Even though the pandemic subsumed most of aviation in 2020, the regulatory landscape for supersonic business aviation has reached an important juncture, with the FAA building a foundation to make this technological dream a reality.
Charged under its 2018 reauthorization to take a leadership role in the supersonic sector, the FAA has issued a final rule that streamlines procedures to obtain flight authorizations for the testing of supersonic aircraft and allows for these tests to be used for gathering noise data pertinent to the certification of supersonic aircraft.
“We are encouraged that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA issued a final rule that streamlines and clarifies procedures to obtain FAA approval for supersonic flight testing in the United States.”
Tom Vice Chairman, President and CEO, Aerion Supersonic
“This marks a significant milestone in the development of civil supersonic flight,” said Tom Vice, chairman, president and CEO of Aerion Supersonic, which is developing the 8- to-10 seat, Mach 1.4, AS2 supersonic business jet. “We are encouraged that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA issued a final rule that streamlines and clarifies procedures to obtain FAA approval for supersonic flight testing in the United States. As we approach production and flight testing of the AS2, this rule provides our company the ability to test the AS2 aircraft over land, in addition to overwater testing currently planned.”
A second proposed rule released by the FAA in April 2020 also addresses a key issue for the future of supersonic business travel by adding a new classification of supersonic aircraft to one that already exists for the Concorde. Dubbed Supersonic Level 1 (SSL 1), this new category will introduce FAR Part 36 landing and takeoff noise standards tailored for the unique dynamics of supersonic aircraft, which require:
- Greater thrust at takeoff and landing due to the use of thinner wings.
- A shorter swept wingspan to minimize wave drag at supersonic speeds.
- Low-bypass-ratio engines that generate more noise than the high-bypass engines used by modern subsonic jets.
This new classification focuses on supersonic aircraft that have a maximum takeoff weight of 150,000 pounds and a maximum operating cruise speed of Mach 1.8, which encompasses most of the supersonic aircraft under development.
In another positive development, the FAA at the end of 2020 signed an agreement with the Kansas Department of Transportation to establish a 770-nm racetrack-shaped “supersonic transportation corridor” that would allow for testing aircraft up to Mach 3 above FL390.
“The FAA must be commended for supporting the development of an entirely new sector of aviation, even as it managed the calamity of the past year to ensure that the business aviation community remains at the forefront of innovation,” said Stewart D’Leon, NBAA’s director, technical operations.
“By allowing for test corridors and considering new noise standards, the FAA has taken great strides in ensuring type certification for supersonic business jets,” added D’Leon. “These aircraft will be the inspiration for a new generation of enterprise across aviation, but this is a long journey, and there is much that industry and regulators must achieve before we can realize the true benefits of supersonic travel.”
Proving the Technologies
Vik Kachoria, president and CEO of Spike Aerospace, the developer of the S-512, a 12- to 18-seat, Mach 1.6 jet, sees the FAA’s recent moves as a catalyst for the supersonic industry.
“There is a lot of interest in supersonic flight, from customers and regulators alike, and the FAA’s responsiveness this past year is welcomed,” said Kachoria. “Now, it is up to us as manufacturers and as an industry to prove the technology that distinguishes this new generation of supersonic jets from older technologies.”
That effort is already underway, with major civil supersonic aircraft programs making great strides during the past 12 months and planning for significant progress in the coming years.
In 2020 Aerion unveiled its Aerion Park campus, a 110-acre site located on Florida’s Space Coast that will be home to the company’s global headquarters and research and design centers, as well as production and interior completions.
In the preceding months, Aerion also concluded important wind tunnel testing and finalized a partnership with Spire Global, which will provide the satellite weather technology and forecasting capabilities that will enable the AS2 to fly faster than the speed of sound without delivering a sonic boom to the ground.
A preliminary design review of the AS2 is scheduled for the end of this year, as is construction on Aerion Park in order to be ready for production to start in 2023. Aerion says that its use of artificial intelligence design tools, combined with the wind tunnel testing, eliminates the need for a demonstrator, which the company says will enable it to accelerate flight tests and obtain certification of five test aircraft to production specifications for entry into service in 2027.
Meanwhile, Boom Supersonic expects its 65- to 88-seat Overture supersonic airliner to enter service before the end of the decade. The company reached a milestone in 2020 with the roll-out of its XB-1 demonstrator.
“Boom engineering teams have been advancing Overture’s conceptual design throughout the XB-1 program. By the time this demonstrator breaks the sound barrier, we will be finalizing Overture’s configuration and ready to begin building the first airliner,” Boom said in a statement.
Boom also is proceeding with production plans and expects to break ground on the Overture factory in 2022 and put the first aircraft into production in 2023. The manufacturer plans to roll out its Overture aircraft in 2025 and begin flight tests in 2026.
In 2020 Spike bolstered its executive team by adding seasoned industry veterans as it looks to roll out its manned proof-of-concept demonstrator in 2022 so that its S-512 can enter service in 2028. Key personnel additions included:
- Bill Boisture, who has led Gulfstream Aerospace, NetJets and Hawker Beechcraft
- Tom Captain, former vice chairman of Deloitte Aerospace and Defense Group
- John Thomas, former CEO of Virgin Australia
- Private equity investor Ray Benvenuti
- Brian Foley, former director of marketing at Dassault Falcon Jet
“Despite all the challenges we have dealt with this past year, it is admirable that the supersonic industry has maintained such momentum and commitment to bringing us a safe, sustainable and environmentally conscious generation of jets that reintroduces the world to the benefits of supersonic travel,” said NBAA’s D’Leon. “We truly are on the cusp of a new era in aviation.”
NASA’s Role In A Supersonic Future
Since 1970, the FAA has prohibited non-military aircraft from operating over land at Mach 1 or greater speeds because of the thunderous sonic boom created by aircraft like the Concorde. This rule is expected to remain in place, even as supersonic travel returns to the U.S., in part because ICAO and national regulators must rely on decades-old data to set noise standards for supersonic aircraft.
But now, NASA, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, is at a key stage in the development of its X-59 Quiet supersonic Technology aircraft, which could help rewrite regulations by proving supersonic aircraft can reduce a sonic boom to a gentle thump that may not even be perceptible on the ground.
Having recently completed the mating of the x-59 wing and fuselage, NASA expects the aircraft to be fully assembled by this summer and ready for ground tests next winter. The x-59’s first flight is scheduled for summer 2022, which will mark the beginning of full-scale trials of the aircraft and all-important flight tests over communities to gather real-world data and measure the public’s response to the sonic thump beginning in 2024. ICAO is expected to receive NASA’s x-59 data in 2027.