Is Boeing buying its way into the supersonic market?

Aerion AS2 Supersonic business jet

No sooner had we posted our article on the prospects of future supersonic jets gracing our skies again, and here comes an announcement from Boeing and Aerion of Reno, Nevada. The giant plane maker, Boeing, on Tuesday 05 February 2018 made a significant investment with the experts in supersonic technology, Aerion. The financials involved have not been disclosed, but suffice to say it will no doubt help out with the US$120 million development costs for the Aerion AS2. It must have been a good deal as Boeing shares touched a record high of US$407.48 after opening above US$400 for the first time ever.

The reasoning behind the investment can best be summed up in a statement by Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Boeing NeXt. He said, “through this partnership that combines Aerion’s supersonic expertise with Boeing’s global industrial scale and commercial aviation experience, we have the right team to build the future of sustainable supersonic flight.”

As a side note, Aerion and Lockheed Martin were in a Technical Viability partnership from 2017 which lapsed on 01 February 2019 to develop the AS2. Neither party expressed willingness to further this partnership. It almost seems that Boeing was waiting in the wings.

So what is the AS2? What is Boeing buying into?

The Aerion AS2 is a business jet designed to cut travel times significantly. Here are some specs.


Aerion AS2 Specs.

SpeedMach 1.4 / 1,000 mph / 1,610kph
Length49 metres
Wing Span21 metres
Wing Area125 square metres
Tail Height8 metres
Cabin Length9.1 metres
Cabin Height1.87 metres
Cabin Width2.2 metres
Engines3 x GE Affinity Turbo Fans
CockpitBy Honeywell
Thrust15,000 lbs
Max SpeedMach 1.6, Mach 0.99 over supersonic banned areas.
Range9,260 km
Landing distanceLess than 4,000 ft
Take-off distance full fuel.7,500 ft
Basic Operating weight22,588 kg
Max take-off weight52,163 kg
First Flight2023
Enter Service2025

The obvious question is, how will the AS2 suceed where Concorde failed? The restrictions for supersonic flight over land are still very much in place. Because of the sonic boom created by shock waves as the aircraft crosses the sound barrier, these aircraft are not permitted to over fly land for environmental and social reasons. So what has changed?

A model of the Aerion AS2 Supersonic Business Jet (SBJ).Note the squareness of the wings, much more like a modern fighter than the classic Concorde delta type wing.
A model of the Aerion AS2 Supersonic Business Jet (SBJ). Note the squareness of the wings, much more like a modern fighter than the classic Concorde delta type wing.

There is certainly pressure in the United States on governing bodies to relax the rules around supersonic flight over land. This may or may not be successful. However, in Europe there seems to be no appetite for relaxing these rules, and Europe of course is a huge destination for any business related travel. Relaxing of legislation, therefore, cannot be a condition that supersonic plane makers should count on.

The solution has to be in the technology. To minimise the sound shock wave as much as possible, the AS2 is designed with a very long tapered fuselage. This helps to control the length of the wave, thereby lessening the resultant boom. Aerion have developed BOOMLESS CRUISE™, which they say will enable the AS2 to cruise at speeds approaching Mach 1.2 without the sonic boom. This is dependant on temperature and wind. Once the AS2 gains certification Aerion intend to work with authorities in order to gain approval for this cruise capability.

There is a third feature in the AS2, in that it can fly just as efficiently at Mach .95 as it can at super sonic speeds. Mach .95 is still significantly faster than current passenger airliners, so with this flexibily, the AS2 certainly has the ability to suceed where Concorde failed. Whilst not as fast as Concorde, the AS2 has the capability of flying anywhere in the world without noise related restrictions. She will still have the ability to shave 3 hours off a trans Atlantic flight as compared to present day airliners, which is significant.

The AS2 will come with various cabin configuration options, from standard airliner seating to dual cabins with lounge chairs in one and a meeting table in the other.

On the outside, the AS2 is very sleek as mentioned above, with a long tapered fuselage. Aerion have done away with the delta wing of Concorde and gone for a more square wing, similar to modern fighter jets. The wing is very square with sharp angles and very thin. Originally Aerion were leaning toward two 19,000 lb thrust Pratt and Whitney engines, but changed to the present configuration of three 15,000 lb thrust GE Aviation engines. The tri-jet configuration they found offered better take-off performance.

It will be great to see supersonic travel coming back into focus. The renewed interest will no doubt lead to technological advances and enable supersonic jets to become the new normal. That, surely, will make air travel much more attractive.

Is this the return of the Supersonic Jet?

Aerion Supersonic Business Jet

A new Supersonic Jet is just around the corner.

