Back to the (Supersonic) Future

Spike Aerospace S-512

Despite wars — both hot and cold — abroad and social upheaval at home, the 1960s must have been an incredible time for those in and around the aerospace industry.

Over the course of a single decade, the United States went from being unable to reliably launch a rocket (nearly half of the twenty-nine attempts in 1960 were failures) to putting men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth in one piece. In the realm of atmospheric flight, the 1960s saw the development and construction of the first supersonic passenger aircraft, the stratospheric cruising and futuristic-looking Concorde.

That was a half-century ago. I wonder, who could have predicted that the year 2014 would see the U.S. unable to launch a man into space on its own? Or that Concorde would be a dusty museum piece replaced by aircraft which lack the speed, altitude, and glamor of that legendary delta-winged craft? Anyone prescient enough to make that call would have been laughed out of the room. By 2014 we were going to be colonizing Mars!

While the march of computer technology has certainly eclipsed anything we could have dreamed of in the 60s, aerospace has, in many ways, stagnated. Visit any airport this side of Mojave and tell me I’m wrong.

Business Aviation Leads the Way

The space program has some promising “green shoots” with the Orion/SLS program and the emergence of third-party spaceships from companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. When it comes to atmospheric flight, the most exciting developments are no longer taking place at Boeing or Airbus. Over the past couple of decades, competition and market demand for ever more capable business aircraft has revolutionized that segment of general aviation. The VLJ sector has brought small, quiet, efficient business jets to market, while on the ultra-large cabin side, today’s airplanes fly higher, faster, and further than ever before.

But we’re pressing up against the limits of what’s possible through the continuing evolution of current designs. It begs the question: what comes next? I believe we’re headed back to the future. I’m talking about the return of supersonic aircraft to general aviation. Well, perhaps “return” isn’t the proper word, because GA has never had them. More like the return of supersonic passenger aircraft. There’s nothing on the horizon in that department from the airlines, but for the corporate/charter folks, there is plenty of research and development taking place.

Spike Aerospace has designs on one, and Gulfstream worked with NASA on a project called Quiet Spike in 2006 and 2007 where they retrofitted an F-15 with a 24 foot-long retractable nose spike to experiment with reductions in the sonic boom footprint. The goal was to find ways to make transonic flight possible over the continental U.S.

What's stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15?  A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

What’s stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15? A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

The Quiet Spike project has/had an offshoot called the Gulfstream X-54, which could very well be in development at this very moment. The X-54 is rumored to be an experimental stab at overcoming the challenges of domestic supersonic passenger flight.

Sukhoi also partnered with Gulfstream on a potential Mach 2+ business jet called the S-21 in the early 90s. They determined that there wasn’t enough of a market to proceed. But that was twenty years ago.

The Marketplace Is Ready

So what has changed to make supersonic flight a potential reality for passengers? After all, we’ve had supersonic aircraft since the late 1940s, and airliners capable of the feat for half a century now. A level of skepticism is understandable, especially in an industry known for physical vaporware, but I believe the elements are now in place to make this a reality.

For one thing, Gulfstream is now owned by General Dynamics, a conglomerate with deep pockets and significant experience with supersonic flight. If you were going to partner a bizjet manufacturer with organizations that could help it overcome the technical hurdles of a Mach 2 passenger aircraft, could there be any better synergy than Gulfstream, General Dynamics, and NASA?

Then there’s Gulfstream itself, which has become one of General Dynamics’s primary revenue sources. As always, just follow the money. In years past, the idea of a $120+ million corporate aircraft wold have been laughable. Airliners didn’t even cost that much. But today, Gulfstream is building $75 million business aircraft and buyers are lined up around the block to purchase them. Boeing manufactures corporate versions of the 747 and 787. Airbus has the ACJ. Clearly, price is not a show-stopper. With that in mind, maybe there is a market for a supersonic airplane.

From a technical standpoint, you can’t go much faster without exceeding the speed of sound. We are already flying around at Mach 0.9 and the G650 was dive tested to Mach 0.995, where plenty of transonic airflow must have already been present.

Profit and Loss

The primary reason I’m bullish on supersonic passenger flight now is because it makes far more sense for the corporate/charter market than the airlines. An airliner needs to make money for the owner. That’s their business, and the only reason those aircraft exist. If the jets don’t turn a profit, the airline goes bankrupt. As glamorous and enchanting as Concorde may have been, it was a money loser. And with fuel prices headed skyward faster than a ballistic fighter jet, the economics only got worse as time went on.

Corporate airplanes don’t have to make money. They aren’t profit centers in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end: a way to get more business done. Supersonic speeds would allow the transcontinental traveler to quite literally put more than 24 hours into a day. Imagine being able to hold a lunch meeting in Europe and have another one in North America on the same afternoon. Take a look at a map of the sheer number of aircraft crossing the Atlantic on a given day. It’s dramatic.

There’s another reason supersonic bizjets could work when an an airline version would not. Airliners carry hundreds of people and tons of cargo, catering, baggage, etc. A typical business aircraft might have 4-5 passengers on board, so there’s far less need for a big cabin or massive payload capability. The one thing every Mach 2 design has in common is the general shape: long and very slender. A space that would be cramped for 100 airline guests would feel far more luxurious if it was only occupied by a half-dozen businessmen. The needs of the corporate/charter market are simply a far better match for a supersonic design.

