Supersonic flight by 2020?

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Aerion Corporation has been making steady progress in its bid to make supersonic business travel a reality. During the first quarter of 2013, the company carried out a fresh series of tests on its natural laminar flow (NLF) technology in partnership with NASA. According to the company’s top executives, Aerion is talking privately with one or more large business jet manufacturers about a potential joint venture to bring its supersonic jet design to market. Doug Nichols, formerly Chief Operating Officer at Aerion and now the company’s CEO, points out that Aerion’s skills lie in solving the scientific and manufacturing challenges associated with bringing NLF wing and body technologies to market. Actually building the company’s supersonic jet will be the responsibility of the OEM partner with whom Aerion ultimately partners.

This approach has the huge benefit of enabling the company to focus on the scientific and technical challenges associated with “proving” the stability of its NLF technology, while the OEM partner tackles the build challenges. The design team have deliberately avoided looking at exotic new composite technologies and have gone for existing, proven technologies wherever possible. “One of the key points about our Supersonic Business Jet (SBJ) vision is that we don’t require any new materials or power systems to be developed in order for the jet to become a reality,” Nichols told Executive & VIP Aviation International. Under the current SBJ configuration, power will be provided by a variant of the Pratt & Whitney JT8D-200 series engine, de-rated to 19,600 pounds of maximum static thrust for Stage 4 noise compliance. The engine also meets the latest ICAO standards for nitrogen oxide emissions and noise regulations, and will cruise at 51,000 feet, which means it stays out of the fragile ozone layer. The whole point, as Nichols explains, is to lower risk by going with proven technology wherever possible in the design of the Aerion SBJ.

This “sticking with what you know” philosophy has enabled Aerion to keep its cash burn to within realistic bounds while going through the stages of proving the validity of its NLF technology. The company was formed in 2002 when Robert Bass, Chairman of the Board, became the principal investor. Bass is the founder of the Oak Hill investment partnerships which have some $30 billion in capital under management and is the president of Keystone Group LP. With that kind of backing, as Nichols says, Aerion can breathe a lot easier than other development stage companies. “The company is adequately financed for our present stage of development. Mr. Bass is very satisfied with the progress we are making,” Nichols says.

Generating and maintaining stable NFL conditions over the wing, nose and fuselage is the real crunch point for Aerion, since Nichols and his team are relying on the reduced drag which follows from inducing extensive amounts of NLF to make supersonic flight economically viable. From the start its partnership with NASA, underwritten by a Space Act Agreement which means both sides pay for their own costs, has been fundamental to the company’s efforts to prove that its design technology can generate stable NFL conditions around the aircraft. As Nichols explains, “NASA provides the test aircraft, an F-15B, and we provide the instrumented test article which is attached to the underbelly of the aircraft. The tests provide us with very precise measurements of NLF performance during supersonic flight,” he says.

Phase one of the most recent test series took place in July and August 2010 in collaboration with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre. The F-15B clocked at Mach 2 and five data flights gave Aerion’s technical team a detailed understanding of the complex flow fields under the F-15B aircraft. This flow field mapping enabled the design of a second test plate which began testing in live flights on the F-15B in early 2013. As Nichols explains, the aim now is to assess the robustness of laminar flow in relation to steps and gaps on the test article surface that would likely occur in a production manufacturing process, and the accumulation of other surface imperfections including insect accretion. “You don’t want to find that you can only generate the target level NFLs under sterile laboratory conditions. We have to prove that manufacturing imperfections, bugs, and other flight debris collecting on the plate surface will not significantly impair NFL performance,” he says. Aerion is now looking to define both the tolerance of SBJ wings to a build-up of imperfections, and to define the requirements of a manufacturing environment for serial production of the Aerion wing. “Neither bugs nor achievable manufacturing tolerances will be deal breakers for the Aerion SBJ Program and we are doing the empirical and flight test work to prove this,” he says.

Talking to Pratt & Whitney, Nichols is confident that a new, upgraded engine that is superior to the current JT8D-200 can be available by the time the SBJ is ready to go into production. However, there are also several alternative engine cores that could be modified to meet the propulsion requirements for efficient supersonic flight. Nichols emphasises that the success of the project does not hinge upon the P&W engine.

The company already has deposits for as many as 50 SBJs in escrow, demonstrating just how exceptional the interest is in supersonic travel. “Speed is the one unexploited dimension for true differentiated competition and value creation among manufacturers. There have been no significant increases in speed in business aviation in 20 years, so the Aerion SBJ will be a complete game changer,” Nichols says. “The main point for us to emphasise is that while this is a very complex airplane that we are designing, it embodies off-the-shelf technologies. There of course will be engineering development challenges to overcome in a program of this complexity, but they are not materially different from the engineering challenges that industry tackles in every new aircraft development program,” he comments.

A more significant challenge is posed by the difficult economic conditions that currently define the business aviation world. “The uncertain economic conditions make it harder for an OEM to step up and shoulder the responsibility and risk of building a revolutionary aircraft like the Aerion SBJ. We need a manufacturer with experience, resources, infrastructure and demonstrated performance to develop, certify and support the aircraft,” Nichols says.

For any individual or any corporation out there for whom supersonic business travel looks irresistible, the price of the Aerion SBJ is currently around US$80 million in 2007-year dollars. Nichols’ target markets are high net worth individuals, heads of state and large corporations, for whom time is money and for whom getting from point A to point B twice as fast as the competition can be the key to major success. According to Nichols, the SBJ will enter service by around 2020. The company is also amassing a large and growing portfolio of intellectual property, with patents on wing designs that optimise large extends of NLF, which means that there is real value in the company already. In Nichols’ view, the company is probably about a year or two away from complete technical readiness for a hard launch of its SBJ, assuming it finds an appropriate OEM with whom to partner for the build, and from there to certification would take between five and seven years which is in line with other development programs of comparable magnitude and complexity.

“We have had a number of discussions with the FAA and we are confident that certification would be relatively straightforward. There is no doubt that partnering with Aerion would be a huge game changer for any of the big executive jet manufacturers and would herald a whole new and defining chapter in their history. A number of market studies, both independent and sponsored by Aerion, demonstrate that there is a very large and ready market for a supersonic business jet. Our value proposition is very compelling,” he says.

Nichols will not specify what Aerion is expecting in terms of a revenue sharing split with a future partner, saying only that the split would be proportionate to the assumed risk by the two parties. “We see a demand for between 400 and 600 of the 8-12 passenger SBJs over the course of the next 15 years, starting from first deliveries. There has been no significant increase in the speed front in business aviation for decades. The G650 and the Citation 10 are both stuck in the Mach .925 range for Mmo, not long-range cruise. The long-range cruise speed of the Aerion SBJ is Mach 1.5. Speed is the next frontier and it is inevitable that the business aviation industry will embrace it. While our current configuration is an eight to 12 passenger version, our designers have actively evaluated larger variants. There are no technical impediments to building a larger SBJ. The viability of larger SBJ aircraft would be based solely on the commercial business case. We think that there is ample evidence that there is an attractive risk reward ratio in supersonic flight and that it will most definitely happen,” he concludes.