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, and Reno, Nev.-based Aerion 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, a commercial airplane 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 has been working with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center to conduct testing. 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 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 it to resize the airplane with a larger cabin or increase its 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.”
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.