SUPERSONIC TRANSPORT: Déjà Vu All Over Again?*

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SUPERSONIC TRANSPORT:

Déjà Vu All Over Again?*

[Another article by Lawyer Mifsud–this one recounts the history of the SST and his views on future supersonic flight,]

Paul V. Mifsud, Esq., MifnetWORLD

My career in aviation law began as the Assistant Counsel USA for BOAC on the eve of the merger with BEA that created British Airways. At that time, The Aérospatiale/BAC was looking for customers for its new SST—Concorde. This gave me a front row seat on the rise and fall of expectations for supersonic transport.

It was exciting to be a witness to the government-to-government competition and hype surrounding a new technology that promised to shrink the world. At the same time, it was disheartening to watch as reality revealed cost overruns, design limitations, and mobs of angry environmentalists campaigning against noise.

In the end, Aérospatiale/BAC’s governments essentially donated the 14 Concorde production models to its national carriers Air France and British Airways. They closed the project and ate enormous costs. For the next quarter of a century, Concorde became a symbol of a bygone era of government-subsidized industry as it flew rich businessmen back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.

Now that Concorde gathers Dust in museums—and supersonic flights are limited to spacecraft in the military—enthusiastic expectations for a new generation of SSTs again are on the rise. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Almost Here—A New Generation of Supersonic Flight

In February 2016, Lockheed Martin received a contract from NASA to submit a preliminary design utilizing the firm’s Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) to create a Low Boom Flight Demonstration Aircraft or LBFD. As a result, in April of this year, Lockheed Martin won a $247.5 million cost-plus NASA contract to design, build, and deliver the Low Boom X-Plane in late 2021.

Next September 2019, Lockheed Martin must deliver its Critical Design Review to demonstrate that the maturity of the design is appropriate to support proceeding with a full-scale fabrication assembly integration and test—in short, to determine whether the technical effort is on track to complete the flight and ground system development and admission.

Goal—A Sonic Boom Standard by 2025

If all goes well, in 2021 Lockheed Martin will deliver a 94-foot-long aircraft with a 29.5-foot wingspan propelled by a single General Electric F414 afterburning turbo fan engine in the 22,000-pound thrust class. After flight testing over the next year, community response flight tests are scheduled to confirm the shock wave pattern.

After that, in 2023–25, results from the community response flight tests will be used by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) in meetings to establish a sonic boom standard by 2025.

DOT and FAA Are Advancing Development of Civil Supersonic Aircraft

Meanwhile, in May 2018, the FAA issued a fact sheet on supersonic flight[1] that begins by noting:

Ultimately, the Concorde’s future as a viable transportation vehicle was limited.”

However, the FAA recognizes that, “Companies in the United States and abroad are now taking a new look at supersonic air travel. Lighter and more efficient composite materials combined with new engine and airframe designs may offer the potential for introduction of a viable SST…”

“As part of the Department of Transportation’s priority on innovation in transportation, the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration are taking steps to advance the development of civil supersonic aircraft.”

Consequently—depending on the results of the studies and tests now being conducted—the FAA plans to propose two new rules, following new tests scheduled for September 2019. One rule will address noise certification of supersonic aircraft. The other rule will be designed to streamline and clarify the procedures to obtain special flight authorization for conducting supersonic flight testing in the United States.

 

Three Startups in a New Generation of SSTs

Meanwhile, several private companies are pushing forward with optimistic plans to produce the next generation of SSTs. This time around, the focus seems limited to private jet-sized aircraft aimed toward wealthy patrons who eschew commercial flights. Among these fledgling enterprises are three startups of note:

Boom Technology

Boom Technology, a Denver company founded in 2014, is designing a Mach 2.2 passenger supersonic transport with a range of 8,300 km. Planned for introduction in 2023, the proposal relies on an updated design of the Concorde, complete with the delta wing configuration.

However, the Boom version will be built with lightweight composite materials and “dry engines” that operate without the expensive fuel consumptions of afterburners such as those used on Concorde and military aircraft.

The company plans to fly a one-third scale demonstrator they call XB–1 Baby-Boom in late 2018 followed by supersonic tests in 2019. Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin has options to buy 10 boom supersonic jets.

Spike Aerospace

Spike Aerospace, a Boston company, is placing their bets on the Spike S–512, an 18-passenger private jet with a range of 7,135 miles at a speed of Mach 1.6. There, they believe their aircraft will be accepted for flight over land. Spike claims their cranked wing version of the Concorde delta wing should reduce the sonic boom to less than 75 PLdB. This would put it below the 75 PLdB threshold suggested by NASA.

In late 2017, Spike successfully test flew a subsonic subscale SX-1.2 demonstrator aircraft for the first time. The jet is an early unmanned prototype of the company’s 18 passenger S-512. Spike’s goal is to secure certification of the S-512 by 2023.

