Supersonic commercial flight could return by 2015


Since the demise of the Concorde in 2003, only fighter jet crews and astronauts have had the pleasure of supersonic flight. The Russians are currently testing a new fifth generation PAK-FA T-50 supersonic stealth fighter that will be in direct competition with the world’s only current fifth generation supersonic jet, the new US F-22 Raptor. Even India is on the supersonic bandwagon, participating with Russia in the development of the new jet.

But commercial aviation remains subsonic.

This could change soon.

Aerion Supersonic Business Jet concept

Aerion Corporation of Nevada, which “was formed for the purpose of developing and commercializing a fundamental breakthrough in supersonic transportation,” has set 2015 as the year it will launch its new Supersonic Business Jet (SSBJ). The company has already taken orders worth $4 billion for the $80 million jet—one of the first orders came from the ruler of Dubai in 2007—but has not yet made a decision on a manufacturing partner. Once that is done, it will enter a pre-launch phase with the OEM to confirm the Aerion SSBJ performance, costs and market. Thereafter a five-year program is planned so that the Aerion SSBJ could be flying in 2013 and certified by late 2015.

The plane is lovely to behold and, if the company’s pitch is true, it is “visionary” in its design and performance. Designed with a straight wing “natural laminar flow,” rather than the familiar delta wing of the Concorde, the SSBJ reduces drag by “up to 20 percent” and enables fuel-efficient subsonic cruise speeds between .95 and .99 Mach and “boomless cruise up to Mach 1.1.” The craft’s maximum cruise speed will be Mach 1.6, with long-range speed of Mach 1.5. It will carry from eight to twelve passengers in a thirty-foot cabin.

“Boomless” is the key word here. The biggest obstacle to commercial supersonic flight is the US ban on, and public intolerance of, overland sonic booms. NASA, along with OEMs such as Gulfstream and the universities, is currently working to solve the problem of sonic boom. Its Supersonics Project, established to research the challenges of supersonic flight, identifies its first challenge to be that of “eliminating the efficiency, environmental and performance barriers to practical supersonic cruise vehicles.”

“Environmental” barriers include airport noise restrictions and the dreaded sonic boom, and the challenge is for supersonic aircraft to meet the same airport noise regulations as subsonic aircraft, “without incurring significant weight or cruise performance penalties.” A supersonic aircraft, in short, must be able to fly supersonically, but without the boom. As the NASA Supersonics Project report states, “Sonic Boom reduction technology may make overland supersonic cruise a reality.”

The International Civil Aviation Organisation has also established a supersonic technical group to investigate noise and noise testing criteria for supersonic aircraft, including sonic boom.