In conclusion, all the elements necessary for a successful supersonic business aircraft are in place. Now someone just has to build it. Between their Sukhoi partnership, the NASA Quiet Spike research, and the X-54, Gulfstream is obviously serious about taking the next step. They have General Dynamics’ resources, large market share, and deep-pocketed clientele.

My prediction: Gulfstream Aerospace will deliver a supersonic bizjet within the decade.

60 comments

    1. Ron, I love technology. I love the thought of speed and getting there now. But I’ll play devils advocate to open up the debate…

      With today’s world and international Wifi, I’m wondering if this would be cost effective. We don’t have to be any place that quick unless someone is dying and we want to say good bye. Corporations of the magnitude that could afford this plane (and that’s the big question… price and operating cost) on a general basis shouldn’t be reacting to life and need to fly somewhere that quickly. Technology with video meetings and corporate officers living abroad…etc, can take care off on site situations.

      And corporations like Venetian that the owner travels from Vegas to Hong Kong….. owns their own 747. So they are flying commercial type planes, without the passengers, in the greatest comfort with movie theaters, dining rooms, bedrooms with showers. The journey is comfortable. And they have Wifi and offices, conducting business on the flight.

      You’re right..the planes don’t need to be a profit center in a charter business, but… they cannot impact the bottom line. I’ve known far to many corporations that got in trouble and the flight department was first to go. If I were a stockholder, and my corporation invested in something like this… I would want to show how this was saving the company money, enabling the passengers to make money, and why we needed it. With all that said, maybe Adelson would buy it to get the players to the casino more quickly. Not sure.

      I am sure that a Net Jets type company would use this plane. People chartering a plane want quick. But the real question is how much are they will to spend. They still need to justify the expense. Time is money. But… whose time, and how much money could they save by getting them out and back. Not sure.

      But I want one! I could get to Bend and Austin faster.

      1. Good counterpoint, Karlene. The cost-effectiveness is hard to quantify when you’re talking about business concerns. When I see the cost of parts and such for even the older Gulfstream model that I fly, it astounds me that it could be justified, but people somehow do it every day.

        The flight department is, as you noted, often the first to feel the pain of a downturn in a company’s financial state. On the other hand, if a person or company could afford a $150 million aircraft, they might have a better shot at holding on to it through thick and thin because the $1 million a year it costs to run the airplane is relatively small. But when yesterday’s $35 million jet is worth $5 million today, people can afford to purchase one when they might not be able to afford that same operating expense.

        1. Wow… $150 million is a huge number. The million, you are so right. At that point it’s chump changed for a company. That’s an interesting thought too… the loss of value. Would the rate still be the same for this $150 million beauty?

          1. I’m not sure. I would assume the operating costs of a SSBJ would be significantly higher than that of a typical bizjet. As for the depreciation, as long as it was the only supersonic game in town, it would probably fare much as the G650 has: minimal depreciation. Once competitors and improved models are available, the prices of the “old” equipment tends to drop. But this would be a pretty small club, I’d imagine.

            I wonder how many airframes a manufacturer would have to sell to break even on something like this. Remember, they also sell parts, service, and support to the owners, so there’s a long revenue stream inherent in every sale.

    2. So I’m jumping in three years late here and not even under the correct post, ah! I couldn’t find a “Reply” button under your G-IV type rating series but wanted to thank you for writing it. My husband just got his ATP and G-IV type rating yesterday at Simuflite. He’s actually one of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters that flies with one of the guys that was in your class (the Marine) ;-) It was incredibly helpful for him to see that you went through some of the same ups and downs he did and incredibly helpful for me to know what he was up to ahead of time and keep the “pilot wife” questions to a minimum. Cheers!

      1. Hi Leigh! I’m so glad my type rating series was helpful for you and your husband. I searched the web before going through the type rating course myself and came up empty, so I figured someone would be able to benefit from a description of the process.

        I had the software set to close commenting after one year, but I changed it to five years, so you should now be able to comment on a wider variety of posts, including that series.

        Thanks, and please offer my congratulations to your husband!

  1. Great stuff, Ron! Interesting premise, and very compelling arguments.

    I think the SOLE reason the U.S. government spearheaded our race to the moon was our huge black eye over Sputnik–at the height of the cold war, the U.S. had to get its world leadership mojo back. Otherwise, I believe, our shot at the moon may have not happened for decades, until PRIVATE ENTERPRISE deemed it a possible revenue source. We may very well still be waiting for that moonshot. By and large, despite cold war initiatives, government red tape tends hinder rather than help. Good ol’ “Yankee ingenuity” is critical, but behind every entreprenaur is a profit goal.

    Reenter “supply and demand.” And you certainly make a compelling argument for the demand side.

    2+ decades ago, nobody thought regional jets were feasible; now, they are a mainstay. While numbers have been in decline in recent years, they seem to have stabilized, and there is now even a burgeoning secondary market. The FAA’s recent misstep on upping pilot requirements (that government regulation again) has created more red tape drag, but despite that, the market still flourishes. Why? Again, supply and demand.

    Which brings us back to your premise. While Branson’s Virgin Galactic creates its own lucrative market of millionaires frolicking amongst the mesosphere, the more run-of-the-mill corporate entity, where TIME is MONEY, is always looking for that competitive edge. And video conferencing can only take one so far. In an age where Facebook is our New Social platform, in the business world the physical handshake is still king.

    I think you’re right: the demand is there, the desire is there, and the dollars are there…and, coming soon, the technology is there!

