Farther. Higher. Faster.
Aircraft designers have been stalking those three goals – in that order – ever since Orville and Wilbur Wright returned from Kitty Hawk, NC, in December 1903. And of the three, “Faster” always has been the most difficult to achieve … until now.
Aerion Corporation, a 13-year-old aeronautical design company backed by a media-shy Texas billionaire and one of the world’s biggest aviation manufacturers, this week bagged a big sale of what it promises will be the world’s first-ever supersonic business jet, capable of carrying up to a dozen passengers. That’s great, but there are several problems.
There’s no factory ready to build such a plane. The engines the designers expected to use are being phased out of production. Those pesky rules prohibiting aircraft from creating sonic booms over most nations – rendering supersonic capability pointless – not only remain in place, they’re getting tougher.
Still, buoyed by Airbus Group’s decision last year to become a partner in the development of a plane called the AS2, and this week’s 20-plane order by Flexjet, one of the world’s biggest fractional jet operations, Reno-based Aerion is gaining momentum. This week it said it expects to fly the AS2 in 2021, and for it to enter service in 2023.
That, by any measure, is an ambitious schedule for a project that will incorporate a large number of cutting-edge technologies in a single aircraft. That it’s part of an industry whose history is littered with the carcasses of ambitious designs that never quite made it into service – and others that never should have – is even more sobering.
Yet AS2 has several positive factors going for it.
It is designed around an exotic concept called “Supersonic Natural Laminar Flow” that will reduce drag by 90%, making it possible for the plane to punch through the sound barrier with ease while using essentially off-the-shelf jet engines. The world’s leading authority on SNLF, as the technology is known, is one of Aerion’s co-founders and chief technologist. Dr. Richard R. Tracy, an expert in hypersonic and supersonic design with a long history in the business aircraft industry, was a developer of the SNLF concept in the 1990s while working under contract for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the super-sophisticated and secretive developer of advanced weapons and technologies for the US government.
Aerion has more-than-adequate funding. Heavyweight investor Robert Bass, one of the billionaire Bass Brothers of Fort Worth, has been the company’s chairman since 2002 when he led a group that acquired Tracy’s company and began working on a twin-engine design called the SBJ for “Supersonic Business Jet.” The company actually took 50 refundable orders for the SBJ before the economic downturn in 2008 nearly killed the company. In 2010 the company re-started work on the current three-engine AS2 design. Its work has so impressed Airbus Group that signed on last year as an AS2 program partner. In exchange for access to Aerion’s technology for potential use in its existing and future designs, Airbus will supply significant components and manufacturing expertise.
Bass has built an all-star team of board members and managers to get the AS2 into the air. Co-chairman and CEO Brian Barentsis a highly-regarded industry veteran who ran Learjet (now a part of Bombardier) and the co-founded and ran Galaxy Aircraft (which he sold to Gulfstream, a unit of General Dynamics). In addition to Tracy, the team includes former Delta Airlines CEOGerald Grinstein, the retired president of Brazil’s Embraer, two former senior Boeing executives, a top aviation lawyer, a couple of well-connected venture capitalists, and highly-regarded technical experts in aerodynamics, and advanced aviation design and testing software.
Still, the challenges are significant.
SNLF technology – which allows wings and body surfaces to cut through the air without causing turbulence in the layers of air above, below and surrounding those surfaces to be – never has been used to the degree planned for the AS2. If it works as planned, the 90% reduction in drag would allow the plane to reach target speeds above 1,200 mph, or about Mach 1.5. But, for now, that remains an unreached goal that, if industry history is any indication, will not be easily achieved.
It has no engines, yet. The original design called for using the venerable JT8D, made by United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney unit and one of the most widely-used engines in the industry. But that engine, the first version of which debuted 52 years ago, won’t be sold after 2020 because it can’t meet new, tougher noise-reduction standards. Aerion officials expect to choose an engine early next year, but it’s not clear how powerful that engine will be or whether the plane will stick with current tri-jet configuration or go back to the twin-engine approach featured in the original SBJ design.
