Mach 1 for Millionaires

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

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)
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Based on these latest rounds of research, two camps sprang up to test the market.
Supersonic Aerospace International was founded in 2001. It is funded by the estate of Clay Lacy’s friend Allen Paulson (see “The Used Airliner King,” below). Aerion was founded in 2002 and is bankrolled by Texas billionaire Robert Bass.

In 1978 Allen Paulson purchased Grumman’s foundering line of civilian aircraft, including the Gulfstream business jet. Over the next decade Paulson shaped Gulfstream into the ultimate status symbol. From corporate chieftains to foreign potentates to the glitterati, nothing said “Mine’s bigger” quite like a Gulfstream.

By 1985 Allen Paulson had parlayed his 1978 $58 million purchase of Gulfstream into a $637 million cash and stock sale of the company to Chrysler, but stayed on to run the company. He had also launched a wildly successful follow-on aircraft, the G-IV, a 4,000-nautical-mile-range model with all-digital avionics and more fuel-efficient engines. By 1988, Paulson knew what the next big thing was: supersonic.

In 1989 he teamed up with Mikhail Simonov of Sukhoi to develop the Gulfstream-Sukhoi SST, the S-21. Under the plan, Sukhoi would build the airframe while Gulfstream would be responsible for integrating the engines and avionics. The marriage would be short-lived: Chrysler elected to cash out of Gulfstream later that year. The company’s new owner was the New York investment banking firm of Forstmann-Little, and it became clear very quickly that the prime target on its radar was not a supersonic bizjet. “In the early 1990s, Gulfstream bet the company on the [development of the long-range, subsonic] G-V,” says Pres Henne, Gulfstream’s senior vice president for Programs, Engineering, and Test. “Anything else was a very low priority.”

Forstmann installed its own CEO to run the company and Allen Paulson retreated to the world of thoroughbred horse racing and other investments.

Although Paulson was out of aviation day-to-day, the idea of a supersonic bizjet “was never far off his mind,” according to Clay Lacy. By the mid-1990s he began having regular conversations with engineers and managers at Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programs plant (the Skunk Works) in Palmdale, California. One of them was a program manager named Tom Hartmann.

In 1998 Lacy flew Paulson up to Palmdale for a meeting with Hartmann and Ed Glasgow, Lockheed’s vice president for advanced development programs. Having successfully launched the G-V, Gulfstream was again able to devote modest resources to supersonic research, this time in partnership with Lockheed and with $20 million in federal support. Lacy recalls the meeting: “They told us they had technology to suppress the sonic boom but gave no great detail.”

Paulson died in 2000, and by that time, Lockheed and Gulfstream had parted ways. Gulfstream brought its supersonic research in-house. But Paulson’s estate designated funds in trust for the design of a supersonic business jet. In 2001, Paulson’s son, Michael, himself a veteran of the bizjet industry, formed SAI and hired Lockheed to conduct feasibility and design studies for a small supersonic business jet. For three years a team of up to 40 engineers ran through $25 million doing just that.

The result is the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QSST), and SAI announced the program at NBAA in 2004. Its designers claimed that its patented sonic boom suppression technology gives it a boom signature less than one percent of the Concorde’s.

The Aerion also debuted at NBAA in 2004, and it made another appearance in 2005—with a number of modifications, including the rounding of the wings’ leading edges where they meet the wing strake. “A straight edge created too much shock in our wind tunnel tests, and detracted from the aircraft’s laminar flow capabilities,” said Richard Tracy, Aerion’s chief technology officer, at the company’s press conference at the NBAA convention (see “The Challenger,” p. 45). The aircraft will be powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines (also found on the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series), which will provide Mach 1.6 cruise.

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