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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Currently, NASA is working with a group of 10 companies called the Supersonic Cruise Industry Alliance (SCIA), or the “Super 10.” Members include engine builders Rolls-Royce, GE, and Pratt & Whitney; airframers Boeing, Cessna, Gulfstream, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon; and fractional-share business jet provider NetJets. The group’s goal: supersonic civilian flight within 10 years.

A similar group, called HISAC, for High-Speed Aircraft Industrial Project, has been formed in Europe. Members include EADs, the parent of Airbus; Dassault; and Sukhoi.

Last summer, SCIA member companies submitted papers on the state of the art of supersonic technology to NASA as the agency moved forward with funding additional supersonic research, which could include a demonstration aircraft. “It’s going to put NASA in the position of being a smarter buyer,” says Eric Brachhausen, vice president of American Technology Alliances, a non-profit group that provides coordination services to the Super-10.

Building a successful demonstration aircraft is seen as a crucial step in eliminating the ban on supersonic civilian flight. “Somebody has to build it and the correct agency is NASA,” says Gulfstream’s Henne, who thinks that anyone who builds a supersonic bizjet before the regulations are changed is shouldering an unacceptable risk. “You don’t enter the market while there is still a prohibition.” Michael Paulson, on the other hand, says SAI will continue to move forward with or without regulatory changes.

If a supersonic business jet is built, the manufacturer will likely be a consortium of companies. The financial risk and resources required are simply too great for a single company to bear. Brachhausen and others believe that once the technology for a supersonic bizjet is successfully demonstrated, it will quickly be applied to other aircraft, including airliners. “If you focus on the boom first, you are led to the conclusion that the problem is easier to solve in smaller aircraft first,” Brachhausen says. “The intent is to bring those principles forward in a larger scale, higher capacity aircraft.”

For Richard Tracy, it’s not a question of if, but when. “I don’t see any reason why this won’t happen. And that is the same sense the aircraft manufacturers are coming to.”

SAI and Aerion have said that they can have a supersonic airplane flying by 2011. Pres Henne thinks that if regulatory approval can be won, a 2015-2016 window is more likely.

On the day that aircraft first takes flight, people in the world of business jets may reflect on Allen Paulson’s contribution. “There were times when he was a lone candle in the wind,” says Lockheed’s Tom Hartmann. “Ten years ago almost no one was talking about supersonic business jets. Now the whole industry is talking about it. In that sense, he’s already succeeded.”

And thanks in part to his efforts, one day when a Learjet takes off from the Van Nuys Airport runway and rattles Clay Lacy’s conference room windows, it will be followed by a much quieter—and much faster—airplane.


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