Friday, June 17, 2005


The Japanese/French Son-of-Concorde vs. the Quiet Small Supersonic Transport

The BBC has an article on Japanese and French cooperation to build the successor to the Concorde SST. Rand Simberg is skeptical that this will produce anything but paper studies. An important piece of information in the BBC article is that the Japanese and French will only be spending about $1.8 million a year for three years on the project. That is clearly not enough money to build an airplane, and probably not enough to even test any significant pieces of hardware. So it seems very unlikely that this will produce anything but a few conceptual designs and a lot of paper and PowerPoint presentations. Perhaps this is just a PR stunt to grab some headlines during the Paris Airshow. Perhaps Japan and France each hope that the project will give their engineers a chance to steal some of the other’s ideas.

Another “fact” in the article that is almost certainly fiction is the statement:

The new plane will have 300 seats and cut the flight time between New York and Tokyo to six hours, reports said.

Because of the noise pollution of a loud sonic boom, there is almost no chance that airlines would be able to get permission to fly supersonically on the overland portion of the flight from New York to Tokyo. The only way I can see civilian supersonic overland flights being approved in the First World is if quiet supersonic aircraft are built and demonstrated. You might be able to do that with a business jet, or even a small commuter jet. I feel safe in predicting that Japan and France (or anyone else) cannot eliminate the sonic boom for a 300 seat Mach 5 airplane in time for the next generation airliner. Given the realities of the sonic boom and NIMBY politics, overland flights of a 300 seat SST from New York to Tokyo at all seem impractical for the near future. Proponents might try to claim that the plane could fly subsonic during the overland portion of the flight, but that implies the plane could be economically operated in both subsonic and supersonic flight. That seems only slightly less likely than a silent supersonic jumbo jet. Supersonic flight from LA to Tokyo would seem to have been an obviously better example to have given, and the fact that NY to Tokyo was given instead makes me wonder if the Japanese and French organizations who made the announcement are even trying to be taken seriously.

I think a much more realistic near term civilian supersonic aircraft is the small supersonic jet. Sukhio and Gulfstream in particular have been interested in making supersonic business jets for years. There is also a Supersonic Aerospace International, who at least has a very pretty website that describes the concept. I recently read a paper from Gulfstream on the prospect of building a successful small supersonic airplane. The author seemed very confident that such a plane could be economically successful if one condition could be achieved: the sonic boom (and other environmental impact) could be reduced sufficiently to get gov’t approval of supersonic overland flights. If that condition can be met and overland flights approved then small civilian supersonic jets will be a reality in the near future. While making the sonic boom and engine noise of a 300 seat airliner acceptable seems “far out”, the idea of quieting a 10 to 20 person jet enough to allow overland flights might be accomplished in the near term.

One obvious market for a quiet small supersonic civilian airplane would be as a business jet. The advantage to large companies of being able to send high value personnel to handle unexpected problems at a distant facility would be considerable. For similar reasons, civilian and military government agencies (from many countries) would probably buy some of these aircraft as well. Executives involved in multinational business would obviously want the planes to reduce the amount of time they wasted travelling. The prestige of having a supersonic business jet would also be a draw to major corporations. Salesmen or lobbyists would love to offer to fly clients or politicians up to their factory on some excuse like “auditing our quality assurance systems”, and then show up at the local airport to pick up their guests in a Mach 2 jet. I fear that the few practical purchasing agents who thought “they must be overcharging us if they can afford this,” would be more than outweighed by the ones who thought “Wheeee! These guys are so cool”. Some of the aircraft will also probably be used for courier services like DHL. Getting repair parts to urgently needed locations like a stranded ship, inoperative oil rig, or idle factory could keep a small fleet of these quiet small supersonic transports profitably employed.

A third obvious application of quiet small supersonic transports would be for high speed airliner use. Instead of having a few flights of a Concorde or 300 person son-of-Concorde overseas between major costal airports, an airline could have a larger number of flights of the smaller aircraft. Because the smaller aircraft could be flown overland, they would open up more routes. The NY to Tokyo route proposed in the BBC article might be serviced by several quiet small 14 person supersonic business jets converted to airline use (provided, of course, the airplane had enough range). Entirely domestic supersonic flights such as NY to LA might then occur.

Besides the benefit of being more easily made quiet, the small supersonic transport could have another advantage: it could land at a smaller airport. To be successful as a corporate jet, the aircraft would have to be able to land and take off from the small airfields around the country that do not serve full sized airliners, but regularly see use by business jets. By being able to use small airfields, airlines could reduce the passenger’s total trip time by saving them time on both the ground and in the air. Instead of having to leave home two or more hours early in order to fight traffic to the major airport, park, go through check-in, security, and boarding, luxury supersonic passengers could drive to a smaller airport whose only scheduled airline flights are a few small SSTs totaling no more than 100 passengers a day. Traffic would be lighter, parking would be closer to the terminal (and of course if you’re paying for an SST valet parking seems justified), with only a dozen passengers on the flight check-in and security screening could be very quick. Since the smaller runway requirements would open up more airfields the airport might even be located even closer to likely passengers. The idea of daily 300+ seat son-of-Concorde overland flights direct from Martha’s Vineyard to Aspen seems very unlikely, but for a quiet small supersonic transport it would be very believable. I could easily see a network of small, ultra luxury, airline facilities being set up in small to medium airfields around the nation that had either no other airline traffic or very little. Use of these airports might save an additional hour or two off the passenger’s total travel time just by speeding his trip to and though the airports on each end of his flight. So the words ‘quiet’ and ‘small’ in phrase quiet small supersonic transport could be just as important as the word ‘supersonic.’ I think that the next generation SST is a lot more likely to be a small plane from the USA, Russia, and/or Canada than a 300+ airliner made by Japan and/or France.

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