Mach 5, Anyone? Supersonic Flight Is Poised for Takeoff


Since the last commercial supersonic flight 11 years ago, the world has accelerated in every respect but one: Instead of increasing speed, airlines have focused on driving down costs by commissioning ever-bigger planes crammed with ever more people. In 2003, for example, a Boeing 747-400 configured for three classes could carry 416 passengers; today’s Airbus A380 can accommodate 525.

Yet the dream of flying faster than the speed of sound has never died, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2014 issue. In particular, a handful of companies have doggedly pursued the creation of a supersonic business jet.

Leading the pack is Texas-born billionaire Robert Bass, who during the past decade has plowed more than $100 million into his Reno, Nevada–based Aerion Corp. Bass, the 66-year-old founder of investment firm Oak Hill Capital Partners LP, is betting billionaires will be willing to plunk down more than $100 million for a plane that will whisk them from London to New York in less than 4 hours.

“There’s a large demand for a very fast aircraft,” says Doug Nichols, chief executive officer of Aerion and a former senior executive at Boeing Co. “Something that can compress time is going to find a tremendous reception.”

There’s a potential market for more than 600 supersonic business jets during the next 20 years, according to a study in February by Plano, Texas–based research firm Rolland Vincent Associates. Aerion already has 50 letters of intent to buy, backed up by deposits of $250,000, Nichols says.

Trans-Pacific Range

“Our ultimate goal is an aircraft that has trans-Pacific range,” he adds. “There’s a particularly large market for this type of aircraft in Asia.”

A supersonic jet will carry not only a high sticker price ($100 million–plus, versus $60 million for a top-of-the-line Bombardier Global 6000) but also higher operating costs from engines that slurp far more fuel than those of ordinary planes. That leaves some industry insiders doubtful that even billionaires will clamor to buy one.

“The purpose of a business jet is privacy and, yes, to save time, but that gets weighed against cost,” says Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, CEO of jet-charter company London Executive Aviation Ltd. “It’s a false story that money is no object.”

General Dynamic Corp.’s Gulfstream, for one, isn’t finding cost a deterrent. Last year, the company launched the fastest private jet on the market -- the $65 million G650, which can achieve an almost-supersonic speed of Mach 0.925 -- and buyers lined up. Even if you ordered the pricey plane today, the earliest you could take delivery is 2017.

Reducing Drag

Other supersonic hopefuls include Boston-based Spike Aerospace Inc., which is raising money to build a supersonic business jet it says could be ready by 2018. Spike’s S-512 aims to fly at Mach 1.6 by eliminating windows to reduce drag. Interior walls will act as giant screens, onto which a movie or a live feed of the skies outside could be projected.

But before the industry can satisfy the pent-up demand for supersonic flight, it must first grapple with the resulting sonic boom.

When an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound -- Mach 1, or about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) per hour, depending on conditions -- it creates a continuous shock wave that mimics a close-by clap of thunder. For this reason, in 1973, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration banned supersonic flights over land. Other countries soon followed, limiting the Concorde to flying over water and curtailing its market reach.

In order to overcome FAA limits, Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. have been working with NASA since 2010 on ways to muffle the sonic boom.

Speed of Sound

“We’ve reached a point where quiet, low-boom overland supersonic passenger service is achievable,” says Peter Coen, manager of NASA’s High Speed Project.

Coen, however, doesn’t expect those designs to fly the skies before 2025.

With the low-boom solution potentially a decade or more away, other companies are pressing ahead with a plane that can function within existing regulations. Aerion’s jet, for example, can fly at variable speeds -- Mach 1.6 over water and just under the speed of sound over land.

Meanwhile, rocket scientists at Reaction Engines Ltd., an aerospace firm near Oxford, England, have successfully tested critical cooling technology for a lightweight engine called Sabre -- developed to power a reusable spaceplane -- that could propel a plane from standstill to Mach 5.

Brussels to Sydney

Such an aircraft would speed passengers from Brussels to Sydney in 4 hours and 40 minutes -- versus today’s 21-plus hours -- without the risk of the engine overheating, says Alan Bond, the 69-year-old company founder, who’s been laboring over the project for the past 30 years.

Although the commercial deployment of a Mach 5 hypersonic plane is at least 15 years away, Reaction Engines recently secured 60 million pounds ($100 million) in funding from the U.K. government toward a four-year engine development program budgeted at 360 million pounds.

“At least people don’t think we’re crackpots anymore,” Bond says.