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A Supersonic Laminar Flow Control model of the F-16XL takes a trip through the wind tunnel at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. (NASA Langley Research Center)

Mach 1 for Millionaires

Briefcase-toting suits who travel in bizjets-those will be the next pioneers in supersonic flight.

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The pilot lines the Learjet up on the runway and pushes the throttles forward. Across the field at southern California’s Van Nuys Airport, the conference room’s windows vibrate a little. Inside, Clay Lacy leans across the table and shakes his head. “The most amazing thing to me about aviation is how slow we are going. We are basically flying at the same speed we did in 1959 when the [Boeing] 707 came out.”

Just beyond Lacy’s windows, a fleet of $30 million Gulfstreams and sleek Learjets crowds the airport ramp. Van Nuys is a concertina-wire-ringed cornucopia of all things that fly, save airliners, located smack in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. From opulent Boeing Business Jets to privately owned warbirds to lowly Cessna 152 trainers, it’s all here. The place reeks of kerosene and money.

Clay Lacy is a retired United Air Lines Boeing 747 captain. Over six decades he has flown everything from DC-3s to Mach 2 fighters. Today, he owns Clay Lacy Aviation, an executive aircraft charter, management, and service company, and is a leading spokesman for corporate aviation.

Since 2001, Lacy has served as an advisor to Supersonic Aerospace International, a venture committed to building a supersonic business jet (SSBJ). In October 2004 SAI unveiled its design for an SSBJ at the National Business Aviation Association annual convention. At the same convention another company, Aerion Corp., a Reno, Nevada-based company founded in 2002, announced its intention to build a competing supersonic jet.

The two announcements were accompanied by a sea of press releases, a torrent of publicized patent filings, artful models and renderings, and much talk about the need to enlist “risk-sharing partners” to help finance what will surely be a long, expensive, and technically and politically challenging endeavor.

The overall development cost for each program was pegged at $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion, and the per-aircraft price was estimated at $80 to $100 million. Surveys had shown a potential market for 300 aircraft worldwide, about par for deliveries of a successful bizjet.

The team members behind these designs had impressive pedigrees, but the members of the NBAA were still skeptical, for it was not the first time the supersonic tease had been danced before them. In 1989, U.S. business jet builder Gulfstream teamed with the Soviet Union’s Sukhoi design bureau to launch the S-21, and in 1998 French jet fighter and business jet maker Dassault took the wraps off a tri-jet SSBJ design. Then, the unsolved problems of mitigating the sonic boom, developing durable engines, and shifting corporate priorities relegated these projects to the back burner. But for many in the corporate jet community, the dream of speed was never far away. And a near-supersonic airplane called the Citation X had whetted a lot of appetites.

Cessna, a company known for its line of small- and medium-size Citation business jets, delivered its first Citation X in 1996. The “Ten” had a plain vanilla, eight-seat cabin and sold new for $12 million. But it could cruise at 49,000 feet at .92 Mach and was rumored to have broken the sound barrier during flight testing. With the Ten, Los Angeles to New York became a four-hour trip, beating the competition by over an hour.

Golfing legend and seasoned bizjet pilot Arnold Palmer took delivery of the first Ten. In 1997, he told writer Jeffrey Rodengen about a conversation he’d had with an air traffic controller as he flew his Ten past the slower airliners. “The other day, on a trip down to Florida, the air traffic controller said, ‘Hold up a minute Arnie. I’m going to see if that pilot ahead of you will let you play through.’ ”

Ten operators love it, demonstrating to the bizjet community what automakers have known for years: Speed sells. But the Ten also showed that you could get that speed for less money than had previously been assumed. Today, the Ten costs a little more than half of a new and much larger Gulfstream 450 and burns about 40 percent less fuel flying the same mission.

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