While the ban on supersonic flight over land is still in place, the field of supersonic contenders is growing increasingly crowded as new prospective developers jump into the fray while others accelerate their pace of development.
This field has expanded even during the pandemic with recent announcements covering Virgin Galactic’s Mach 3 jet and the U.S. government’s supersonic Air Force One executive transport. They join a fray that has already included Aerion Supersonic with its AS2 Mach 1.4 business jet, Boom with the Overture Mach 2.2 airliner, and the Mach 1.6 Spike Supersonic Jet that could have commercial or business aircraft possibilities.
Meanwhile, on the research front, Lockheed Martin, which has already been in the supersonic realm on the military side, is deeply involved in low-boom research with the NASA X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator.
However, the question remains whether supersonic is a reasonable possibility in the next decade and, if so, how many aircraft can the market reasonably sustain? As for plausibility, analysts are optimistic that supersonic is a realistic possibility. As for the market, most agree that there might be room for one to two players at most.
“I am bullish,” said Rolland Vincent, president of Rolland Vincent Associates and JetNet IQ creator/director, adding that the prospects now look strong enough to include supersonic production in JetNet’s long-term forecast. That forecast predicts a 10-year market for 300 supersonic business jets, which incidentally is the forecast production rate Aerion has projected for its AS2.
While Vincent emphasizes that “speed sells,” he doubts the market could accommodate all those who are either in or contemplating joining the market. “The five will become two,” he said. The commercial airliner side might open up further room.
However, Vincent worries that the downturn associated with Covid might provide difficulties for these programs, causing investors to scale back. “What is Covid doing to all of this? Nothing good,” he said. “This is going to delay quite a bit of investment in the sector.” This in turn could push off when a supersonic aircraft may reach the market, he said.
Richard Aboulafia, v-p of analysis for Teal Group, meanwhile, noted that business jets and commercial airliners operate in very different economic models and said he believes there is more hope in the business jet side than for a commercial variant. “The prospects for supersonics exist with business. They do not exist with commercial,” he said. For a commercial airline model to work with supersonics, he said, the flights would need to be offered at full-fare first class. “There just aren't enough city pairs, not enough routes where these people exist in sufficient numbers.”
This is especially true in the current environment, making the road for companies looking to the commercial market first more difficult, he said.
Brian Foley, founder of Brian Foley Associates, said he believes the activity in the development arena makes the outlook promising. “The number of entrants suggests that the market has been validated and the enabling technologies such as propulsion and aerodynamics are soon to be there,” he said.
Foley, who has been retained by Spike on its program—but cautions that his thoughts are his own, not necessarily those of Spike—however, pointed to one of the biggest obstacles for these aircraft: “The path will go at the speed of cash. These undertakings cost billions.” This means finding the interest of a billionaire aviation enthusiast, sovereign fund, or a well-timed military contract, he said.
As far as the size of the market, he said, “There is perhaps room for only a couple of players to compete over a finite number of sales.” He agrees with Vincent on the potential volume, saying the market could sustain about 300 units over 10 years and noting that’s been a fairly consistent estimate since the 1990s. He further estimated a decade-long potential market value of $37 billion at $150 million per copy. List prices may be high, he added, “since there would be no other aircraft that could do the job.”
He also underscored the importance of reaching the market ahead of the competitors. “The first manufacturer to deliver would garner much of the obtainable market by virtue of being first into a very niche segment.”
As for the programs, no full-scale flying prototype has been produced as yet from the new breed of supersonic hopefuls. From a development standpoint, Aerion this year put many key pieces in motion that could put it on pace to be the first out of the gate. Aerion refined its AS2 design to one that could reach the market sooner, it is about ready to kick off construction on a massive headquarters complex that will house production, and it has nailed down many of the suppliers for the production aircraft. It also has begun high-speed wind tunnel testing. Plans call to cut metal in 2023, fly the first test aircraft in 2025, and reach market somewhere around 2027.
Importantly, Aerion is designing its aircraft to be able to fly over land subsonically at a very high speed, just under the speed of sound, but reach supersonic speeds over water. This enables it to reach the market regardless of whether the ban on supersonic flight over land is lifted. However, Aerion is also eyeing the possibility of a lower supersonic speed over land that does not produce the same sonic boom for the longer term.
Foley expressed the view that the quickest path to market will be near-sonic overland and supersonic over water. But he also stressed that longer-term, the market must be able to fly supersonic over land.
If Aerion forges ahead and reaches the market first, it will give it a big advantage, Aboulafia said, given the limited size of the market.
The analysts all pointed out risks associated with Aerion’s partnership with Boeing. Notably, Boeing, which reported a hefty $2.4 billion second-quarter loss from the pandemic and the woes of the Max program, recently announced plans to shutter its NeXt division, which is the overarching organization that has invested in Aerion. Boeing reportedly has invested several hundred million dollars for a 40 percent stake in the company and two board positions. While questions have been raised about Boeing’s commitment to the supersonic development, Aerion has said that Boeing remains a long-term investor.
Aboulafia said Aerion has had a “remarkable run” with partnerships that have also included in the past Airbus and Lockheed Martin. “I don't know where they are with Boeing,” he said. “It doesn't look great. We’ll see.”
