In the last 20 odd years, no passenger has had the experience of booking a ticket on a supersonic flight. The aptly named Boom Supersonic, the Denver-based start-up, is planning on changing that in the very near future.
In less than a month, Boom will unveil what it hopes will be the aircraft to announce the new generation of supersonic flight. On 7 October, Boom Supersonic is planning to show off the XB-1, its single-seat test craft, with flights planned for next year. It’s early days, but what happens in Colorado in the next 18 months could have lasting consequences on how we fly. Boom expects test flights of the XB-1 to begin sometime in 2021, with the goal of putting the full-size Overture into service by 2030.
"Overture will take you from New York to London in three and a half hours, or San Francisco to Tokyo in six." CEO Blake Scholl claims. In addition to being the fastest commercial jet ever built, the Overture will operate 100% carbon neutral, Boom says.
In the 1960s, the British and French governments came together to build a supersonic airliner, Concorde began flying in 1969 and entered commercial service in 1976, with its last flight taking place in 2003. There’s only been one other civilian supersonic transport the Russian-made Tupolev TU-144, it, unfortunately, didn’t last as it only made in the vicinity of one hundred passenger flights before its untimely retirement.
Concorde, was a mechanical marvel, fast and reliable, flew at Mach 2.04 which was remarkable considering it was born long before computer-based engineering. Concorde wasn’t abandoned because it was improved upon, but because it was cheaper to do something worse. The queen of the skies, Boeing 747, that was way cheaper and much slower, became the aircraft of choice for most.
Boom is planning on bringing back the age of supersonic time saving or as Blake Scholl, CEO and founder of Boom, puts it gaining life. One of the things that Scholl and Boom are banking on is the advances in computer-aided design and materials science. The single-seat, 71-foot long XB-1 is designed to test if these advances will make building a supersonic plane far more efficient and cheap than it was in the ‘60s. XB-1 will use a variety of moulded carbon fibre composites for its body that should hold up better against the heat and stresses caused by supersonic flight which could exceed 150° C.
The XB-1 will be piloted by Commander Bill ‘Doc’ Shoemaker, a 21-year US naval aviator who led combat missions in an F-18 on a number of occasions. He has also served as a flight test instructor at the US Navy test pilot school and previously worked for Zee.Aero, one of, Google co-founder, Larry Page’s self-funded flying car start-ups.
If XB-1 proves successful, then Boom will move to begin building its full-size supersonic plane, Overture. Overture is a craft designed to seat less than a hundred people at “business class” levels of comfort. And for no more than the average “business class” fare on the same route.
One problem with there being a singular example of the technology in history is that all discussions inevitably lead back to Concorde. One of that plane’s biggest failures was emissions: it was notorious for guzzling gas and emitting highly toxic particles. Boom has already pledged that its test program will be entirely “carbon neutral” and that its planes will set the bar for energy-efficient planes.
“One of the principal reasons that Concorde wasn’t affordable was that it just consumed too much fuel,” said Scholl. “Fast forward 50 years and none of those things need to be true any more.” XB-1 and Overture are designed to use alternative fuels, Scholl said that as well, the company is working with other businesses to develop airline grade fuel through direct air capture.
Direct Air Capture is a system that draws carbon dioxide out of the air and recombines it to create hydrocarbons. Companies like Carbon Engineering are working on systems to mass-produce fuel in this way to create what's known as “carbon neutral fuel.” Of course, that still requires the burning of carbon back into the atmosphere but the hope is that, if more CO2 is extracted than used, it’ll be more virtuous than existing fossil fuels.
Boom also promises its planes will use less fuel through a combination of efficient materials and better engines. Scholl said that the planes are powered with a “quiet, efficient turbofan system a similar engine architecture to what you’d see on any large Airbus or Boeing wide-body aircraft today, just adapted for supersonic flight.” And recently, Boom announced that it was teaming up with Rolls Royce to build an engine for Overture.
Scholl isn’t too worried about the depression in business travel, caused by the global COVID pandemic, saying that video conferencing cannot replace the “human connection.” He cites statistics claiming that private air travel, while still below 2019 levels, is still up on commercial flights. Scholl expects that, in the next decade or so, when the global health crises and economic crises are behind us, flying will be back in demand just at the time that Overture is ready to satisfy it. As the commercial aviation industry enters one of its darkest periods in a generation, perhaps a dose of optimism is exactly what’s needed.