Two Groups Vie to Build
A Supersonic Business Jet
Key Is to Lower the 'Boom'
And Expand Route Map
For Globe-Trotting CEOs
By J. LYNN LUNSFORD
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 11, 2004; Page A1
Two separate groups with deep pockets have begun an expensive, speculative race for one of the most sought-after but elusive goals in aerospace: Supersonic business jets without the window-rattling boom.
One group is led by Michael Paulson, the son of the late founder and chief executive of Gulfstream Aerospace, a General Dynamics Corp. unit that makes some of the world's most luxurious private jets. The other is headed by Robert Bass, the Fort Worth, Texas, billionaire investor.
Each is expected to announce its plans during this week's National Business Aircraft Association convention in Las Vegas. The groups hope to use recent advances in research to develop 10-12-seat business jets that would "shape" sonic booms in such a way that they are less annoying -- and allow the jets to fly over land, which is something the Concorde couldn't do.
Aviation experts say these two groups aren't as far out on the fringe as they might have been a decade ago, but they still must overcome skepticism and pierce technical and regulatory barriers that have stymied the brightest minds in aviation for decades. On top of that, each project is expected to cost more than $3 billion -- a financial hurdle that will be difficult to clear unless an existing jet maker joins in to provide services such as detailed engineering work and manufacturing capability. At best, such a plane might be ready for service sometime between 2010 and 2012.
For all the obstacles, the temptation of such a plane in an increasingly global business world would be tremendous for the wealthiest executives and companies. Such a plane could cut the time for most trips roughly in half. The appetite for such a jet may be even greater since the retirement last year of the Concorde. Despite its jet-setting glamour, the Concorde scared off most airlines because of its high operating costs and limited routes. The plane's sonic boom restricted its high-speed capability to transoceanic routes.
British Airways and Air France retired their last planes to museums last year after nearly three decades of service. Boeing Co. briefly flirted with developing a high-speed subsonic plane in 2001 before opting to pursue plans for a fuel-efficient craft instead.
The Teal Group, a U.S. aerospace and defense consultancy based in Fairfax, Va., estimates a potential total demand for around 300 supersonic business jets, provided they sell for no more than $80 million each and are capable of flying at well above the speed of sound without rattling the china in every cabinet from New York to Los Angeles. The speed of sound, or Mach 1, varies with altitude and temperature, but it's about 740 miles per hour at sea level and 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Both groups are talking about airplanes that cruise around Mach 1.8, or about 1,330 mph in those conditions.
It's generally believed that if entrepreneurs can solve the sonic-boom problem, the money needed for commercial development will follow, probably through a consortium of two or more manufacturers.
( Graphic )
An artist's renderings of Supersonic Aerospace International's proposed Quiet Small Supersonic Transport jet, which the company hopes will corner the supersonic business-jet market.
• Capacity: 12 passengers
• Speed: Mach 1.8 (Roughly 1,300 mph at cruising altitude)
• Maximum takeoff weight: 150,000 lbs.
• Range: 4,000 nautical miles (4,600 statute miles)
• Estimated development costs: Around $3 billion
• Proposed list price: About $80 million
• Entry into service: 2012
• Source: the company
Because of the relatively limited demand and the enormous costs of development, however, there probably is room for only one player in any market that may develop. "The best chance for either of these groups is to put a stake in the ground and hope that the existing jet manufacturers rally to the flag," said Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia. "Two manufacturers in this market would be a recipe for financial failure."
Nearly all of the existing business-jet makers have supersonic research projects, but they have so far been unable to crack the code for making the planes quiet enough to fly at top speeds over land. "We believe the technology is foreseeable in the next five to 10 years," said Jack Pelton, president and chief executive of Textron Inc.'s Cessna Aircraft Co., which currently produces the fastest subsonic civilian jet in service. A spokesman for Gulfstream said the luxury-jet maker has been studying its own concept for a swing-wing supersonic aircraft, "but what's the point in going to all of the expense if you couldn't fly it from New York to L.A.?"
Researchers say it probably will be impossible to do away with a sonic boom altogether. The phenomenon occurs when an airplane travels so fast that the air flowing around it begins to form a spike-shaped pressure wave. That wave travels outward from the airplane like a boat wake, creating the sound heard on the ground. The hope is that those pressure waves can be smoothed out enough that they don't startle people and set off car alarms.
Existing engines can easily provide enough power for supersonic flight. The trick is to tweak the fuselage design so that the noise produced is more of a whoompf and less of a crack.
Michael Paulson, founder of Supersonic Aerospace International, said he took on his project to fulfill the last wishes of his father, Allen Paulson, who died in 2000. The former Gulfstream founder "always believed that we have been stuck flying subsonically too long," Michael Paulson said.
In 2001, he signed a confidential $20 million contract with Lockheed Martin Corp.'s advanced-aircraft-design bureau, known as the Skunk Works, to develop designs for an aircraft that could seat 12 passengers in executive comfort and be powered by the latest-generation engine. Lockheed confirmed that it had done the work for Mr. Paulson, but the company says it has no plans to enter into the commercial supersonic-jet business.
In wind-tunnel tests and computer simulations, the resulting Quiet Small Supersonic Transport made a noise comparable to somebody softly shutting a door, even though in the simulations it was racing above populated areas at more than 1,200 mph. Mr. Paulson said he has since applied for more than 20 patents to protect the design. "We think we have a spectacular, jaw-dropping aircraft," said the 49-year-old Las Vegas investor and real-estate developer.
Officials with Mr. Bass's Aerion Corp. declined to discuss their proposed aircraft, saying they preferred to unveil the details at a news conference today in Las Vegas. People familiar with the plans say that Aerion is talking about a jet that would be somewhat smaller than Mr. Paulson's. Among those participating in Aerion are former Learjet Chief Executive Brian Barents, who most recently was the president of Galaxy Aerospace, which was acquired by General Dynamics in 2001. Aerion also includes Dr. Richard Tracy, a noted researcher who holds several patents in the field of supersonics.
Aerion has already raised eyebrows by deciding that it will power the plane with a Pratt & Whitney JT8-D engine, a decades-old design that is widely used on jets such as the McDonnell Douglas MD-80. A spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp., declined to comment about the company's relationship with Aerion, but he said the company had the capability of modifying the JT8-D so that it could "easily" power a supersonic aircraft.
Aerion began a 20-month feasibility study in January. The first phase is nearly complete, and the results were promising enough that Aerion has decided to continue more detailed work through 2005, people familiar with the situation say. The company is said to be relying on a special wing and other fuselage modifications to achieve a reduced sonic boom. The 12-passenger Aerion jet would sell for about $65 million, about $15 million less than Mr. Paulson's larger aircraft, these people say.
During a study conducted during late 2003 and early 2004 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, researchers were successful in reducing the sonic boom of a Northrop F-5 fighter by modifying its nose to resemble that of a pelican. Mr. Paulson said his aircraft would use similar fuselage modifications, but the noise-minimizing shape has been carried "the entire length of the airplane." Drawings of the plane depict a twin-engine craft with an elongated pelican bill, gull wings and an inverted V-shaped tail.
Peter Coen, manager of supersonic research for NASA's Langley Research Center said he is encouraged by recent progress, but believes the problems hobbling high-speed travel will take years to solve. "A significant step has been taken, but it's the first of many."