Aerion Corporation

Aerion Corporation is working in collaboration with Lockheed Martin on the Aerion AS2, a supersonic business jet. The AS2 is being designed with a capacity of eight to12 passengers, a range of 4,833 miles, and a speed of Mach 1.4.

Aerion claims a proprietary technology permitting its carbon fiber jets to achieve supersonic natural laminar flow. Aerion says it reduces drag on the wings by as much as 20 percent as compared to Concorde. Aerion’s goal is to test fly their aircraft by 2023 and certify it by 2025.

Challenges of Commercial SSTs

There have been numerous other plans and proposals set forth regarding supersonic transport. For example, HyperMach Aerospace, a UK-based aerospace company has been emphasizing theoretical work being done on electrical magnetic drag reduction technology that could eliminate any sonic boom over land.

However, the road to a next generation commercial SST has more often been paved with good intentions rather than results. In the early 1990s, Gulfstream Aerospace and the Sukhoi Design Bureau announced a plan to develop a supersonic small business jet, named the S-21—eventually, the partnership was canceled.

In 2001, Supersonic Aerospace International, LLC (SAI)—an American aerospace firm founded by Michael Paulson, son of Gulfstream Aerospace founder Alan Paulson—announced it was going to build a supersonic jet called the quiet supersonic transport (QSST). Its website went down in 2010.

Hypersonic Transport—An Alternative?

While the current interest is focused on a next generation SSTs, EADS —Airbus’s parent company in cooperation with Japan — has begun a project it calls zero emission hypersonic transport or ZEHST. Hypersonic transport flies above the atmosphere, and, in that environment, there is no noise. However, the target date for ZEHST is 40 years from now.

As Managing the Skies goes to press, NBC News reported: “Boeing has unveiled plans for what could be the world’s first hypersonic airliner, a sleek, futuristic-looking craft that the Seattle-based company said would be capable of flying five times the speed of sound, or about 3,800 miles per hour. At that speed—Mach 5 in aviation parlance—it would be possible to travel from New York City to London in about two hours instead of the eight hours the trip takes on a conventional airliner.”

As described by Boeing, building the future requires looking decades ahead at what could be possible, and innovating now to make it happen. Although Boeing can’t or won’t speculate when hypersonic flight for global travel will be a reality, it’s possible a hypersonic passenger vehicle could be airborne in 20 to 30 years.

Benefits of New Generation SSTs

Like many who enjoyed Concorde’s Mach 2 flights, the potential benefits of a new generation of SST are easily imagined. Concorde proved that a commercial passenger SST can be built and flown. Indeed, most of the new proposals use some version of Concorde’s sleek delta wing design.

Yet, there have been many major technological advances since the days when Concorde was designed and built. Modern AI-based computer modeling; new materials such as carbon fiber; and dry engines are just a few of the elements that are fueling new interest. Active support by the FAA and NASA should serve to build financial interest in funding such projects.

SST Plans and Dates—Highly Optimistic

Nonetheless, current plans and target dates are highly optimistic. Lockheed Martin’s Critical Design Review—due next year—could lead to rethinking of some current projects’ plans and goals. Similarly, NASA’s Low Boom X-Plane is not scheduled for delivery until 2021—whether Lockheed Martin meets that deadline remains to be seen.

NASA’s tests on the Low Boom X-Plane and ICAO approval will take several years more. Considerable new information is likely to be revealed by the various tests. Any company going into production before that information is available could regret their haste.

Viable Supersonic and/or Hypersonic Transport Will Change the World

Despite these cautionary observations, I, too, am optimistic. The global economy could well use a planet made smaller by SST and hypersonic transport. Today, it takes 12 hours to fly from New York to Beijing. Arriving passengers must add 12 more hours to their watchers to account for the time zone change. Cutting that time in half or more should be valuable to dealmakers in an era of multibillion-dollar transactions being made amid rapidly changing markets and technologies.

About the Author

Paul V. Mifsud, Esq., an aviation attorney, air political strategist, and government affairs expert, is former Vice President, Government and Legal Affairs, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

In 2015, Mifsud received the L. Welch Pogue Lifetime Achievement Award in Aviation from the International Aviation Club (IAC) of Washington, DC and Aviation Week & Space Technology. “As a principal architect of the first Open Skies agreement and immunized airline alliance, and founder of the MIFNET online international aviation forum, Paul left an indelible mark on international aviation,” said IAC President Kenneth Quinn.

For his work on the EU-US Open Skies agreement, the Queen of the Netherlands bestowed on him the Order Oranj-Nassau (Officer). He also was Federal Bar Association Transportation Lawyer of the Year.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=22754

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