THE AERION SBJ
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH
The Concorde has retired, but the need to move around the planet at lightning speed is still there. The Aerion will take supersonic travel to a new level... if the dream comes true. Right now it exists only in beautiful and futuristic 3D images, a scale model, and wing sections that are flown on an F-15 fighter jet, but enough people in the world want the speed and performance that it promises. One thing is almost certain, though: commercial space flights will be available way before the first Aerion SBJ is delivered to a customer. BY Ivan Veretennikov
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The cabin is 9ft shorter and 1ft less in width than that of the Falcon 7X, but it is 6.2ft tall.
was gathering information about the Aerion Supersonic Business Jet (SBJ) and decided to ask my friend and aviation analyst Alexey Korolev what he thinks about it. He answered with a question: “So you’ve decided to start writing science fiction?” What else could I expect from a cautious and sceptical industry specialist? But aviation isn’t all about forecasts and analysis. It’s the realm of adventure, discovery and romance. Although failures are not unusual, successes shine through, and the Aerion might become one of them. Its first advantage is that it stayed. You may remember that at one time we were promised the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QSST). Gulfstream and Sukhoi were working on a supersonic business jet design, while Tupolev was drawing pictures of the Tu-444. All of the above are history. You won’t see them at trade shows or read about them in the news. Aerion, on the other hand, is everywhere. What can it offer? A high top speed is a must, and it will be Mach 1.6 (roughly 1,700 km/h). The Concorde was even faster, reaching Mach 2.0, but the Aerion is a much more modern aircraft with a natural laminar flow wing, meaning its aerodynamic qualities are so fine that even at top speed its drag is very low, while at normal speed it is much lower than that of conventional wings. In practice this means that the Aerion will be capable of boomless cruise at up to Mach 1.15, so even despite noise restrictions it should be allowed supersonic flight over land, while crossing the ocean will be at top speed.
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Market-Changing Technology Technology, by the way, has proven very attractive, so much so, in fact, that the company launched a separate consultancy branch, Aerion Technologies, offering manufacturers across the industry – and that’s not just business jet brands – expertise on advanced aerodynamics, natural laminar flow, and ways in which efficiency can be drastically improved by introducing relatively simple design changes. Dr. Richard Tracy, Aerion Chief Technology Officer, says that certifying aircraft with such improvements will not be much different from certifying any other, while the advantages are numerous with gains in efficiency, maximum range, and top speed supported by a reduction of noise, emissions and fuel consumption. A conventional business jet of any size can benefit from all of the above, and Aerion CFO Doug Nichols believes that the company has the potential to change the market completely. “We believe it’s likely that fifteen years from now the industry will look back and say ‘remember we had swept-wing aircraft?’. We really believe the Aerion is going to lead the way to a new paradigm of aircraft design. We think the shape of the future is going to be in the shape of the Aerion wing, both in subsonic aircraft and certainly in supersonic aircraft,” he says. According to him, several manufacturers have already expressed interest in this new service. Another advantage of the Aerion is that proven technology is used in a new way. It will be equipped with popular Pratt & Whitney JT8D-200 engines, meeting all noise and emissions standards, while the airframe structure, although unusual by design, doesn’t feature any exotic materials that are not in use across the industry. Access all Points Sheer speed won’t make this an attractive aircraft. It has to be efficient, capable of operating from the same runways as other business jets, and have enough range to cater to the needs of global business. The wing and airframe structure help to sufficiently reduce drag, which means less fuel for the same mission. A 51,000ft (15,545m) ceiling is also helpful. As for field
The programme is proceeding with a NASA F-15B flying a test wing section to prove supersonic laminar flow calculations.
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performance, it will be comparable to that of ultra-long-range business jets, such as the Gulfstream G550 and the Global Express. A maximum range of over 4,000nm (7,408km) will connect Dubai with all of Europe and Africa, and almost all cities in Asia. A flight to Singapore will presumably take four hours 15 minutes, versus the conventional eight hours, while London is within five hours against six hours 45 minutes travelling subsonic. America will be one stop away, the same as for a Russian oligarch desiring to fly out of Moscow. On the other hand, Moscow is within reach from New York if flying the other way because of the routing. Also accessible are the East Coast and Brazil. A flight to Paris should take just four hours and 15 minutes. The cabin is cosy but not very spacious, 9ft shorter and 1ft less in width than that of the Falcon 7X. It is 6.2 ft tall though, so standing up should be no problem. There are layouts for up to 12 people, but don’t expect too much from such crowded arrangements. Eight seats seem the ideal balance between space and functionality, and flying in a relatively small cabin for an aircraft this size (148ft in length - that’s 10 feet longer than a BBJ 3!) is one of the sacrifices a buyer has to be prepared to make for supersonic speed.