Not since 24 October 2003, when the futuristic Concorde made her last flight, has supersonic air travel been available to the masses. Well, we use the term masses loosely. Concorde was an extremely expensive machine to run and those who flew her paid top dollar for the privilege. In addition to the high running cost, she was also limited to flying over water at supersonic speeds due to the sonic boom created by flying above the speed of sound. For environmental reasons, most countries banned the supersonic jets flying over their territory because of the sonic boom. This naturally limited the appeal of this aircraft due to the limitation of the routes it could be usefully flown over.

It is amazing to think that this technology was available until nearly two decades ago. High flying businessmen in London, for example, could go to New York, do their business, and be back home for dinner. Surely that demand is still there.

So what are the challenges that a Supersonic plane design has to overcome? The main ones are, cost to operate, sonic boom noise, landing/take-off noise and emissions.

We can agree that technology has certainly made vast improvements in the time since Concorde flew. Engine technology has enabled more power to be delivered by quieter engines. Composite materials have given higher strength to airframes at lower weights as well as lower manufacturing costs. One thing remains, however, the sonic boom. This limiting factor is still a roadblock.

There has been, over the last couple of years, increasing pressure in the U.S. for environmental standards around supersonic transport aircraft to be relaxed. There are three start-up companies that have already invested considerable money and resources into the development of their own version of a supersonic transport aircraft. These are: Boom Technologies with their Mach 2.2 capable airliner, Spike with their Mach 1.6 capable S-512 Quiet Supersonic Business Jet and Aerion with their Mach 1.4 capable As2 Business Jet. These are all slated to be ready for service between 2023 and 2025. Even the Russians are dipping their toe back in the supersonic pond, with the United Aviation Corp (UAC) aiming to start on their own offering in 2022. You may recall Russia had a Concorde look alike, the Tupolev TU-144. Dubbed, the Koncordski. This aircraft never met with any success, being used on domestic routes only, until it suffered a final setback, breaking up in flight over the Paris Air Show.

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The hypersonic airliner will travel at mach 5……..

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Meanwhile, the household name manufacturers are still hard on the case. Boeing has had various designs over the years to enable it to enter the Super Sonic Transport (SST) space. None have got much further than the drawing board. They are, however, working on a new concept that they hope will reinvent our expectations of fast flight. The hypersonic airliner will travel at Mach 5, which is about 3800 mph (6110 km/h) or five times the speed of sound. This is still around twenty to thirty years away and no doubt will depend on technology that to date has yet to be made available. Lockheed Martin also has an offering in the works. In 2018 Lockheed Martin was selected to design a Low Boom Flight Demonstrator(LBFD). Their X-59 QueSST (Quiet SST) will fly at 55,000 feet at a speed around 940 mph / 1,513 kph / 817 knots. The aim is to reduce the sonic boom from a boom to a light thump, a bit like car door closing.

In July 2018, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), under the lead authorship of Dan Rutherford produced a report called, “Environmental performance of emerging supersonic transport aircraft”. The report was drawn from studies and simulations carried out at Stanford University and was in response to mounting pressure on the Trump Administration to relax rules governing overland supersonic flight in the U.S.A..

The report looked back at Concorde and compared it with conventional airliners of the day, say the Boeing 747. It was obvious that in every aspect, the Concorde was less environmentally friendly. The supersonic plane was less fuel efficient, noisier at airfields, emitted higher levels of nitric oxide in the take-off and landing phases, higher levels of carbon dioxide in cruise, not to mention the sonic boom. They then looked at the situation today. As we’ve mentioned already, technology has moved forward in many aspects of aircraft manufacturing. Does this work for the supersonic jet manufacturer? Yes, of course new things are possible now that were not in the 1960s when Concorde was developed. However, the bar has been lifted as far as eco standards around commercial aircraft are concerned.

The report found that that the gap between conventional airliners and the new generation of supersonic planes was much the same as those in the time of Concorde. So, let’s say the U.S. relaxes its rules around supersonic jet travel. Will this be enough of a market for plane makers to make a profit out of? The U.S. relaxing their rules doesn’t mean other countries will follow. In fact some European countries have made it clear that they will not entertain the idea of supersonic flights over their territories. Even flying to those countries, with the last overland portion done at subsonic speeds may not work, as there are still airport noise and emission standards to overcome. So, needless to say, a complex issue.

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…. around 5,000 supersonic flights a day…..

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For an aircraft manufacturer, the idea is to develop an aircraft for which you have calculated there is a market which will enable you to sell enough to recoup your cost, as well as making a profit. Some of the supersonic jet maker start ups are estimating that they will be producing up to 2,000 airframes. These aircraft will serve up to 500 cities by 2035. Imagine, around 5,000 supersonic flights a day. Over a 16 hour flying day, there could be a sonic boom every 15 minutes.

Needless to say, there are exciting times ahead. We would love to see the return of supersonic flight, but in a way that is sustainable to the environment. There is no doubt that solutions to the roadblocks will be found.