by Doug Nichols, CEO
March 30, 2022
NASA’s recent $20 million award to Lockheed Martin for a preliminary low-boom X-plane design has spawned enthusiastic media coverage around the world. To many readers, it may have seemed that a new era of supersonic travel was at hand—this time without the limitations imposed by sonic booms.
We’re as pleased as anyone at NASA’s emphasis on supersonic breakthroughs. Aerion had its origins well before DARPA’s Quiet Supersonic Platform program (2001), to which Aerion contributed natural laminar flow data and boom calculations.
But those who aspire to travel supersonically need to understand the likely timeline for unrestricted high-speed travel. Assuming full funding is received from Congress, the low-boom demonstrator is scheduled to fly in 2020. Testing could take several more years, and new sonic boom acceptability standards from the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) yet more time.
Assuming all that goes well, aircraft manufacturers will have to figure how to commercialize the low-boom technology, adding several more years to the development of commercially viable business jets and airliners.
Then there is the not insubstantial problem of takeoff and landing noise standards that will come into effect in the years ahead that will need to take into account the physics of requisite thrust for supersonic flight.
So the best-case scenario is for unrestricted overland supersonic flight in the mid to late 2030s.
Amidst all of these uncertainties, Aerion is moving ahead with a supersonic jet that can be in the air by 2021 and certified by 2023. And that will be certified under current Stage 4 community noise requirements.
The AS2 will fly efficiently at Mach 0.95 to 0.98 over land, or, where permitted, at speeds up to Mach 1.2 without creating a boom on the ground. The AS2 does create a boom, but at low supersonic speeds it dissipates as it descends into the warmer lower atmosphere. We can’t take credit for this phenomenon; it’s just physics and applies to all supersonic aircraft. The only new technology required is boom-mapping software integrated within an onboard flight management system. NASA and avionics companies are developing this technology today.
Some in the business aviation industry have suggested that U.S. restrictions on overland supersonic flight might clip Aerion’s wings. They say there is no market for a supersonic jet unless it can fly supersonically over the United States. Our launch fleet customer Flexjet, their many customers, and other business jet operators tell us otherwise.
To reach a distant future of quiet supersonic flight, the most likely path is through a first-generation practical and efficient supersonic jet that can operate at up to Mach 1.5 within today’s regulatory framework, and with known technologies. That first step is the Aerion AS2, and we plan to place it into service inside of a decade.