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Prospect of Supersonic Business Jets May Be Drawing Closer on the Horizon

March 3, 2014

Listen to an NBAA Flight Plan podcast on the possibility of supersonic business jets in the future.

A NASA F/A-18 Hornet soars high above Edwards Air Force Base in California. The brilliant white and blue aircraft rolls gracefully and dives toward the runway, accelerating. Those in earshot expect to hear a shattering explosion of sound as the aircraft nears Mach 1. Instead, they hear a low rumble. Sonic boom abatement has come a long way.

With breakthroughs in the technology of sonic boom shaping, some say the possibility of a supersonic business jet (SSBJ) may be getting closer to realization.

According to Jens Hennig, vice president of operations at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, “The effect of the wonderful research they’ve done at NASA means the noise is greatly reduced. The Concorde’s sonic boom was measured at 105 decibels. Now, the noise level is down to around 80 db. NASA’s research says the acceptable level would be in the low- to mid-70 db range. We’re on a path that takes us down to a singular point, and that is the need for an ‘X-Plane.’”

The X-Plane is a NASA proof-of-concept demonstrator, Hennig said. But already, at least two manufacturers hope to build their own prototype SSBJs by no later than 2020.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, agrees that the market appears ready for a faster-than-sound business jet.

“We did a major survey of the possible players (in the SSBJ marketplace),” he said. “In 2002, we were convinced sales would be in the 20-to-25-per year range. It’s probably more now.”

But both Aboulafia and Hennig pointed out that challenges remain before a viable SSBJ can be introduced.

“Massive engines undid the Concorde’s economics,” Aboulafia explained. “They were giant and expensive to both buy and fix. You need something that will get you to between Mach 1.6 and Mach 2 without an afterburner. It has to have good subsonic range. That’s difficult.”

“Technologically, it’s all headed in the right direction,” added Hennig. “But one area that will have to be addressed is air traffic management.”

Currently, Hennig said, air traffic procedures and flow management doctrine are set for aircraft that travel no faster than 0.82 Mach.

Cost is another factor, noted Aboulafia. But while SSBJs will likely be more expensive to build, fly and maintain, he also pointed to what he called “price elasticity.”

“There is a certain segment of the market that will simply look at the cost and say that cost isn’t as important as the flexibility that comes with speed.”