    Great first post for our new Blogging in Formation format. Kudos, my friend!

    Eric

    1. Thanks for the kind words on my post, Eric! Yes, landing on the moon was definitely one of the upsides to the Cold War. I wonder, though, if the USSR was still around and nipping at our heels, where might we be with space exploration? Now that our relations with the Russian Federation are, shall we say, a bit more tense, there’s a fresh urgency to find a way to the space station without their help.

      I hadn’t thought about the regional jet comparison, but you’re right. You can see the same theme repeating itself throughout the history of aviation. The concept of an airplane threatening a battleship was laughable until Billy Mitchell sank two of them in 1921.

      It is somewhat ironic that so much business still needs face-to-fact interaction in this era of high definition video conferencing and digital communication. But when you need expertise on-site or are contemplating that million- or billion-dollar deal, being there “in person” is irreplaceable.

  2. I’ve actually written about this for one of my PhD classes and done the research. I’m with you, Ron. It will happen and within the timeframe you predict. Gulfstream created a market for it’s G-650 during a period of economic strife and gleaned 200+ orders for the jet in a matter of months because it was the latest, greatest thing and because the wealthiest folks will always want the latest, greatest thing. Additionally, the reason flight departments like the one I run exist is because we offer significant time savings and flexibility over commercial travel. (I love flying the airlines because every time I do, I look at how painful the experience is and think “job security, job security.”). Supersonic jet travel could make those time saving even greater. If you want to read my research, you can do so on my 3-part blog series on my website at http://www.chrisbroyhillbooks.com – “Why the Supersonic Business Jet is Inevitable,”

    I wonder if Gulfstream will actually build the supersonic business jet first though. No arguments about Gulfstream/GD’s deep pockets but Dassault has been more on the leading edge of technology where business jets are concerned, it my opinion. After all, Dassault led business aviation with digital flight control systems with its Falcon 7X and the company has actually built supersonic fighters. From a performance perspective, its wing designs are much more efficient that Gulfstream’s or so it seems to me.

    1. Thanks for your expert feedback, Chris! I read through all three of your blog posts and you make an even stronger case than I do. Your essential conclusion, “speed is time”, is spot on. You analyzed flights across the United States, but imagine Tokyo to New York, or Seattle to Buenos Aires. When people are earning millions — if not tens of millions — of dollar a year and spend much of their lives on the road, the cumulative impact of travel inefficiencies costs the company and its shareholders untold sums. I wrote about that extensively in “Defense of Business Jets”.

      As for who will build it, your guess is as good as mine! Gulfstream seems to have already invested quite a bit of time and money in supersonic research. They’re leaders in sales of the largest and fastest bizjets out there (Boeing and Airbus products excepted, of course — but their market is really airliners, not business jets).

      Dassault would certainly be another good candidate for a supersonic design. Are their airfoils more efficient? I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Falcons, but I have friends who fly them. They do sport better field length requirements… but then, their airplanes smaller, lighter, and the wings have external flap tracks, slats, and other such items that the Gulfstreams do not.

      When it comes to building a supersonic business jet, I have a feeling that whoever jumps into that market will be designing something so radically different than anything they’ve built before that any minor differences between the GAC and Dassault brands will be rendered moot. It’s too much to hope that even a company like Dassault would build something supersonic and yet still able to land at, say, London City Airport. :)

    2. Thanks for dropping by Chris. I suspected you would have the insider knowledge. Thanks for sharing the link to your post too. Looking forward to the read.

          1. I’m sure he’d be impressed. But no matter how many planes fly across the ocean, none are as amazing as piloting that little Ryan across the Atlantic solo with nothing but a compass and a watch.

  3. While I applaud his optimistic approach, and would love to see supersonic corporate jets become a legitimate emerging market, I just don’t see it happening in any realistic timeline. Supersonic travel is the domain of military aircraft where passengers are few (one or two pilots) and budgets are nearly indefinite. As Ron points out, the slim aircraft bodies required, and large fuel expenditures needed, make the leap above the speed of sound unprofitable for commercial air travel. Furthermore, sonic booms discourage domestic flights above Mach 1. City pairs that can benefit from supersonic travel are limited to those separated by an ocean.

    So why would corporations want to buy jets that save a few hours of flying time in exchange for breaking their travel budgets? Many corporations gave up their own flight departments years ago in favor of fractional aircraft ownership. NetJets filled the niche for corporations who needed to cut back on expenses, but still needed occasional access to a corporate jet. Even the U.S. President has to justify the use of Air force One lest his constituents accuse him of wasting taxpayer money. Corporations have to answer to their board of directors as well as their shareholders, and many executives have become gold, platinum, emerald, or other premium customers on commercial airlines instead of corporate jet passengers. Imagine this potential conversation opener: You want employees to take pay cuts while you buy a supersonic corporate jet? This proposal could be the beginning of corporate lynchings.

    Ron mentions: “The VLJ sector has brought small, quiet, efficient business jets to market.” But I taxi around the Eclipse Aviation headquarters every time I land in Albuquerque. It liquidated its assets in 2009. If very light jets can’t take-off in today’s economy, I don’t see ultra-elite supersonic jets making an appearance beyond maybe Sir Richard Branson’s playground.

    Ron, I applaud you for dreaming big, but I just don’t see supersonic corporate jets becoming a legitimate market. Maybe someday—but not in the next decade, at least.