Sonic booms remain very unpopular. Most countries prohibit supersonic flight in their skies, which effectively takes away the advantage of plane capable of supersonic flight. That’s why Aerion sees China, where no such rules exist, as a major target market. But even such a geographically large country doesn’t offer enough long routes for the really big time savings available from supersonic flight to be manifested. Meanwhile, Aerion execs are seeking to convince the Federal Aviation Administration and similar agencies around the world to exempt the AS2 from some of the eer-tightening anti-sonic boom rules. They argue that their advanced design will, in most cases, create sonic booms so weak that they’ll never be heard or felt on the ground.
The company has no factory and no production expertise. It plans to build a cutting-edge factory somewhere in North America, though no site has been chosen yet. Originally company officials said it had to be near a port so that components from Airbus plants in Europe could be shipped in. More recently they’ve said only that it needs to be located next to a 9,000-feet long runway,. That change that puts Alliance Airport in Bass’ hometown, Fort Worth, in play.
Not only are its runways being extended from 9,000 to 11,000 feet, but a huge aircraft maintenance facility formerly operated by American Airlines sits vacant and an ample supply of qualified workers and production managers already exists. If Aerion chooses to go elsewhere, building a facility promises to be more expense and acquiring the necessary talent more difficult.
The economics of supersonic passenger flight, to be kind, remain “iffy.”
Indeed, that last challenge likely will be the hardest to overcome. The Anglo-French Concorde, the only passenger aircraft that has ever achieved supersonic flight, was a gorgeous piece of 1960s engineering when it made its debut in 1976. But it also was an enormous financial failure. Only 20 were ever built because airlines could never figure out a way to make the needle-nosed speedster, which only had room for around 100 passengers, profitable.
Amazingly, Concorde did cut the time between New York and London in half, but it consumed twice as much fuel as the not-particularly economic Boeing 747, which could carry nearly four times as many passengers. Even when airlines charged prices four times what passengers paid to fly on conventional planes traveling the same routes, they never could generate enough revenue to cover Concorde’s huge fuel, operations and maintenance bills. So the last of them were grounded in 2002 with plenty of life remaining in their airframes.
There’s little doubt that the AS2’s economics will top those of the Concorde. But that’s a low bar. The real question is whether the AS2’s economics will be good enough to compete with those of theGulfstream G650 and other popular international-range business jets already in the market. Priced at $120 million before discounts, the AS2 will cost nearly twice the price of a G650, which has a sticker price of $65 million.
Yes, the AS2 will cut two, three, even five hours off the time it takes to fly some really long international routes. But it won’t go any faster than a G650 – just over Mach 0.925 – when it flies over countries that prohibit aircraft from causing sonic booms, which is nearly every country in the world except China. Even for the highly-paid executives who presumably would fly in AS2s, are those time savings worth its jaw-dropping price? Similarly, will its fuel, operations and maintenance costs, which certainly will be much lower than were Concorde’s, be low enough to at least partially offset that stratospheric price tag?
Aerion officials point to market studies that predict demand for up to 600 copies of the AS2 over 20 years, even at that $120 million price (adjusted upward over time for inflation). But market studies for proposed new aircraft are notorious for greatly overstating-demand. Indeed, Airbus itself is feeling the pain from its grandiose market predictions for its gigantic, but slow-selling A380 super jumbo jet. The A380, which sought to push the size envelope to the same degree that the AS2 seeks to push the speed envelope, was never expected by its critics to turn a profit. And though Airbus stubbornly stuck with the much-delayed and deeply troubled A380 program despite such criticism, the A380 has been teetering on the brink of shutdown because of weak sales since it entered service in late 2007.
So, how many AS2s must erion sell simply to break even on all the money it will have spent in its more than 20-year development program? The company never has said. And how many more AS2s than that must it sell to properly reward Bass and his investment group for their risk taking and patience? Again, that’s unknown. But both would seem to be quite large numbers. By comparison Gulfstream was able to sell just over 100 of its popular – and much lower-priced – G650s in the six, admittedly economically-tough years after it entered service in 2008.
- Source: Forbes Photo: Forbes.com