Supersonic flight back on the radar

Supersonic flight, a longtime dream for makers and owners of private planes, is inching closer to reality.

Nine years after the last trip of the Concorde jetliner, the quest for speed without window-rattling sonic booms is spurring research by billionaire Robert Bass, General Dynamics's Gulfstream, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA and others.

The efforts signal that the time may finally be nearing for corporate aircraft flying faster than sound, about 750 miles (1,207 kilometers) per hour at sea level. Technological leaps since the Concorde's development in the 1960s are converging with the willingness of globe-trotting chief executive officers to pay more for ever-bigger and longer-range jets.

"Most all of the manufacturers have done size, have done luxury and opulence," said Andrew Hoy, a managing director at broker ExecuJet Aviation Group in Zurich. "Time is the biggest opportunity for them all and the only differentiator left."

High operating costs and scant demand for the Concorde's premium fares forced its retirement in 2003 after 27 years in service. The 100-seat jets streaked from New York to London at twice the speed of sound, slicing travel times in half to about three hours.

Planemakers took away a lesson in supersonic economics: It may be easier to find CEOs and wealthy individuals who crave faster corporate aircraft than to persuade airlines to invest in a Concorde successor.

"Given the amount of fuel you need to burn to achieve supersonic speeds, it's going to be a more expensive proposition that only a sliver of the market is going to pay the price for," said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Va. "When you're talking about a supersonic business jet, that begins to make more sense."

The largest corporate planes already cost almost as much as the smallest Boeing and Airbus SAS airliners, and can fly about 90 percent as fast as sound. Gulfstream's G650 lists for $58.5 million. Bombardier's Global 7000 and 8000 jets retail for as much as $65 million. Warren Buffett's NetJets unit ordered 20 last year.

The chief obstacle to supersonic flight is the same one that bedeviled the Concorde: the sonic boom. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration outlawed such flights by civilians over land in 1973 because of the noise, and other countries followed.


Reversing that ban will be pivotal to any revival of supersonic travel, because the planes would lose their business case if they can't fly at top speed, according to Savannah, Georgia-based Gulfstream.

"That requires a solution to the sonic boom problem, and that's where our research efforts are focused," Preston Henne, Gulfstream's senior vice president of engineering and test, said during an aviation conference in Orlando, Florida, on Oct. 29. "We continue to make progress on that."

NASA expects to start building a demonstrator plane in 2016 to show that disruptive booms can be minimized, and that jet may fly after 2020, according to Peter Coen, chief of supersonic research. In an industry in which Boeing's Dreamliner took more than a decade to go from the Sonic Cruiser concept to first delivery, that's not a long-range timeline.

"This is a high-value niche market; the winner here will be the first to market," said Brian Foley, an aviation consultant based in Sparta, N.J. "That's why there's interest and that's why there's motivation for these people to keep on trying."