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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Richard Tracy built his first model airplane when he was five and started attending the free Friday night lectures at the California Institute of Technology when he was 13 years old. While his classmates were grooving to Benny Goodman, Tracy was immersing himself in high-energy physics. He made extra money washing and polishing airplanes on weekends and soloed at age sixteen. His favorite airplane was a 1936 Taylor Cub. “Forty horsepower and no brakes,” he recalls.


Tracy received his undergraduate and masters degrees at CalTech before heading off to the NATO-funded von Karman Institute (VKI) for aeronautics and fluid dynamics in Belgium in 1959. It was there that he began to explore the field of supersonic natural laminar flow. His work at VKI convinced him to switch his field of study to aerodynamics, and in 1964 he received a doctorate from CalTech in hypersonic aerodynamics.

At Van Nuys Airport, Tracy became friends with bizjet genius Bill Lear. After Lear sold Learjet and moved to Reno, Nevada, Tracy would visit him there, and it was there that Lear made him an offer he couldn't refuse: chief engineer for a group developing a new business jet called the LearStar 600.

The 600 was a revolutionary design featuring a wide cabin, supercritical wing, and new high-ratio bypass engines that had been developed for Navy submarine-hunting aircraft and the Air Force's A-10 Warthog tank-buster. Lear ended up selling the design and his plans for follow-on jets to Montreal's Canadair, which rebranded the airplane the Challenger 600. Before the Challenger was even on the market, however, Lear tried to interest the company in follow-on designs including supersonic and near-supersonic models. Canadair wanted no part of it.

Tracy, much like his friend Lear, was committed to the idea of supersonic flight. His theories on laminar flow stem from work he was doing when he was still at the von Karman Institute, and they are the foundation for the Aerion’s program development process.

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