Concepts unveiled at last week's NBAA prove the dream of supersonic travel is more alive than ever. But one vital element is missing

Two stories of extraordinary dedication to an idea emerged at last week's National Business Aviation Association show in Las Vegas. The idea is the supersonic business jet - or SSBJ - long talked about, but still just a dream. It seems appropriate that an NBAA that showed strong signs of a market recovery after three years of decline should see the unveiling of not one, but two supersonic business jet concepts.

Neither comes from an established manufacturer, however, despite the fact that at least nine airframers are working on their own SSBJ designs. Instead the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are the target of efforts by both groups to form international consortia to develop, certificate and produce their aircraft. It is an unusual business model in an industry accustomed to risk-sharing with established manufacturers.

While the OEMs hold back from launching development of an SSBJ, both groups believe the time is ripe to start along the road to supersonics - but along very different routes. On one side is Aerion, backed by billionaire US investor Robert Bass and led by former Learjet boss Brian Barents. On the other is Supersonic Aerospace International (SAI), led by Michael Paulson, son of the late Allen Paulson, founder of Gulfstream.

At his father's bequest, Paulson has paid Lockheed Martin's famed Skunk Works $25 million to design an SSBJ using innovative airframe shaping to reduce the sonic boom to a level that will allow supersonic flight over land. Aerion uses unique natural laminar flow aerodynamics to reduce supersonic drag and allow efficient subsonic flight over land, avoiding the thorny issue of how to persuade regulators and legislators to change the rules banning supersonic overland flight.

Both the designs unveiled at NBAA represent long-cherished ideas. Allen Paulson pursued the dream of a supersonic business jet until his death in 2000. In the late 1980s, as chief executive of Gulfstream, he tried to team with Sukhoi. In the 1990s, Gulfstream teamed with Lockheed Martin to work on a quiet SSBJ, but the US defence giant withdrew from the agreement to pursue its own quiet supersonic studies. In 2000, just before Paulson died, the Skunk Works agreed to begin design of an SSBJ using money set aside in his will.

The $25 million Michael Paulson has spent so far has paid for a surprising amount of design work, including high-speed and low-speed windtunnel tests to measure performance and sonic boom. He is now looking for partners with which to share the $50 million cost of an 18-24 month risk-mitigation phase that will pave the way for development of SAI's Quiet Small Supersonic Jet.

Aerion's SSBJ design, meanwhile, is the culmination of four decades of work on supersonic natural laminar flow by Richard Tracy. The years since his CalTech PhD thesis have been spend validating the concept with NASA flight tests and perfecting the computational tools required to enable an aircraft design using the technology to be optimised easily and effectively. Despite all this effort, Aerion has not advanced as far in its design work as SAI, with windtunnel testing not expected until the latter part of next year.

But both companies say they are already in discussions with OEMs that would, they hope, take on the role of aircraft developer and producer as a risk-sharing partner. Aerion would retain a minority stake and rights to the laminar-flow technology: Lockheed Martin would stay on as SAI's design house, but be paid for its work. These are unusual business models. Normally it is the OEM that conceives a design then looks for lower-tier partners with which to share the development and production risk.

It is unclear whether the approach that Aerion and SAI are taking will find acceptance among manufacturers fiercely proud of their design skills and protective of their brand identities. The reaction among OEMs at NBAA was mixed, but left open the possibility that either Aerion or SAI, or both, could yet succeed in their bold quests to develop an SSBJ.

More likely, they will act as catalysts to provoke manufacturers and regulators into tackling the obstacles that block the development and operation of viable supersonic transports. After last week in Las Vegas it is now more likely than at any time in recent history that a supersonic business jet will become a reality within the next 10 years. And if an SSBJ enters service it will only be a matter of time before larger aircraft - possibly a 50-seat transatlantic jet to replace Concorde, perhaps a 300-seat transpacific airliner - take to the skies.

Source: Flight International