Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

Supersonic Jet With Less Noise? Lockheed Wins NASA Award to Try

Updated on
  • Experimental plane to fly in 2021 at top speed of 990 MPH
  • Business jets are expected to be first adopters of the design

Lockheed Martin Corp. won a $247.5 million NASA contract to build a quieter supersonic jet, a step toward developing planes that can whisk passengers around the globe much more quickly.

The experimental aircraft is expected to take to the skies in 2021 and will have a top velocity of 1.5 times the speed of sound, or about 990 miles per hour (1,600 kilometers) at an altitude of 55,000 feet, Lockheed said Tuesday. While the jet will only have room for a pilot, it will test design principles that soften the sonic boom.

Lockheed supersonic jet rendering

Source: Lockheed Martin Corp.

The plane “joins the annals of other historic X-planes in history that have pushed back the frontiers of aviation technology, science, innovation,” David Richardson, a director at Lockheed’s Skunk Works unit, said at a press conference with NASA in Washington.

The partners are seeking to foster technology that can overcome noise restrictions on supersonic flight, which has been banned overland for civil aircraft since 1973. Once tested for safety, the plane will be ready to fly over select communities to get feedback on the impact. The ultimate goal: opening the skies to faster jet travel and spurring manufacturers to build speedier aircraft.

Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, rose less than 1 percent to $333.79 at 12:58 p.m. in New York. The shares advanced 3.7 percent this year through Monday, compared with a 6 percent gain for a Standard & Poor’s index of aerospace and defense companies.

Noise Complaints

The Concorde, the supersonic airliner that began service in 1976, was built by a French-British coalition and flown by Air France and British Airways until it was discontinued in 2003 -- in part because noise complaints limited its flights.

Supersonic jet rendering

Source: Lockheed Martin Corp.

Lockheed’s experimental plane will be designed to mitigate the shock waves emanating from the nose, wings, engine and other protruding areas of the plane when the sound barrier is broken. The aircraft will use existing parts, such as the landing gear from an F-16 Fighting Falcon and the pilot seat from a T-38 Talon, and will measure 94 feet long with a wing span of 29.5 feet.

“It’s about the data that will be collected. It’s that data that is used then to shape the future,” Richardson said. “We’re very confident as we go forward from here in the design that we have, and being able to achieve that low-boom signature.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects private business jets to be the first type of supersonic aircraft to have commercial success if the ban on overland flight is lifted. Large passenger airliners that break the sound barrier probably won’t show up until after 2035, according to NASA’s vision.

Commercial Prospects

Aerion Corp., a business jet startup backed by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, is already working on a design that would fly overland just under the speed of sound and then speed up to Mach 1.4 over the ocean. Gulfstream, a unit of General Dynamics Corp., has said it won’t attempt to build a supersonic aircraft until it’s cleared to fly open-throttle over land and sea.

Boom Technology Inc., a Colorado startup, is developing a supersonic passenger jet with 45 to 55 seats, and attracted a $10 million investment from Japan Airlines Co. in December.

Lockheed, which makes the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, helped NASA build a small prototype of the quieter new supersonic plane that was tested in a wind tunnel. Lockheed in December also agreed to help Aerion build its supersonic jet.

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