Kansas, FAA Agree To Establish Supersonic Test Corridor

 - December 17, 2020, 12:31 PM
The state of Kansas is paving the way for supersonic trials of aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin/NASA X-59 through an agreement with the FAA to establish a Kansas Supersonic Transportation Corridor. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The Kansas Department of Transportation signed an agreement with the FAA to establish a Kansas Supersonic Transportation Corridor (SSTC) that would be used for testing aircraft up to Mach 3, the state announced today.

The agreement would provide a critical testing site for the emerging group of supersonic aircraft as civil supersonic flight remains banned over land. Flight testing for models such as Aerion’s AS2 and Boom’s Overture is expected this decade, while NASA noise trials with the Lockheed Martin X-59 demonstrator are anticipated by 2024. “This year marks 73 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and with this supersonic flight corridor Kansas will have a unique role in the next generation of supersonic transportation,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) in the announcement of the agreement.

The 770-nm corridor, designed as a bi-directional “racetrack,” runs from slightly west and south of Garden City, Kansas to nearly Pittsburg in the east at altitudes above FL390. It runs right over Wichita.

In establishing the corridor, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) Division of Aviation worked with the FAA Central Region and air traffic control, and Lemasters Group Consulting to establish specific procedures for use of the corridor such as requirements for entry into the corridor and clearance before takeoff for direction and flight route to minimize effects of supersonic aircraft on commercial traffic.

KDOT is working with Wichita State University’s National Institute of Aviation Research (NIAR) to collect noise data and live telemetry from the aircraft. “This partnership with KDOT provides a sophisticated and cost-effective flight test capability within reach of every major aircraft manufacturer in the country,” said John Tomblin, WSU senior v-p for industry and defense programs and executive director of NIAR.

KDOT director of aviation Bob Brock said the corridor will provide a logistical advantage since it is the first and only such commercial supersonic flight test route in the nation’s interior.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) lauded the establishment of the corridor, saying it will help in the “re-birth” of civil supersonic travel. “The Kansas Supersonic Transportation Corridor will assist in the assessment of sound mitigating structural and engine designs as well as state of the art atmospheric acoustic modeling that eliminates the sonic boom and shapes the noise signature of an aircraft traveling faster than the speed of sound to a very low volume rumble,” said GAMA president and CEO Pete Bunce. “The validation of these technological breakthroughs through the use of sophisticated ground acoustic and telemetry sensors will provide the necessary data to assist global regulators and policymakers in modernizing supersonic flight policies.”

NASA plans to use the Lockheed Martin X-59 demonstrator to test low-boom noise effects over various populations. “I’m really excited about quiet supersonic technology and its ability to be transformative for flight and our economy,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. 

Aerion, meanwhile, plans to test “Boom Cruise” technology that is designed to keep the sonic boom from reaching the ground with plans to begin flight trials in 2025, while Boom is looking at low boom technologies for its commercial airliner Overture.

The agreement comes as the FAA has taken a multi-faceted approach to facilitate the emergence of supersonic transport while still meeting environmental and safety goals. “As part of the DOT’s priority on innovation in transportation, the DOT and the FAA are taking steps to advance the development of civil supersonic aircraft,” the agency said in a recent fact sheet pointing out its two rulemaking activities, including a proposed rule for noise certification of supersonic aircraft and a second proposed rule to streamline and clarify special flight authorization procedures for conducting supersonic flight-testing in the U.S.

Kansas state leaders look at the corridor as an opportunity to stay at the forefront of aviation technologies. “To be able to deliver this new opportunity for our country is yet another example of Kansas cementing its reputation as a national leader in the aviation industry,” said Kansas Governor Laura Kelly. “This high-altitude flight corridor gives Kansas a strategic advantage in attracting companies involved in the development of supersonic aircraft and will play a significant role in our state’s ability to encourage economic development as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Citing industry forecasts of a market for as many as 300 supersonic aircraft over a 10-year period, valued at as much as $40 billion in revenue, Moran further said a new crop of supersonic aircraft will require a deep bench of skilled manufacturing talent.”