Business jets at the speed of sound?

The need for speed remains the catalyst behind a continuing effort by Aerion Corp. to develop a business jet that can fly faster than the speed of sound.

“We don’t think there’s any doubt this is clearly the next frontier,” said Brian Barents, Aerion vice chairman and a former executive at Bombardier Learjet and Cessna Aircraft.

The industry is building business jets that fly farther, but it’s stuck at subsonic flight, Barents said.

“There’s clearly a demand for speed, and we feel that we’re in a good position to take advantage of that demand,” he said.

Supersonic business jet flight will happen in our lifetime, Barents said.

Aerion, based in Reno, Nev., wants to be first to the market.

Gulfstream also has a small supersonic jet research program. It does not yet have an aircraft. Its program is dedicated to mitigating the sonic boom created by supersonic flight.

Aerion was founded in 2002 by Texas billionaire Robert Bass to develop and commercialize supersonic transportation.

The last commercial supersonic flight took place 10 years ago with the Concorde, an airliner built by Britain’s British Aircraft Corporation and France’s Aerospatiale. Falling passenger demand and rising maintenance costs prompted British Airways and Air France to discontinue flying the Concorde, they said at the time.

But manufacturers have continued to pursue the technology.

Aerion is deep in research.

It has been working with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center to conduct testing.

In the first five months of 2013, they conducted a round of 11 flights with a 40-inch by 80-inch Aerion test article mounted underneath an F-15 research plane and flown up to two times the speed of sound.

The test article was engineered to represent the Aerion wing flow and pressure conditions in supersonic conditions, the company said.

If all goes well, Aerion plans for a supersonic business jet to enter the market in 2021.

Aerion also is rethinking which engines it will use for the project — a move that could improve performance or increase cabin size.

It had planned to use Pratt &Whitney engines that could produce speeds of up to 1.6 Mach, or more than 1,200 mph. Mach 1, or 760 mph, is the threshold at which an airplane begins flying faster than the sound waves it generates.

The current aircraft design was designed around the maximum capability of that engine, said Doug Nichols, Aerion’s CEO.

Now Aerion is in discussions with at least three engine manufacturers to consider other engines that might produce more thrust.

That may allow the company to resize the airplane with a larger cabin size or give it better performance, such as an increase in range, Barents said.

To that end, Aerion has launched a new market survey to help determine market requirements for range, cabin size and price “because none of that comes free,” he said.

“It gives us the opportunity to explore a larger airplane if the market dictates,” Barents said.

But a revised version will likely look a lot like today’s design, Nichols said.

“It may be a little longer or wider; it could have three engines,” he said. “That clearly has not been decided. That will be the result of how the market speaks to us.”

Aerion says the market is there. The business jet industry has not recovered from the recession that began in 2008. But demand is strong for larger business jets costing more than $60 million, Barents said.

The size of the potential market may be difficult to gauge through surveys.

“Once a supersonic airplane is available, once it’s in the market and fully announced and delivery positions are firming up, I personally believe all sorts of wonderful things will happen on the demand side,” Nichols said.

Supersonic flight will be able to shave off flight hours as it catapults passengers from the U.S. across the ocean. And time is money.

Aerion has letters of intent for the purchase of roughly 50 supersonic jets at $80 million each, Barents said.

The orders have remained largely intact through the recession, he said.

Once changes to the airplane are made, the company will discuss them with customers. Those changes may change the price of the plane as well.

Meanwhile, Aerion has been looking for a mainstream aircraft manufacturer to partner with to help bring the concept to market. That effort is on hold until the results of the survey are known.

The Federal Aviation Administration has banned supersonic flights in American airspace because of the sonic boom and shock waves that can rattle windows miles away.

Rules established by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which most of the rest of the world follow, require that supersonic flight over land not create an audible disturbance on the ground.

Business jet manufacturer Gulfstream has been working with NASA on mitigating the sonic boom.

Gulfstream has been working on innovations such as a supersonic “quiet spike,” a telescoping spike extending from the nose of a jet to generate weak shocks, the company said.

Until the ban on supersonic flights over the U.S. is lifted, Gulfstream does not see a business case for a supersonic business jet, said Gulfstream spokeswoman Heidi Fedak.

That’s key to success, the company said.

Gulfstream is also working with regulatory authorities and research groups to see what sound level communities and airports would support.

The goal is to change the regulations, Fedak said.

Aerion officials said it can operate under existing regulations.

The FAA has said it would consider adopting ICAO rules at some point.

But until that happens, Aerion’s jet would fly at high speeds below the speed of sound over the U.S.

Over countries that follow ICAO’s rules, Aerion’s wing design will allow the supersonic jet fly at 1.1 to 1.2 times the speed of sound where a boom would be created but would dissipate at about 5,000 feet above the ground and not be heard on the ground, they said.

Then it can fly as much as 1.6 times the speed of sound over open water where a perceptible boom is of no consequence, officials said.

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