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Supersonic Start-ups

The old adage ‘the sky is the limit’ applies less and less in today’s aviation industry. The concept of commercial travel into space is fast becoming a reality but in terms of global mobility there seems to be a common limitation; speed.

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Concorde’s first flight. The Concorde, with its iconic delta wing design and supercruise capabilities, is still recognised today as a marvel of engineering accomplishment and ambition. A total of 20 were built over Concorde’s 27 years in commercial operation which flew passengers from London to New York in just over 3 hours. A combination of public distrust following the Air France disaster of 2000, high maintenance costs, and a period of economic uncertainty, led to Concorde’s retirement in 2003.

Despite the rapid advances in engineering, aviation technology and composites, Concorde’s supersonic travel capabilities have yet to be replicated on the commercial market. As Brad Mottier, GE’s VP and GM of General Aviation and Integrated Systems, points out “over the last 50 years, business aircraft speeds have increased by less than 10%”. Understandably, modern aviation instead prioritises safety, operating efficiency and commercial viability over speed or public wonderment.

This may be about to change as three start-ups; Aerion Supersonic, Spike Aerospace and Boom Supersonic, endeavour to reintroduce supersonic flight. The start-ups will be testing their prototypes this year and intend to provide passenger flights by 2023, two of the companies opting to provide private flights whilst Boom Supersonic will provide a commercially available supersonic service. Boom’s XB-1 will have a capacity of 55 seats, a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 and is predicted to fly from New York to London in 3 hours 15 minutes. “It’s an evolutionary design,” states Phil Atcliffe, senior lecturer in Aerodynamics and Aircraft Performance at the University of Salford, commenting on the Boom aircraft “…we already had the revolutionary design in Concorde.”

The main obstacles to supersonic aircrafts entering commercial service are the regulations concerning noise and emissions. Spike’s patent on “Quiet Supersonic Flight Technology” indicates that supressing sonic booms is possible but the greater challenge remains the environmental issue. Supersonic planes require both significantly higher flight altitudes and fuel consumption than subsonic aircrafts. Furthermore, emissions released at these heights pose a greater threat to the environment than land level emissions. The International Council on Clean Transportation predict that supersonic aircrafts would consume 5-7 times the amount of fuel and produce 40% more nitrogen oxide and 70% more carbon dioxide emissions. While there are currently no restrictions on supersonic aircraft, the ICAO, FAA and EU are likely to implement global regulations by 2025.

A new era of aeronautics is clearly on the horizon. NASA and Lockheed Martin, currently perfecting the X-59 QueSST prototype, envision further advances to high-speed aviation including hypersonic and suborbital travel but until civil supersonic aircrafts have been re-established as a reliable mode of transport these advances remain theoretical.

As with Concorde, the question is no longer if companies can produce modern aircraft capable of achieving supersonic speed but whether they can meet and survive the harsh economic, environmental and regulatory requirements that lie in wait.