    1. Yours is a valid perspective, Mark. In fact, people far smarter than I’ll ever be agree with you! But if I may offer a few counter-points:

      The original Eclipse Aerospace’s demise was sad, but Eclipse has been resurrected and is delivering the upgraded 550 today. They’ve fixed many of the problems with the original design and have added autothrottles, anti-skid, and several other important features. The major Very Light Jet players — primarily the Mustang and the Phenom 100 and 300 — seem to be doing fairly well. Cessna has delivered 425 Mustangs, and Embraer has sold nearly 500 of their VLJs.

      Regarding the cut-back in business flying, all the statistics I see indicate that the high and low ends of the market are doing well while the mid-size segment is behind the curve. The dramatic success of the highest price models like the G650, Bombardier Global, etc. are what lead me to believe a supersonic bizjet might (pardon the pun) fly.

      Corporate flight departments were indeed downsized or eliminated during the recession, but that doesn’t mean the company stopped flying corporate jets. Many of them leased or chartered in order to do the flying their work demanded while putting on the dog-and-pony show necessary to satisfy low-information shareholders who don’t understand the essential competitive advantage these aircraft provide.

      1. Ron, an interesting study would be to see how many “non” emergency monkey business trips are made in the corporate jet that the shareholders don’t know about. That’s just one of the benefits of being an executive. While they might be essential, I’m thinking that they are not always used that way. Also… have you looking into how much per hour…. or mile this jet would cost?

        1. Studies of that kind have been done and show that most bizjet trips in corporate aircraft are for business purposes. Just as significantly, the IRS has really cracked down on personal use of corporate aircraft if the jet is being depreciated or expensed. And reimbursement for private use of a Part 91 corporation’s aircraft is limited by the FAA anyway. NBAA has a whole page of resources on this: http://www.nbaa.org/admin/taxes/personal-use/

      1. Absolutely. It’s probably the primary technical issue to be overcome. But that’s what Quiet Spike and other such projects are all about: finding ways to mitigate the sonic boom. Chris’s blog post mentioned the Concorde’s 100+ decibel boom, and also noted that some of the players in this space were shooting for a reduction to 70 db. Remember, this is a logarithmic scale, so a 30 db drop transforms the sonic boom from window shattering to the volume of, say, a normal conversation.

    2. I don’t think the president has to justify the use of AF1. It’s actually written in the job description that he is required to use AF1 on both personal and business travel (I guess when Marine One and its three decoys flying along side it don’t cut it. The CEO of my Company, Jamie Dimon is required to use the Corporate Jet for both personal and Leisure travel for “safety”. So even when he is off the clock, flying his family to Australia for vacation, he is taking JP Morgan’s Company Jet. Its just part of the job description

      1. When the president flies, there are TWO 747s which go along. One is a spare. It’s really ridiculous. What’s even worse is having him castigate CEOs for using a Falcon or Gulfstream when he’s flying around in a pair of 747s, a C-17, and taking an army of people with him. I’d like to see the U.S. president downsize to a Gulfstream or something smaller for domestic flying.

        1. Yes. We all know what happened with the big three auto industry tycoons. But the 747-200 (which I guess I probably less efficient than the 400 or 800 or whatever is part of the job. I don’t think the big three auto folks have a choice and I don’t think the president has one either

  4. Wow, fantastic discussion, all! I am especially impressed with your comment, Chris Broyhill. Like Karlene, I’m glad my job is giving your job, “job security!”

    Mark, you drive some hard points. In the back of my mind has also been the deal-killing “sonic boom” issue as well. From what I understand, however, this was used more as a political excuse to kill the Concorde flights into the U.S. since we failed in our Yankee counterpart. (Thoughts?)

    Regardless, whether it’s a decade out or 2, supersonic seems inevitable. Now…when do we get to talk HYPERsonic?

    Looking forward to reading your blog series, Chris!

  5. I would love to see supersonic travel come back. To me, in this era of sending messages and talking to people on your watch in another country while air travel time hasn’t changed in decades is ridiculous. I fantasize about being able to fly SST on all transcons and such but thats my dream since I’m well aware that it is just not cost effective. That being said, I think the BizAv market could lead here and make it possible in limited use for those to whom the price involved is not an option. I believe that the sonic-boom concerns have been addressed to some extent…now if weren’t for the cost..

  6. This is a great discussion. I believe a supersonic business jet will happen. I don’t believe the market will be huge, but it’ll be big enough. The technology is obviously the deal-breaker. If you can’t go supersonic over land, it just won’t be viable, in my humble opinion. I honestly thought we’d have one by now, but your post pointed out the detractors from those original efforts.

    Brent

    1. Brent, if the market is small… then will it be cost effective to build? I listened to the story of Cirrus and they spent in the tens of millions to build a $700,000 plane. The set up and production costs are incredible. Would be interesting how much they really could and would be willing to bring the plane to market. If they don’t have a wide market not sure if they’ll build. Unless Richard B buys the first one and funds the project.

      1. This is a great discussion on “Follow the money” I love how some people in the discussion feel that the “demand is there” and some feel like the market is small, or even not feasible. Who doesn’t want to be able to say they had lunch in Brussels and then lunch again in San Francisco….BOTH on July 3? Who doesn’t want a Sexy, long, sleek Mach 2+ private jet? We all want, but who is willing to pay for all this? Supply and demand, R and D and everything else. I think we will have a “to-market” flying car before we get a SST Biz Jet

        1. I would take that bet, Graeme! The SSBJ might not be a high volume business, but the flying car is something I doubt we will ever see successfully implemented. Automobiles are getting so advanced and sophisticated these days, while even the “sleekest” flying car is still proving to be, at best, a marginal airplane and a lousy car.

