x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Age of supersonic business jet nears

A new business jet that can fly faster than the speed of sound is about to break the commercial sense barrier.

A ring of water vapour is created as an F/A-18F Super Hornet flies close to breaking the sound barrier. Christopher Pasatieri / Reuters
A ring of water vapour is created as an F/A-18F Super Hornet flies close to breaking the sound barrier. Christopher Pasatieri / Reuters

Up until now the figures haven't added up, but a new business jet that can fly faster than the speed of sound may be about to break the commercial sense barrier.

The American private planemaker Gulfstream says it is "very close" to overcoming the big problem to flying supersonic - the bang and the shock wave caused as a jet goes through Mach 1.

And one of the world's leading aviation analysts, the US-based Teal Group, says the commercial imperative for a supersonic business jet, "is now inevitable".

Mach 1, or 760 mph (1,223kph), is the threshold at which an aircraft begins flying faster than the sound waves it generates. As it passes through, it causes a sonic boom and shock waves that can rattle windows miles away. Their impact on people and structures on the ground have been the major hurdles preventing the development of a supersonic business jet that can operate over land.

The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States bans all commercial supersonic flights in American airspace. But a decade of experiments by Gulfstream and Nasa has now delivered the technology the company's designers need to minimise that sonic boom, according to Preston Henne, Gulfstream's senior vice president of programmes, engineering and test. The company says most people would barely hear tomorrow's supersonic jet flying over them.

Speaking at the close of the National Business Aviation Association's expo in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, he told Flight International magazine the company now has an operational aircraft design with "quiet boom" features, including a very long, slender nose, which is almost ready to fly.

The age of commercial supersonic air travel ended when the Concorde fleet was retired in 2003, but traditional and start-up business jet manufacturers have continued pursuing the technology.

As well as Gulfstream, major aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed have also set up dedicated design teams to develop the concept. Dassault, the French plane maker investigated developing a supersonic business jet but abandoned the project in 2010.

An independent US company, Aerion, is also developing designs and is looking for a mainstream manufacturer to help it in bringing the concept to market. Aerion says potential initial demand for supersonic business jets could top 600 aircraft in a global economy, where speed is essential to close deals.

"In terms of technology, supersonic is the future," said Richard Aboulafia, the vice president at the Teal, the aerospace business intelligence provider. "We don't know exactly when in the future, but if you look at all the current market, industry and technology trends, it's inevitable. "Any kind of mass travel using supersonic technologies is a losing proposition, but there's an extreme top end of the private aviation market where there's zero elasticity. They'll pay any price for that speed.

"You couple that demand with advances in sonic boom mitigation and power plant technology and there's a confluence of events that sooner or later will create a new product," he added.

dblack@thenational.ae