Whether in a lie-flat seat or one that offers only a few precious degrees of recline, the journey often leaves one feeling less than their best upon disembarkation, as the excitement of (finally!) being on the other side of the world is far outweighed by a lack of sleep, jetlag and the prospect of a stern inquisition from a grumpy immigration officer.
The Concorde, with its supersonic speed, was meant to change all that. However, the iconic aircraft failed to take off largely because it was too expensive to operate.
Now, a Denver-based start-up is hoping to revive the concept of supersonic passenger flight, with Australia a prime target market.
Boom Supersonic is the company behind the development of the first supersonic passenger aircraft since the famous Concorde.
The proposed aircraft is a tri-jet with a range of 4,500nm and capable of reaching speeds of Mach 2.2, compared to the Mach 0.85 or so that today’s commercial passenger aircraft cruise at. It would seat up to 55 passengers in a business class configuration.
At Mach 2.2, flying between New York and London would take about three hours and 15 minutes. Closer to home, a trip from Sydney to Los Angeles would take seven hours, including the time required for a refuelling stop en route.
Entry into service for the aircraft is forecast for the mid-2020s.
In contrast to the high prices paid by the well-heeled to travel by Concorde on Air France and British Airways, Boom is designing the aircraft with operating costs such that fares would be similar to what is in the market for business class travel currently, such as $5,500 for a return New York-London ticket.
Boom chief executive Blake Scholl says Australia looms as a prime market for supersonic flight.
“I feel like Australia is probably the corner of the earth that would benefit most from supersonic,” Scholl tells Australian Aviation in an interview on a recent visit to Sydney.
“I talk to my friends and say ‘hey do you want to go to Sydney’ and they say it is 15 hours. And London to Sydney is a whole freaking day. It’s exhausting.
“A lot of people talk about supersonic as about time saving. Yes, you save time but I think the bigger factor is it affects your decision on whether you go or not.”
Scholl says supersonic flight will turn the Pacific “into the new Atlantic”.
“And that will just enable a whole lot of trips to be taken that otherwise people wouldn’t take today,” Scholl says.
Virgin Group, Japan Airlines back Boom
Boom has sold 76 options for its proposed supersonic aircraft. While 46 are from unidentified customers, two companies have been prepared to publicly back the project.
Virgin Group, a part owner of Virgin Atlantic, was first off the mark with options for 10 aircraft.
And in early December, Japan Airlines (JAL) announced it would invest US$10 million in Boom and hold options to purchase up to 20 supersonic aircraft.
Further, there would also be collaboration between the pair to “refine the aircraft design and help define the passenger experience for supersonic travel”.
“We are very proud to be working with Boom on the advancement in the commercial aviation industry,” Japan Airlines president Yoshiharu Ueki said.
“Through this partnership, we hope to contribute to the future of supersonic travel with the intent of providing more time to our valued passengers while emphasising flight safety.”
Scholl said on a blog post on the company’s website after the JAL partnership was announced the Japanese flag carrier was the “first airline in history to make a material financial commitment to a faster future”, noting the pre-orders for the Concorde held no financial commitment.
“JAL’s passionate, visionary team offers decades of practical knowledge and wisdom on everything from the passenger experience to technical operations,” Scholl said.
“We’re thrilled to be working with JAL to develop a reliable, easily-maintained aircraft that will provide revolutionary speed to passengers.
“Our goal is to develop an airliner that will be a great addition to any international airline’s fleet.”
Space-focused Virgin Galactic, a part of UK-based Virgin Group, was also supporting the Boom project, Sir Richard Branson told Fairfax Media in July.
“We’re helping at Virgin Galactic building the Boom spaceships,” he said.
“They’ll be going suborbital, but they’ll still be going a lot faster than Concorde. And that’s a big stepping stone towards really fast travel, maybe, one day, orbital flights.”
Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti has also expressed his support for supersonic flight.
“In 2017, there is a lot of focus on aircraft range and how far we can go nonstop using new technology,” Borghetti said in his Sir Reginald Ansett Memorial Lecture at Parliament House in Canberra in early October.
“However, I believe in order to achieve the next step-change in aviation, we need to shift the paradigm. We should not be asking ‘How far?’, but rather, ‘How fast?’.
“It is entirely reasonable to believe that in the next 10 years, we will see supersonic jets safely and sustainably flying commercial passengers.”
Scholl, whose trip to Australia was all about meeting local companies and airlines, describes Borghetti as a “visionary on this topic”.
“I can’t comment on private discussions obviously but if the airplane were ready today everybody would want it,” he says.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce was less enthusiastic about the prospect at travelling faster than the speed of sound, which is understandable given the airline’s enormous investment in ultra-long haul flights with the Boeing 787-9 and the stated desire to mount nonstop services to New York and London from Australia’s east coast.
“We would have been very keen to have supersonic aircraft, but there is a trade-off between supersonic speed and distance,” Joyce was quoted as saying on the Australian Business Traveller website in October.
“But the problems when Qantas looked at supersonic flight in the 1960s are problems that have still not been overcome.”