          And then there’s the price. The Terrafugia Transition is currently estimated to cost $280,000. For that price I can buy an IFR equipped, glass panel, four-seat RV-10 (already built) *and* a high end Mercedes or BMW.

  7. Excellent article Ron and one that I am sure will get everyone talking-

    The article is frustrating and exciting at the same time. Frustrating because we are getting excited about technology that is 65 years old or so.
    Personally, I stand in a position that is between Captain Aux and Karlene. See, both beat me to the punch in saying things I was going to write but I will bridge the two thoughts. While I still believe in the power of the handshake, and yes its king, how much are we willing to pay for it. Sure, I know deals, even multi billion (enter your denomination here) deals can be won or lost in the blink of an eye but what about technology that is that is up and coming alongside the jets in the next ten years. While we could, EASILY have a Dassalt, or Gulfstream Mach 2+ jet on sitting on the ramp in the next ten years, we don’t know what kind of technology we will have in computers and other business in the same time frame. Video conferencing today and ? tomorrow? Facebook has changed who we are socially, and 10 years ago who knew what a Facebook was. If an “app” can change our society on a global level socially, couldn’t some technology change in business to change the way we do business? I also agree with Karlene when she says something along the lines of “who are we in a day and age where we have to react in business so fast that we have to be there RIGHT now, and spend $200,000 to do so?” Also, No one yet, I believe, has mentioned anything about corporate social responsibility. Author Ron said in an earlier post that most corp jets don’t include the logo for competitive practices, but I feel the biggest change in companies today is how they are perceived in the public eye. What kind of message does this send to the community that they are being socially responsible by polluting the earth like the Concorde did and shattering windows everywhere they go. Does this make Stakeholders and shareholders happy? No. Does this make the accountants happy? No. Companies these days are more proactive than reactive anyway in social responsibility. Its more of “how can we help our community” than “how to save face PR cover up”. I think Karlene has it right that Sheldon Adelson has it nailed down just right with his Private 747 from MFM – LAS and back. Believe me, he isn’t hurting. While we are at it, lets talk about the casino’s. Casino players don’t want to be “rushed or hurried” They want to bask in luxury and lifestyle. No one is in THAT much of a hurry they need to have a sonic urge to place $10,000 a hand on a table.

    I will finish this bit with one final funny tidbit. I can’t tell you the number of times I am sitting in the back of a long haul flight and the pax sitting next to me goes “I don’t understand. “It took 10 hours to fly to London 30 years ago and it takes 10 hours to fly to London today, why can’t they invent some airplane to go faster?” I really don’t know how to answer their question without getting into Physics or Form drag. Ha.

    Anyway, I’m with Karlene on this one, but this is all coming from a PA-28 weekend warrior out for that $500 hamburger… (for now)

    1. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”—J. Lennon (not to be confused with J. Leno)

      Good points, Graeme! Following the money is spot on. However, it’s up to Dassault et al to do it. If they smell it, they will come!

      Which brings us to the Question, did Richard Branson smell the money then build Galactic, or did he dream big, build it, and the millionaires signed on? Either way, it’s happening. My point, I guess, is it will take a combination of vision and money…and it seems to be already happening on both fronts, at least at the R&D “feasibility” stage. And I have no doubt that, during R&D, there’s a very serious concurrent market research being conducted.

      I’ll leave the hard questions to the skeptics as I dream along, but it does seem like the window-shattering is being addressed, and I assume the pollution takes care of itself with the evolution in technology. I envision transocean-only above M1, thus taking care of the noise and window issues as well.

      Great point about the “Next big app.” I imagine if, like Darth Vader’s holographic—eh, “pep talks” with the troops, we develop the real-world equivalent, we could see that M2 become somewhat obsolete, just as video conferencing has changed the game.

      I am especially intrigued by your last offhand comment about the “$500 hamburger.” What’s the equivalent for the jet set? Double lunch on July 3rd in Brussels and SFO? Given unlimited ca$h…hells yeah, I’m in!

      Fun stuff, all!

      1. Hi Captain, my Idol is Richard Branson. I’ve read all his books and was fortunate enough to meet him. Yes, I too believe America is one big “If you build it they will come” Look at those outlet malls in the middle of nowhere! Hell, I can’t even find parking! Where are all these people coming from? He Dreamed big and now has a waiting list to go into Space. That’s pure luxury. I don’t even think you get a certificate, ha, nevermind that Multi Billion Dollar Deal.
        About that $500 Hamburger in my rented PA-28….I was just trying to say I am a lowly pilot looking for a nice big break where I too can live my dream flying something wonderful. (right now a King Air looks wonderful)

        1. Haha that’s great, Graeme! We all have our price for that fabled burger, and I imagine you’re right there in the ballpark with most of us ;-)

    2. Graeme, you have to love that $500 hamburger!! Well… last time I flew to Paris I was standing out the door and a young girl, around 10 asked me how long the flight was. I told her, “If you’re in First Class, ten hours. But if you’re in coach perhaps twenty to thirty.” Time flies, but not in the back of a passenger carrier on a long haul flight.

