Supersonic flight has only been successfully achieved in the military context. Its failure in a civilian context has been chronicled in The Atlantic articles titled “Supersonic Bust” by Peter Gillman. Now Aerion Corporation and Airbus’ Defense and Space Division will “collaborate on technologies associated with the future of high-performance flight” to design the AS2 business jet. It will be very interesting to see whether this development team will produce an aircraft which will beat all of the regulatory hurdles and will operate at a cost level which will make the marginal gain in speed worth the increased cost per passenger mile flown.
Gillman’s thorough review of the history of the Concorde I reveals that the prime motivation of the British and French governments in creating the SST was to establish European leadership in the development of commercial aircraft. British Aerospace and the predecessor to the current Airbus did all of the technical work, but the financial support came from the two governments; for no organization which has to issue a P&L would absorb the cost of development nor the subsidies granted by the manufacturers to the airlines which flew the Concorde. Gillman’s research indicates that the British government awarded a $1 million contract to the then-named British Aircraft Corporation to do a feasibility study. According to Professor David Henderson, professor of political economy at University College, London, the two governments contributed £4.26 billion (the specific calculations are detailed in the article), another£1096 ($2.63 billion) to pay for several redesigns of the aircraft.
The “sales” prices to British Airways and to Air France of the SST were drastically below fully allocated costs and may have even not completely recover the labor and material expense just to build the planes. The government found ways to cover the special facilities needed for the plane as well as an expensive advertising campaign. But the crowning blow, according to Gillman’s research was that the British (and presumably the French) government subsidized the BA operational losses in the amount of £25 million a year. The plane frequently had to exclude seats from sale because of the fuel needed to be carried.
Those hard financial numbers are not the full story. The regulatory headaches were mammoth, requiring communications at the highest levels of government to approve the environmental issues. The standards in the 1970s were drastically lower than today’s rigorous requirements. Today, not only are the criteria elevated, but the public perceptions of aviation’s negative contributions to global warming are significantly heated.
The AS2 business jet will sell for $100 million a copy and fly New York to London at 1,217 mph, delivering the passengers in three hours. It can operate into and out of the traditional business airports and its three engines can operate with the “same fuel efficiency in the subsonic regime as when supersonic”. The website explains noise as follows: “At speeds just above Mach 1, sonic booms do not reach the ground. The AS2 can use this ‘Mach cutoff’ phenomenon to fly supersonically over populated areas.” That will be an interesting approach to meeting the environmental reviews; restrictions on flight operations are a difficult limitation for the FAA, CAAs, etc. to enforce.
The leadership of Aerion is incredibly impressive starting with Robert Bass, as its Chairman and Brian Barents as Vice Chairman. They have leading experts in finance, engineering (including innovative wing design research) and manufacturing. If any team can reach this astronomical goal, Aerion would appear to have the resources to do so.
Since the “collaboration” does not appear to involve any govern-mental support, this private venture will not have its vision distorted by funny money and will have to design a supersonic business jet which meets a market need at rational prices.
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