Part one – bringing back supersonic.

Supersonic, electric or unmanned – which technology will usher in the next generation of civilian aircraft? In the first part of this series, we look at how supersonic aircraft are set to change the way we fly forever.

Aircraft timeline

The retired Concorde project inspires nostalgia and admiration in countless aviation professionals. Consequently, when Boom Supersonic, Aerion and Spike Aerospace each announced plans to reinvigorate the supersonic space for civilians, the industry welcomed the upstart companies with open arms.

First aircraft from the three manufacturers are now underway. A one-third scale prototype of Boom’s Overture plane (estimated cruising speed Mach 2.2), known as the XB-1 or ‘Baby Boom’, is due in December, with first flight set for 2020.

While Boom is developing a 55-seat supersonic civilian airliner, Aerion and Spike are focusing on the private jet market.

Having already test-flown a subscale prototype, Spike is currently selecting an engine for its 18-seat S-512 aircraft (est. speed Mach 1.6). Meanwhile, entry into service for Aerion’s 12-seat AS2 business jet, supported by Boeing, is set for 2025.

Obstacles to success

Despite significant investment and financial backing underpinning all three companies, Boom, Aerion and Spike must still overcome the obstacles that cut short Concorde to secure the future of their aircraft.

Concorde became economically unviable due to high operating costs, as well as the restriction of flights to transoceanic routes in order to limit the impact of the sonic boom over land.

Sonic boom

A sonic boom is created when aircraft travel faster than Mach 1 – the speed of sound. As air compresses around the vehicle, it creates shockwaves that, when they hit the ground, produce a loud ‘crack’ sound.

Each manufacturer has proposed different ways of reducing the sonic boom to a level that falls within US and European noise parameters.

Spike’s Quiet Supersonic Flight Technology optimises the aircraft’s aerodynamic design, supposedly bringing its sonic boom down to ordinary background noise level. Boom is also taking this approach, with three specially designed engines and a carbon fibre composite fuselage to make the aircraft ’30 times quieter’ than Concorde, while increasing fuel efficiency.

Aerion’s strategy is to prevent the boom from hitting the ground at all, by deflecting the shockwaves upwards off warmer layers of the atmosphere. The company is developing cockpit technology that will accurately measure atmospheric conditions ahead of the aircraft, so supersonic speed can be maintained.

Sustainable supersonic

However, sound pollution is not the only environmental consideration manufacturers have to make.

At this year’s Paris Air Show, Boom’s CEO Blake Scholl emphasised that creating environmentally sustainable supersonic flight would be crucial, saying “it’s not good enough just to match the fuel efficiency and emission profile of current business class. We have to find a way to prove we are taking great care of the planet.”

High speeds, limited passenger numbers and significant fuel burn could combine to make these aircraft inefficient and costly. With added public and political scrutiny on carbon emissions, ensuring supersonic flight is as ‘green’ as possible may go some way towards protecting its future.

‘When’, not ‘if’

With development of these three aircraft firmly on track for the next five to ten years, the question has shifted to when, not if, we will see supersonic flights enter the mainstream.

As the industry’s most innovative full flight simulator manufacturer, AXIS Flight Training Systems is ready for the next generation of supersonic aircraft to take to the skies. We are renowned for producing tomorrow’s simulators for today’s training – an outlook that will serve the industry well as flight training devices adapt to serve this area of aerospace.