      1. Hi Karlene-
        I think you and I think very similar on a lot of fronts. I’m happy as long as I’m in the air. I flew a B747-400 on Philippine airlines recently and the armrests didn’t go up on all seats! What made it worse was that I had the entire 3 seats to myself (my own would be bed) and I wasn’t even able to avail it. No one would like to pilot a Mach 2+ Biz Jet more than myself. Its my dream, and I can only hope it comes one day. If not, at least we know the technology is there, for our future, should a need arise again

      2. Isn’t that the truth. Today, we’re flying further than ever; people think nothing of hopping on a plane and flying halfway around the planet. But boy is it hard on the body and soul! For those whose missions call for 5,000+ mile trips, supersonic would be a strong draw.

  8. Interesting discussion! I work for a large corporation that does business around the globe and has its own aviation department. As much as I would love to see a supersonic jet in the fleet, I just don’t think it makes sense – at least not for my employer. The nature of our business is such that I cannot think of any situation so urgent that the benefit of supersonic flight would outweigh the cost. (And I’m just talking pure dollars and cents – I don’t even want to touch the potential PR minefield!) That said, I’d like to think there are corporations out there who WOULD benefit from supersonic flight. At least, I certainly hope so! If just one company can find a way to make it work, perhaps it will open the door for others to follow. Maybe even my employer – and how cool would that be!

    1. Jen, this would be super cool and someone needs to open the door. Thanks for your comment. Keep flying safe and one day we can dream.

    2. Very true — an SSBJ would not be appropriate for every company. Even setting aside the cost and public relations aspect, supersonic aircraft require long runways. If you need to get into relatively short regional airports and don’t travel thousands of miles of a typical leg, a King Air or Citation might be a much better option.

      Taking the first step — bringing the initial SSBJ to market — is going to be a major hurdle. But once it’s done, if the product is successful, you can bet others will follow. Think of the bizjet market in general. When that first Lear 23 was built, I’m sure there were many detractors who felt there would be a very small market, if any. But look at the industry it created!

    3. True, Jen_Niffer–it’s all about the bottom line! I don’t really think there’s a huge PR minefield, if it’s done right…and, who knows, perhaps suborbital hypersonic could some day be in the cards too. Just throwing that out there, dreaming big I know!;-)

  9. What if we pose this question to the discussion:
    What if we say its in the company’s long run advantage to produce the SST BJ. Lets say a biz jet manufacturer knows the market for SST BJ is small and but still there. They realize “hey, the technology is there, all we have to do is produce it, lets roll” and they do. It comes out 2019 and the media jump all over it. Huge PR and media success right off the bat. When it fails, the media don’t run many articles on it. Now, when these CEO’s and “low information shareholders” want to buy a business jet, and although they won’t spring for the 135MM SST, they know the brand and company due to all the hype and media attention and flock to the company to buy the “second” model in the line up, the 35MM sub sonic model. Said Biz Jet company sees more purchases than ever and thrives. I feel it could be good for longevity of said biz jet manufacturer. Am I wrong about this??

  10. Ron, great article. I agree with you – there is a desire for supersonic travel and I think we’re just about there with the technology to make it cost-effective and practical. From reading the comments above, two of the big hangups are: 1) cost and 2) noise abatement. I believe advances in technology will eventually solve both of these problems.

    On the cost side, we’re seeing supercruise becoming a staple in modern jet fighters (Supercruise is the ability to get above the mach, and cruise above the mach, without the use of fuel-guzzling afterburner.) The F-22, designed through the late 80s/early 90s, was the first operational fighter to bring us supercruise, (a capability the Concorde had.) Now we see it in other jets like the Eurofighter, the Russian PAK-FA (T-50), and the Chinese J-20 to name a few. Again, these are late 80s/early 90s engines. Supercruise drops fuel consumption SIGNIFICANTLY. If we can design a jet that can climb fast and supercruise, we’ll see fuel costs on par with or better than the fuel consumption for a given distance in legacy engines. Technology, technology, technology.

    As for the noise part, this is near and dear to my heart. There are precious few restricted airspaces in the US that allow supersonic flight, most of which must be done above 10,000’MSL. When the Raptor first started “booming” the good citizens of Fairbanks, AK, a colonel decided he would demonstrate to the people of Fairbanks that a Raptor boom was no louder than the boom from an F-16. The F-16 was flown on a supersonic profile at a given altitude on a given track direction, and an F-22 soon followed on the same profile. Much to the colonel’s surprise, the Focused Boom from the Raptor was MUCH louder! (The Carpet Boom, if my memory serves me correctly, was similar in decibel level.) Since then, there has been discussion about the shape of an aircraft having an effect on the Focused Boom. The Focused Boom is the one we are concerned about – it’s the one that wakes people up and knocks things off the wall. The Carpet Boom just sounds like a low rumble of thunder. I believe the point Ron was making with the inclusion of the Quiet Spike project was that the sonic boom is possible to mitigate (although I doubt eliminate!) Oh, and by the way, if you are already high and in a climb when you transit supersonic, the audible effects of the Focused Boom are all but gone. So even if we don’t have a jet that’s quiet in and of itself, there is still a profile that may be flown (possibly a certification would be in order?) to ensure folks on the ground don’t experience the brunt of the boom.

    In the end, I think it can be done: a cost-effective, relatively quiet, supersonic business jet. Please note, when I say “cost effective”, I’m not including R&D. Those costs will be absorbed over time. Yes, initially they may be significant, but as studies are made and technology is shared or imitated by one company and the next, I think it is very plausible that we’ll see supersonic travel for the consumer within the next decade. The question is, who is ponying up the R&D bill? Has it already been paid for unbeknownst to us?

