion has abandoned the original plan to power the earlier twinjet version with the Pratt & Whitney JT8D. “Airbus Group will be deeply involved in the engine selection process as part of the collaboration,” Nichols said. “We see a number of good options to adapt a modern core engine for supersonic requirements.”

Given Aerion’s declared requirement for an optimum core engine in the 15,000-pound-thrust range, the likely contenders include the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW800, GE Passport and Rolls-Royce BR710. The main reason for switching to a three-engine design was the need to meet today’s more stringent takeoff noise restrictions while also delivering enough total thrust. The Aerion/Airbus team aims to have the AS2’s engine selected by the end of third quarter of 2015.

“Reducing noise means using higher bypass engines in which the air goes around the core, but supersonic thrust needs call for the air to go through the core, and with three engines rather than two we can have less thrust from each engine for takeoff,” explained Nichols. “We’re aiming to deliver lots of range at more speed without the need for massive engines and lots of fuel, and overcoming wave and skin-friction drag are at the heart of this. We want a really good aerodynamic solution.”

According to Aerion, the reaction of prospective customers holding letters of intent for its original supersonic jet model has been very positive to both the new AS2 version and to the involvement of Airbus. “When I called one of them, who holds a letter of intent for five aircraft, to tell him about the partnership his response was, ‘Wow, Airbus, what a partner, I can’t wait to take the first step.’ The Airbus name is magic,” concluded Nichols.