Building a new supersonic airliner has been the elusive dream of aerospace manufacturers ever since the Concorde made its last flight in 2003. But despite four decades of aviation advancements since the Concorde was introduced in 1976, no one else has managed to achieve the supersonic holy grail: New York to London in just 3 or 4 hours.
That might finally be changing. Boom Technology, a small aerospace company with funding from Virgin Galactic, is made up of aviation and propulsion experts from the likes of NASA, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites. The Denver-based team recently redesigned the plans for their Mach 2.2 supersonic airliner, stretching the aircraft to about 155 feet to accommodate 50 passengers rather than 40. They increased the wingspan of the delta-wing slightly as well.
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By using structural composite materials developed by Boeing, as well as heat-resistant composites developed by SpaceX for the Falcon 9 rocket, Boom believes it can succeed in building a supersonic passenger airframe where others have failed. A third engine, embedded in the tail cone section fighter-style, has also been added to the aircraft's design.
"Moving from a twinjet to a trijet is a better answer," Boom Technology CEO Blake Scholl told Aviation Week. "A twinjet is more challenging to certify for early ETOPS [extended twin operations], while a trijet will enable unrestricted travel on routes with up to 180 minutes diversion time with an engine out."
Boom is currently working on a one-third-scale prototype of their aircraft, called the XB-1, which will be powered by General Electric CJ610 turbojet engines. Flight of the sub-scale prototype is planned for late 2017 to test the design and aerodynamic structure. The full aircraft, which Boom hopes will enter service by 2023, will be powered by an as-yet unselected engine, modified by Boom with a low-pressure spool so the jet can take off and fly at all stages without afterburner.
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"At least two off-the-shelf cores are a good fit," Scholl said to Aviation Week of the engine selection process. "One commercial and one military, the latter with good exportability. … Making the whole flight profile possible without afterburner is crucial to making it viable."
Things appear to be on track for Boom, depending on how their prototype flight testing goes next year. What's more, an independent report provided to Aviation Week by Boyd Group International Strategic Aviation Solutions suggests the market is ready to implement supersonic passenger airliners, with an estimated demand for as many as 1,300 aircraft worth $260 billion across multiple airlines (300 planes more than Boom's in-house estimates).
The stars might be aligning for Boom, but they still have some hurdles to overcome. Keeping engine noise down on takeoff to adhere to aviation regulations is one of them, and while Scholl said it "can be done with a propulsion system that will make it [noise] compliant for takeoff and be efficient in cruise," he also admitted hitting Mach 2.2 and meeting noise regulations would come with design compromises and "with pain, for sure."
Boom isn't alone in its quest for supersonic passenger flight. Aerion plans to launch the certification program for its Mach 1.4 AS2 supersonic trijet by the end of 2017, achieve first flight by 2021, and enter service in 2023. The project is receiving engineering support from aviation giant Airbus.
NASA is also working to build a new supersonic aircraft, an X-plane called the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator that will be used to test new aerodynamic designs to quiet the noise of a sonic boom. The X-plane will also test new engines capable of supersonic propulsion that are quiet enough to adhere to FAA airport noise regulations. Until the thunder clap of a sonic boom is quieted, companies like Boom can only hope to fly commercial routes over the oceans.
But even with only transoceanic routes available to Boom for their first aircraft, the airline market is seemingly ready to accept supersonic planes into their fleets. It might not be too much longer until you can take that 3.5-hour flight from JFK to Heathrow, traveling faster than the speed of sound at 60,000 feet, with the curvature of the Earth out your window for a view.
Source: Aviation Week