New Supersonic Passenger Jet Set for Takeoff

Supersonic passenger travel was grounded in 2003 when British Airways and Air France cancelled their transatlantic Concorde service because of falling revenues and rising maintenance costs. The Aerion Supersonic Business Jet (SBJ) promises to help travelers break the sound barrier again.

Named after a fleet-of-foot horse in Greek mythology, the Aerion SBJ will be able to carry a dozen passengers at speeds of up to Mach 1.5 for more than 4,000 miles.  It is currently undergoing proof-of-concept aerodynamic testing of critical components in NASA wind tunnels and under the belly of a NASA F-15 supersonic jet.

This Aerion SBJ will make it possible to fly from Paris to New York in four hours and 14 minutes, shaving three hours off the trip compared to conventional jets.

And even in the United States, where supersonic flight is banned because of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sonic boom restrictions, the SBJ will be able to fly at a high subsonic speed of Mach 0.98 because of its unique, patented wing design, reducing coast-to-coast travel by 41 minutes vs. conventional aircraft.

Design breakthrough

The Aerion SBJ's wing represents a breakthrough in supersonic design and is the key to why the SBJ will be able to avoid the fate of the Concorde. Drag — the resistance caused by air as an airplane flies though it — is the enemy of speed and the enemy of economical operation.  The Aerion SBJ’s magic sauce is the use of supersonic natural laminar flow (SNLF) technology in the design of the wing.  SNLF reduces drag.

“It is the enabling technology that enables the SBJ to economically fly at both high subsonic speeds as well as supersonic, “said Brian Barents, Vice Chairman of Aerion. “The effect is a substantially reduced drag on the airframe. It sets a new frontier of high speed flight with very economical performance.”

If you look at the straight wings of the Aerion SBJ and those on the Lockheed F-104 “missile with a man in it" of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s you’ll see a family resemblance.

“The F-104 did have some NLF characteristics,” Barents told TechNewsDaily. “Our technology has been around for a number of years. It was the advancement in materials that made our design possible,” carbon fiber in particular.

Aerion’s design completes a virtuous circle — it satisfies environmental regulations while providing economical operation and high performance. [Separately, Lockheed Martin is working on a new aircraft that would fly faster than the speed of sound but without making a sonic boom.]

Fastest aircraft are in museums

The passenger jet has been in the performance doldrums for nearly half a century, Barents said. The first Boeing  passenger jet, the four-engine B-707 introduced in the late ‘50s had a design speed of Mach 0.83. Today’s state-of-the art commercial passenger jets such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 380 and business jets such the Gulfstream are basically still in the same Mach range because of their wing design, Barents said.

“The fastest commercial aircraft we ever had are in a museum,” he said. “That’s not progress.”

Aerion wants to change that.

The company hopes to have its new generation aircraft certified by the FAA and in the air by 2015. In spite of the worldwide recession that has roiled the entire aviation industry, Aerion has received 50 deposits of $250,000 for the $80 million SBJ.  The company is actively discussing development of the aircraft with a number of potential OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners and hopes to have a deal in place by the end of the year.

Aerion also sees a supersonic future that involves larger commercial passenger jets. The design of the SBJ, Barents said, “is very scalable. That’s clearly a point we’ve discussed with potential partners. This is not a single point design. We consider it to be a family of aircraft.”