And Vincent also expressed concern the pandemic has taken a toll on GE, which is developing the Affinity engine that will power the AS2.
Meanwhile, Boom in recent months has marked a couple of milestones that are propelling its ambitions for a Mach 2.2, 55-passenger Overture. On October 7, Boom rolled out a “Baby Boom” or the XB-1, which is a third-scale model that the company says is “more than a scale replica,” but said it would “provide insights “into future cost-savings, safety, efficiency, and sustainability for Overture.”
Flight trials of the XB-1 are to begin next year at Mojave Air and Space Port. Plans also call to kick off the Overture certification program by the middle of the decade with a 2030 entry into service.
As for supersonic flight overland, Boom also is initially looking at subsonic over land, for now, saying it is focusing on “500+ primarily transoceanic routes that benefit from supersonic speeds—such as New York to London or San Francisco to Tokyo. Overture won't generate a sonic boom over land cruising at subsonic speeds.”
Boom had raised $160 million from investors and is continuing its fundraising effort. While looking at a more difficult commercial market, its program did receive an important boost from the U.S. government.
Boom joined Exosonic and Hermeus—lesser-known developers of supersonic passenger aircraft—in receiving contracts from the U.S. Air Force’s Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate to develop executive transports that could be used as Air Force One. Like Boom, Exosonic is working on a supersonic airliner, while Hermeus hopes to develop a smaller, 20-seat hypersonic airplane.
Spike, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet on its development front. But it has been busy building a team of well-known and seasoned aerospace veterans that can build the case for the concept and attract funding. A couple of key executives who have come on board of late are John Thomas, former CEO of Virgin Australia Airline, and Bill Boisture, whose resume includes being president and COO of Gulfstream Aerospace, president of NetJets, chairman and CEO of Hawker Beechcraft, and, currently, operating partner at AeroEquity.
"I had been skeptical of the business model for supersonic flight as the corporate market seemed too small for a supersonic business jet,” Boisture said. “But the Spike Supersonic Jet can meet the needs of private, corporate, and commercial airline operations. Being able to serve multiple markets expands the opportunity dramatically and makes a strong business case for Spike Aerospace.”
Foley believes that “cash-strapped Boeing’s future commitment to the Aerion program and Boom’s reliance on the collapsed airliner industry has fundamentally changed the dynamic of the race and put it up for grabs,” and said, “For me, the low-boom signature of the Spike program enables it to compete across a broad spectrum of corporate, military, and airline markets.”
Spike is planning the 18-passenger, Mach 1.6 S-512, which will feature a low sonic boom over land and could be developed either as a business jet or possibly commercially.
Meanwhile, just this past summer Virgin Galactic unveiled it was in the “first stage design scope” of a supersonic delta-wing commercial aircraft that could carry up to 19 people, fly at altitudes above 60,000 feet, and reach speeds of Mach 3.
Internationally, the Russian government continues to research possibilities of a supersonic business jet, recently declaring it would be a clean-sheet design, rather than earlier reports of a revamped Tu-160 bomber. Aboulafia stressed this is an important path, noting the concept of converting an old military model into a high-end supersonic model didn’t make sense. “There might've been some technology at some point, but the idea of converting it [to a business jet], that's something you scratch your head over.”
But perhaps one of the most critical efforts—for the entire supersonic development slate—involves the most experienced member of the fray, Lockheed Martin. The manufacturer of the famed SR-71 has put its Skunk Works facility to work on another supersonic project, the 96-foot-long, Mach 1.4 X-59 QueSST, which is anticipated to begin flying in 2021 to conduct key noise research as part of NASA’s X-plane project. The demonstrator will test the low-boom concept, or as program officials say, a “sonic thud,” to help gather data on the impact of shapes from advanced supersonic designs on communities. This data is anticipated to help serve as a basis for new standards that could ultimately lift the ban on supersonic flight over the next decade.
Despite its once-affiliation with Aerion, Lockheed Martin has no publicly stated plans to build a commercial supersonic business jet, at least for now.
As supersonic designs advance, the NASA/Lockheed Martin research becomes all the more important to convince regulators to revise supersonic rules. Foley said the path to supersonic must involve “regulatory agencies setting objective noise standards for an acceptable boom over land, not just in the airport environment.”
A common thread through the programs is that they will be designed to meet the latest noise standards and run on sustainable alternative fuel (SAF). While no conventional jet aircraft appears to have the capability for 100 percent SAF currently, the move to all-SAF appears to be critical to bringing supersonic aircraft to market.
Already, the environmental community has signaled it will fight any new supersonic entry on the basis that such a vehicle will produce far more emissions than conventional airplanes. Having this opposition may be a significant barrier to any rule change regarding supersonic flight over land even though the new breed of supersonic aircraft designers all have repeatedly stated that no one has any interest in returning a Concorde-like design, with associated emissions and noise, to market.
The ability to run 100 percent sustainably could help allay such environmental concerns. And Aboulafia said this sustainability is an imperative: “Otherwise it's just not going to fly—well, it'll fly, but it will not fly politically.”