There is no doubt Concorde was an amazing technological achievement. With its delta wing, four afterburning engines and distinctive pointed noise, the aircraft will always be an iconic figure in aviation.
However, it only flew from 1976 to 2003, a span of 27 years, and only 20 aircraft were ever produced for two operators, if you discount a couple of short-term wet lease arrangements.
Powered by Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 engines, the aircraft was designed to seat up to 128 passengers and was capable of reaching a maximum speed of Mach 2.04. It had a maximum range of 3,900nm.
As breathtaking as they were, the thirsty engines were Concorde’s Achilles heel.
“The number one problem with Concorde was fuel economy and 1960s technology,” Scholl says.
“If you’re an airplane geek it was just the coolest thing, the flame coming out the back of the engines. They are loud, you can’t miss them when they fly by, they turn heads.”
“If you’re an airline you hate them. There is the safety perception of ‘oh my God the engine is on fire’, the noise really bothers people on the ground, they are really, really loud, and the fuel economy is horrible.”
While Concorde was 1960s technology, Boom is drawing upon the advancements of the past two decades in the design of its supersonic jet.
The aircraft fuselage will be made from carbon composites, much like what is used on the Boeing 787 program.
Meanwhile, the company plans to use a modified version of turbofan engines that are currently seen on the wings of commercial passenger jets. An engine manufacturer was likely to be chosen later in 2018. Media reports suggested the three engines would need to generate between 15,000 to 20,000lb of thrust.
While initial designs had the aircraft operating as a twin-jet, the Boom brains’ trust chose to go to a tri-jet after considering the certification process for long overwater flights and the available engine technology.
“We needed a relatively large core and the largest cores that are available work great as a tri-jet,” Scholl says.
The Boom chief executive says leveraging the existing technologies is a key factor in ensuring the aircraft’s operating costs are such that they allow airlines to charge no more for business class than what they do for subsonic flights today.
“We do not allow any technology on the aircraft that isn’t already certified on another aircraft and that makes this way more practical as a project,” Scholl says.
“We couldn’t have done it 10 years ago when there was no certification path for composite. But that has been done and we just have to follow the rules that Boeing helped develop.
“Over time, we will add more technology to subsequent aircraft but not for the first one. This makes it more feasible than it would be otherwise.”
Scholl says there are a number of advantages of using carbon composites compared with aluminium, including the ability to handle the 150 degrees Celsius temperatures the fuselage was expected to reach while cruising at supersonic speeds.
“Composites are even better than aluminium in taking temperatures during high speed flight,” Scholl says.
“Aluminium would get mushy at that temperature. You don’t really want a mushy airplane.
“They also don’t expand the way aluminium does.”
Carbon composites are also easier to work with.
“There is not a straight line hardly anywhere in the airplane. The fuselage is a bit bigger up front and skinnier in the back,” Scholl says.
“So it is a very complex shape that you need to be efficient at high speed and building it with composites helps you to do that economically.”
Further, the decision to go with a 55-seat cabin initially offered the best configuration for airlines to deploy the aircraft on routes with heavy premium demand.
“People often say Concorde was too small with 100 seats. In my view it was actually too big because you cannot fill 100 seats at the kind of fares required,” Scholl explains.
“Basically, the more expensive the ticket the smaller the airplane needs to be in order to be able to work on a lot of routes and keep the seats filled. With business class, we are putting 55 seats, about the same as you would find in a sub-sonic widebody.
“Then it works on a lot of routes, you get economies of scale, you get good aircraft utilisation and that further helps you get the overall cost of travel down.”
Boom has forecast demand for 1,000-2,000 supersonic aircraft by 2035, which Scholl describes as conservative, saying the actual demand will be larger than that.
As the sector develops and the technology improvements continue, that will lead to larger aircraft.
And in a bit of blue sky thinking, Scholl talks optimistically of supersonic flight eventually replacing subsonic flights.
“Internally we call the airplane Model A because this is the first of a whole series,” Scholl explains.
“You build a bigger aircraft you can make it more fuel efficient, which means that the fares can come down and more people can afford to go more places more often, which means bigger airplanes.
“A couple of generations of aircraft later, there is a tipping point where you don’t actually have to pay much more at all for speed versus a subsonic economy fare and at that point subsonic will be for either very short flights or for cargo but for humans we get to get there faster.”
The most immediate target for Boom is getting the XB-1 demonstrator, dubbed Baby Boom, ready to take flight. The company has set a target of first flight in late 2018.
At 21m in length and with a wing span of 5.2m, Baby Boom is a one-third scale version of the full-sized aircraft. It will be powered by General Electric CJ610 turbojets and have a maximum takeoff weight of 6,100kg.
The XB-1 fuel system is capable of storing 3,175kg of jet fuel in 11 separate tanks and would be capable of reaching Mach 2.2 with 1,000nm of range. It will have a two-crew flightdeck. And as with the full-sized version, Baby Boom will also feature a composite fuselage.
“We are looking at first flight late 2018,” Scholl says.
This feature story first appeared in the January-February 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.