Billionaire’s Supersonic-Jet Plan Gets Help From Airbus

Supersonic Business Jet
The supersonic plane will fly efficiently at subsonic speeds over the U.S. and throttle to Mach 1.6, or 1.6 times the speed of sound, over the ocean. Source: Aerion Corp.

Texas billionaire Robert Bass’s Aerion Corp., the company working to build a supersonic business jet, will get help from Europe’s Airbus Group NV in its quest to have an aircraft ready by 2021.

Airbus, whose Concorde airliner was retired in 2003 after 27 years of service, will provide expertise on design, manufacturing and certification in exchange for access to Aerion’s proprietary technology that reduces drag on wings and the fuselage, the companies said today.

The collaboration adds credibility to Bass’s quest to offer the first business jet to fly faster than the speed of sound, a project begun in 2002 and then put on hold by the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Bass’s backing and assistance from Airbus, the world’s second-largest planemaker, clear the path for Aerion, Chief Executive Officer Doug Nichols said.

“We see no technical show stoppers,” Nichols said in a telephone interview. “The collaboration with Airbus was an essential piece in order to bring the expertise of a premier aircraft development concern into the fold.”

The U.S. bars civilian planes from exceeding the sound barrier -- about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) per hour at sea level -- while flying over land because of the noise from sonic booms. With that restriction, manufacturers lacked a business case for a Concorde successor or a supersonic private jet.

Noise Rules

Aerion’s proposed AS2 model won’t require changing U.S. and foreign noise regulations, Nichols said. The plane will fly efficiently at subsonic speeds over the U.S. and throttle to Mach 1.6, or 1.6 times the speed of sound, while crossing the ocean. Over Europe, the plane will be able to reach Mach 1.2 without a boom that’s perceptible on the ground, he said.

Airbus is interested in Aerion’s $100 million investment over the last decade to develop a technology called “natural laminar flow” and the design tools for economical operations at supersonic and subsonic speeds, said Barton Greer, a spokesman for the Toulouse, France-based planemaker.

“Our commitment is to help Aerion bring its AS2 to market,” Greer said in a telephone interview. “Airbus Group views this collaboration as a two-way street.”

Airbus and Reno, Nevada-based Aerion declined to discuss terms of their agreement. Bass, 66, is Aerion’s chairman and is a founder of investment firm Oak Hill Capital Partners LP.

Supersonic Planes

With buyers of top-end corporate jets already shelling out almost as much as the price of the smallest Airbus and Boeing Co. jetliners, research into supersonic planes has focused more on business aircraft in recent years than on commercial models.

The AS2 probably will cost more than $100 million, according to Aerion. That compares with $72.4 million for Bombardier Inc.’s Global 7000, which will be that planemaker’s biggest private jet upon entering service in 2016.

Aerion calculates demand for the AS2 will be 600 planes over a 20-year period, Nichols said. The jet, which will have a range enabling it to fly nonstop from cities such as London to Seattle or San Francisco to Tokyo, will seat as many as 12 passengers and be made mostly from carbon fiber composite material.

The company plans to begin the program in 2016 and hold its first flight at the end of 2019, Nichols said. The goal for certification is 2021, with the plane going into service the following year. Aerion is in talks with engine manufacturers and may choose one next year, Nichols said.

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