By Chris Meehan | Jan 15, 2017
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
The only commercial airplane to offer supersonic flight to date, the Concorde offered its last flight in 2003.
Boom Technology is designing a new supersonic jet that it hopes will begin offering commercial cross-continental flights in the early 2020s. Its proof-of-concept prototype, XB-1, will make its first flights as soon as 2017.
Boom Technology got its start, like so many startups, with a good idea. "It was really just Blake [Scholl] working on spreadsheets in his basement, learning about aerodynamics, then hiring our chief engineer Joe Wilding," says Flight Control Lead and Systems Engineer Erin Fisher.
How good an idea? Sir Richard Branson supports the effort and his Virgin Group is planning on purchasing the first 10 aircraft, with an option for another 15.
Boom's promise is tantalizing: a transatlantic flight from New York to London in a screaming 3.5 hours, half the time of the current norm, at about $5,000 for a round trip, in line with current first-class prices.
Tickets for the Concorde fetched upwards of $20,000 more than a decade ago. And it took the Concorde well over 20 years to go from a concept in the early 1950s to its first commercial flight in 1976. Boom is looking to go from concept to first commercial flight in less than a decade.
"Those guys were working with slide rules and wind tunnels," says Fisher. "We can do all of our aerodynamic work in CFD [computational fluid dynamics] using computer simulations. We can get very high accuracy results and run a lot of models."
"The other thing we're doing is leveraging as much existing technology as possible," she continues. "All of this technology exists, we're just going to utilize it in a new way."
For the demo unit, Boom is using General Electric J85 jet engines that power the F-5 and many other aircraft. "They haven't been used commercially like that but the F-5 is a supersonic platform," Fisher explains. "So then it's just about the aerodynamics and how much thrust you need to go the speed that you need to get to."
Scholl, a pilot who formerly worked for Amazon and founded Kima Labs (since acquired by Groupon), was in San Francisco when he started thinking about commercial supersonic flight. But it wasn't the right spot to launch the company.
"Centennial is open to us here to doing testing and it's got a long enough runway," says Fisher. "Most of our engineers are relocated from other parts of the country to Colorado and they have been very excited to move out here."
The strategy worked. Fisher, for one, came from Kansas, as Boom attracted members from Gulfstream, Boeing and NASA.
The team will test its design with a small-scale, two-seat prototype. "We can prove the capabilities of the aircraft but also prove the capability of the team that's going to be building the full-scale model," Fisher says.
The company will make some parts and assembler the prototype in-house, and outsource large composite structures and specialized components. Company officials haven't decided where it will build the production model. Fisher says the current hangar isn't large enough, adding, "We will have to expand into another building, but those plans have not been finalized yet."
Boom currently doesn't have any direct competition. "We want to make it very clear to the world that what we're doing is not science fiction," says Fisher. This happening. We're going to fly real hardware by the end of next year."
Challenges: "Negative attitudes about supersonic commercial flight," says Fisher. "That's in a large part due to the only knowledge people have of it, which is the Concorde. We're working very hard to counter that mentality."
Opportunities: "The industry is ripe for change," Fisher says. "We have the opportunity to drastically change everyone's notion of what efficient travel is and what comfortable travel is, and we're excited to do that."
Needs: "Talent will always be a need," says Fisher. "People who are passionate about what we are doing. That's what we'll be looking for as we build the prototype and that need will definitely multiply as we start building the full-scale production model."