Editor's Note

Tech, VC Move Forward on Supersonics — Are They Economically Viable?

By Brian Garrett-Glaser and Woodrow Bellamy III | August 10, 2020
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Competition toward the next generation of supersonic aircraft continues to heat up, with a number of announcements in the past two weeks:

  • Hermeus Corporation won a $1.5 million prototyping award from the U.S. Air Force to work with the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, exploring potential modifications necessary to work their technology into a future executive fleet.Hermeus plans to bring Mach 5 flight to commercial aerospace, with an engine prototype successfully demonstrated earlier this year.
  • Boom Supersonic, slated to unveil its one-third sub-scale XB-1 demonstrator in October, recently partnered with Rolls-Royce to find the right propulsion system for its debut aircraft, the Overture.
  • Virgin Galactic, known primarily for its work toward commercial space tourism, jumped into the supersonic fray last week, announcing it will work with Rolls-Royce on a 9-19 passenger business jet that can fly at Mach 3.

While the next Air Force One, expected to be delivered next year, will be a modified Boeing 747-8, the Air Force’s award to Hermeus shows interest in something quite different — and quite a bit faster — for the generation of executive aircraft after that.

To get to market, Hermeus will have to raise a lot more money. A seed round and $1.5 million from AFWERX won’t build an airplane — and certainly not one that travels at Mach 5.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, tells us the business case for Hermeus’ vision — commercial airline supersonics — is “extremely difficult.”

“I just don’t see how anyone can make money with supersonics in the commercial market,” Aboulafia said in an email. “But private aviation is another story. There’s definitely a group of private jet users out there who don’t mind paying more and flying in a much smaller plane, and with much shorter ranges, in order to fly supersonic. And once there is a business jet that can buy a supersonically, there will be a military and government market for that jet.”

With a 20-pax aircraft, Hermeus believes it does have a path to both private and commercial aviation markets — the latter through business and first class, not economy.

AJ Piplica, co-founder of Hermeus: “Once you’re over the drag hump at Mach 1, the per seat-mile costs don’t change much … the fuel costs per seat-mile are higher than subsonic, but crew, amortization, and maintenance cost per seat-mile are lower, which keeps the overall costs point profitable around today’s business class prices.”

“There’s still lots of uncertainty that needs to be bought down to realize that cost point, which is why we’re building, flying and iterating through multiple aircraft before we get too deep into Transport.”

Meanwhile Boom Supersonic believes that it has in fact figured out how to make the economics of supersonic commercial air travel work. Their Overture airliner is expected to fly at Mach 2.2 and begin flight testing in the “mid-2020s.” The $200 million aircraft has 30 orders to date — 20 from Japan Airlines and 10 from Virgin Group.

While the COVID-19 global pandemic could have some impact on passenger demand for supersonic travel – unless the industry reaches pre pandemic levels by the time a supersonic jetliner is certified – Boom had envisioned charging ticket prices comparable to those charged on first class flights today for every seat on Overture.

Boom’s next step in making Overture a reality comes Oct. 7, when the company plans on unveiling its subscale demonstrator XB-1. The aircraft was originally supposed to fly for the first time last year, but Boom now says the maiden flight is on track for 2021. It’s mission will be to demonstrate the challenges Overture most overcome to be capable of carrying up to 55 passengers at more than twice the speed of today’s in-service airliners.

Boom has raised at least $160 million in venture funding to date, with a post-money valuation of $850 million, according to data provided by Pitchbook.

In April, the regulatory side of the future supersonic equation took a step forward when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to establish a certification path for next generation supersonic jets. Industry reaction to the NPRM has been mixed, especially since its keeps the agency’s current policy preventing civil aircraft from operating at speeds exceeding Mach 1 over land in U.S. airspace in place.

The agency is required to finalize its supersonic rulemaking but the end of this year, under guidance established by the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that also directs the agency’s leadership to review available aircraft noise and performance data that help determine whether FAA regulations can be adjusted to permit supersonic flight over land in the U.S.

Another supersonic regulatory goal for the FAA is to amend noise certification regulations in 14 CFR, parts 21 and 36, to allow new supersonic airplanes, and to add subsonic landing and takeoff (LTO) cycle standards for supersonic airplanes that have a maximum takeoff weight no greater than 150,000 pounds and a maximum operating cruise speed up to Mach 1.8.

Challenges faced by Boom and other future facing supersonic aircraft developers in the near future though could be the lack of international harmonization on supersonic regulations.

“Ultimately, any standards that we put in the U.S. are good domestically, but these aircraft…need to be able to fly to other places,” Kevin Welsh, executive director for the office of environment, FAA, said during his participation in a June 17 panel during the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aviation Forum.

As the commercial aerospace industry continues to grapple with COVID-19, Hermeus joins the crop of companies working to make civilian supersonic travel a reality again. The only supersonic aircraft that currently meets FAA noise regulations is the Concorde, which made its final flight in 2003.

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