    1. Fascinating stuff, Rob! As the only one here who’s regularly flying faster than Mach 1, I was hoping you’d chime in with some thoughts. I found a paper which explains a bit more about the N- and U-wave booms, but the most interesting bit for me was this excerpt:

      Sonic boom exposure to communities typically does not exceed two psf. Some public reaction could be expected between 1.5 and 2 pounds. Rare minor damage may occur with 2 to 5 pounds overpressure. The strongest sonic boom ever recorded was 144 pounds per square foot and it did not cause injury to the researchers who were exposed. The boom was produced by an F-4 flying just above the speed of sound, at an altitude of 100 feet.

      The paper notes that a T-38 is more or less silent to those on the surface when it goes supersonic above FL300. Your idea about a flight profile which minimizes the sonic boom makes sense. We already fly departures and arrivals in specific ways to minimize the noise impact. Why not stay subsonic until above FL400 or so and hit Mach once over a lightly populated corridor? Between that and some noise mitigation from a nose spike or other aerodynamic effort, and it might not be the monster we think.

      As for who will pay for the R&D, I’d imagine it’s being paid a little at a time with each research project and partnership undertaken by the likes of GAC, NASA, Sukhoi, etc. The R&D costs of actually building an SSBJ, however, will have to be recouped through the sales of those aircraft. That’s why I’m guessing they’ll run $150 million or so.

  11. ron, come on! the president in a gulfstream? AF1 is a flying office replete with key staff members so the never ending job of being president
    can proceed without interruption.

    1. The high end Gulfstream products are quite nice. Very roomy. Office and communication equipment gets smaller all the time. I say “why not?”

      I can see taking a massive staff for international travel, because you’re somewhat at the mercy of a foreign country. But in the U.S., where secure networks and military bases abound? I don’t see why business could not be conducted in a far more efficient manner. Is it really necessary, for example, to take a large press contingent along?

      According to Air Mobility Command, the VC-25 airplane costs something like $225,000 per hour to operate (source), and as I understand it they always send two of them along. That’s $450,000/hr for the two 742s.

      There are certainly many other costs associated with presidential travel, but in an era of high deficits and tough economic times for so many people, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a White House spend less on something that was a) significant and b) visibly meaningful?

      Call me crazy, but I think it would be great. Lead by example. Reduce emissions. Save money. And while we’re at it, get rid of the TFRs, stop halting traffic every time the president is around, and make the office less royal and more executive. Take that money and fix the VA hospitals or something. :)

  12. Wow! What a great topic and an epic discussion. And just to put another cat among the pigeons, my own inexpert opinion is that supersonic business jets …wait for it… MIGHT happen. We have the technology, and there are certainly enough corporate customers with a hill of gold and a lake of oil to seize the time savings. However I suspect any supersonic bizjet would be, at best, a transitory technology ahead of suborbital travel. Meeting on both sides of the Atlantic on the same day is one thing. Doing breakfast in LA, lunch in Beijing and dinner in the Rainbow Room would be a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

    So let’s not forget that Bert Rutan and Richard Branson might be further ahead in business than we realize. Commuting via the edge of space, on gravity’s rainbow, is now almost as viable and potentially far simpler to finally resolve than jetting privately past Mach 1. Rockets aren’t just quick either. They can also side-step that whole fossil fuels conundrum by burning hydrogen and lox, if not something more exotic. And I’m not sure where the sonic boom goes, but I don’t think it’s downwards.

    Admittedly, the first few generations of corporate orbiters (there’s a new compound word in there somewhere!) won’t have all the creature comforts of today’s jets. We may be able to hoist some walnut veneer into the upper atmosphere, but the cocktail bar will have to wait. Mind you, it wasn’t that long ago that the corporate aircraft was a converted A-26 Invader, so comfort has taken a back seat to speed and convenience (and cost) before.

    Well, that’s my two bazzillion cents worth. But for all that, and to get back to the top of the post, it’s a lot of fun to read articles from the time when supersonic airliners were a forgone conclusion and Boeing’s amazing new airbus (as the 747 was somewhat ironically labelled at the time) was almost seen as a stopgap for the travel hungry masses. Check out the Flight International archives at flghtglobal.com from the late 1960s if you’d like to travel in time …until space becomes more available.

    1. That’s very thought-provoking! If sub-orbital flight is a success, how much of a leap would it be to using that technology for passenger transportation? I never thought of it as a transitional step.

      I can see a few hurdles which would need to be overcome. For example, all existing models uses what is essentially a glider, meaning there is no opportunity for holding, diverting around weather, going-around, or doing many of the other things that contemporary aircraft must be capable of. Large-scale deployment of spacecraft would make integrating drones into the national airspace system seems like child’s play.

      Not that it couldn’t be done, of course. I’ve said many times that Rutan is going to be looked back upon as the Mozart of aerospace. Hundreds of years from now, people will still know his name. But I can see the FAA, NASA, ICAO, and other regulatory bodies struggling to keep up with the lighting-quick pace of technology.

      Several people have mentioned the inefficiency of supersonic flight, but I assume the necessary range would mean the aircraft would be capable of supercruise, as Rob mentioned above. That means it could even more efficient than current designs, and it goes without saying that direct routings would be common at FL600.

  13. Okay, I feel this subject has parallel lines. So I’ll write some points. Thus I haven’t made up my mind yet. Ready? Here we go:

    1- There is an alternate source of energy. It lays on the sea-bed covering an area of 56% of Earth’s ocean floor. Much more calorific than oil, but a bit more pollutant.

    2- We don’t intend to use pollutants anymore. Otherwise, there would be no point on ensuring a sustainable growth to aviation.

    3- There is a magna list of issues to implement on the modus operandi of today’s current aviation industry model. A task that should be done before creating supersonic jets in production line scale. Perhaps we should first develop better aviation corporate leadership concepts, better safety developments, more centralized and unified aviation authority bureaus, cut regulations fragmentation… This and that… First things first.

    4- Corporate Supersonic Jets? Why? Is this Steve Ballmer’s newest investment? I hope he realizes the “research part” will cost him 10 times the price he payed for the Dodgers.

    Humor apart, I think we can look forward to supersonic jets. But I don’t think we should put a deadline on developments right now. We just cannot afford to.

  14. I still don’t see the excitement. This is back to the future. Nothing new about Mach 1. And I really want to meet the CEO who thinks he has the business edge by showing up 45 minutes or at most two hours “sooner” than he could have shown up, at what expense again? This isn’t a race, and we shouldn’t be thinking soo much that time is money when we have other resources. Take Ron’s example of the Ford Part for a Nascar Race. With the discount UPS gives Ford, it would cost at most $800 (down from $5000) due to their 75% discount they get to get a new engine or part on “next flight out” service they offer on UPS. Fedex will even ship with an armed guard if they must. I’m not saying Biz Av is dead. Far from it. Lets just see it from a business sense. Even if it does make Dollars and Sense, why are we excited over 60 year old technology?

  15. Ron, you still don’t get it. AF1 is basically a flying white house. Now I know you fly a gulfstream and admire it’s capabilities however, it is still a relatively small aircraft and it’s limitations truly would prevent the president from having all resources available to him (or her) . Then again, to carry it to an unrealistic extreme, he could use a C152 and save the taxpayers lot’s of dough.

    1. Hi Martin! We can definitely agree on the 152 being overkill. My point is simply that a pair of 747s is also extreme.

      Even a 737 has more space than the 707 used by presidents throughout the Cold War. Heads of state around the world fly in smaller aircraft than a 747. The jumbo jet also requires long runways with thick pavement, and sometimes requires the president to downsize to a 757 or less anyway. When Rockefeller was Vice-President, he used a business jet. I believe Nixon once traveled on United Airlines during the energy crisis.

      No matter what he flies, the president is never out of touch. Not in a limo, helicopter, Gulfstream, 747, or anything in between. In an era when secure digital communication can connect the president to anyone at any time via high-def video, I just find it odd that using anything less than a 747 is so unthinkable.

  16. Ron;
    I agree with your conclusion. Advances in composites, engines, fly-by-wire flight controls, computer controlled stability and the programs that run it all guarantee a super sonic biz-jet. The ability to SUPER-CRUISE will make it feasible economically. Historically to get super sonic required after burner and lots of fuel burnt to get through the “number”; then at least partial afterburner to stay there (or 4 big engines in the Concord’s case). Bottom line; the fuel required for speed kept legs short because the aircraft couldn’t hold enough. The aircraft had to be big enough to hold the required fuel and at the same time small enough to go super-sonic. Translation: big wing/small fuselage-cabin=high cost per seat. Composites allow lower weight, new engine design makes them much smaller with less fuel burn for a given thrust rating, and aerodynamic design allows for aircraft to go faster with lower thrust. All this means less fuel burnt; which results in a smaller, more economical design

    When I was flying flight test in VX-30 rumor came over the hill from Edwards AFB that the F-22 had accidentally slipped super-sonic; in basic engine, at medium altitude, and the F-15 chasing it could not keep up in full burner. We were duly impressed. In fact, later we heard one of the problems was the aircraft could not loiter (hang out going slow, fighters do a lot of that on CAP stations). Software programs had to be adjusted.

    As corporations have grown to the size of governments there ability to innovate has diminished proportionally. Therefore, I believe the breakthrough will come from a small forward leaning company like the one that has designed the aircraft pictured. We had an old saying in Naval Aviation: “speed is life, more is better!”. Businesses would replace the word “speed” with “time” and “life” with “money”; it will be built.

    1. Thanks for your insights, Chip! It’s interesting that you feel the breakthrough will come from a small company like Spike Aerospace. When I look at the resources — both financial and technological — required to design and build a supersonic bizjet, it becomes hard to imagine a smaller firm surmounting those hurdles. But as you noted, smaller companies do have some advantages as well.

  17. I have a hard time considering myself an expert on supersonic flight, but I can say that – having worked at a company that flies a large fleet of Citation Xs (the fastest business jet in the world) – there will never be a lack of people / businesses willing to pay top dollar to save themselves time (our most valuable commodity), nor will there ever be a lack of pilots willing to fly a supersonic business jet, nor will there ever be a lack of engineers willing to take on the challenges of creating one.

    With the USA’s July 4th Independence Day celebration coming up, it is worth pointing out that the USA has met many challenges and flaunted the belief that something is impossible since before we were even a country. Flight itself was thought impossible – until two bicycle repairmen & brothers decided it wasn’t, and they spent the time and money and learned what it took to make it happen.

    It’s like the old saying, “Why do you want to climb that mountain? Because it’s there.”

    We will build a supersonic business jet. Because we can.

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