A maximum range of over 4,000nm (7,408km) will connect Dubai with all of Europe and Africa.
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Up for Grabs Another is the money. The aircraft price is set at $80 million, and over 50 confirmed orders have been announced by Aerion Corporation. The programme is proceeding with a NASA F15B flying a test wing section to prove supersonic laminar flow calculations, while the ground
There are layouts for up to 12 people, but eight seats seem the ideal balance between space and functionality.
team continues wind tunnel testing of a scale model and various aircraft components, such as engine nozzles. The main question remains the same: who is going produce this aircraft? Talks with manufacturers have been going on for a while now, but nothing definite has yet been announced. Cessna and Hawker are doubtful candidates – this is not their slice of the pie, besides, the economic turbulence hit them pretty hard. Gulfstream has been testing various pieces of technology to reduce supersonic boom, but company representatives say they’ll wait until the legislation changes; otherwise such a business jet won’t be feasible. Bombardier has just announced the new Globals and it doesn’t look like they can take on much else. Dassault is performing its own laminar flow tests. This proves the company’s interest in the technology, but it also looks like it wants to go its own way. So, we’re left with Embraer – a manufacturer that blazed its way into the market with just one model less than a decade ago and is now a serious force with five jet models in production and another two coming up. Is this a promising candidate? With Embraer you never know, these Brazilians have a great capacity to surprise. But at a glance they also look busy enough to take on such a serious venture. So despite the number of people who want and need a supersonic business jet (there’s a forecast that says up to 300 such aircraft can be sold by 2020) we still don’t know if this beautiful dream will ever come true. However, after meeting Doug Nichols and Dr Richard Tracy at EBACE in Geneva, the prospect seems brighter. Firstly, there have recently been more talks with one of the OEMs that seem a very promising candidate. And secondly, the Aerion team is far from giving up; they are firm believers in their concept and are ready to take on the challenges they face. It won’t be an easy task to bring a game-changing aircraft to market, but it has been done before and will be done again. Today, no matter how much money you have or how fast you have to get somewhere, you are tied to the aircraft speeds that haven’t changed since the dawn of jet travel. You can choose cabin size, maximum distance, avionics, and even the number of engines – but you cannot ❚ choose speed. Supersonic flight is the answer, and it’s time we rediscovered it.
Aerion offers a high top speed of Mach 1.6 (roughly 1,700km/h).
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Sir Richard Branson and aerospace visionary Burt Rutan
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO COMMERCIAL SPACE TOURIST HAS GONE BEFORE Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group is a unique figure on the world stage and, now, above it. Not only has he established hundreds of successful businesses, he is also a daring adventurer with a passion for extremes and a number of world records on his scorecard. When he gets an idea, it seems as if only a blink of an eye later it comes to life; the unusual spacecraft seen above the Mojave Desert proves just that. In this spirit of adventure, Altitudes Arabia sprinted to catch up with Sir Richard to hear first-hand details about one of the most exciting adventures of the 21st Century, with a little help from a shuttlecock. By Ivan Veretennikov
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he dream was born long ago. As a ten-year-old,
SpaceShipTwo, above, with ‘feathered’ or rotated wings for re-entry into the atmosphere. Below, WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo in the centre of its 140ft wing.
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Richard saw the first black-and-white footage of a human being flying to space. He was, of course, Yuri Gagarin, whose historic flight on 12 April 1961 broke the final frontier. It was a time when everything seemed possible, especially considering that just 60 years beforehand, powered flight didn’t even exist. So this year, 50 years after that glorious date, I asked Richard what he did on Yuri’s Night. It turned out to be quite special: “I went up on my roof and I’m pretty sure I saw a new star up there. It was the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight and it was a good day to consider how close we have come to making space flights accessible for all, not just a select few. I was also very excited because I just shook hands on a very important deal regarding space flights. I can’t tell you what it is yet but it will be a very nice surprise.” So how did Virgin Galactic come about? Who made these strange, futuristic spacecraft? It all started when Richard discussed possible spacecraft launches with astronaut Buzz Aldrin. They both agreed that a launch at altitude would help avoid many complications that are inherent in ground-launched designs. This is mainly because of greater drag in the lower regions of the atmosphere, which makes it necessary to equip spacecraft with much more powerful engines, while the higher launch speed calls for a stronger and heavier airframe. The meeting became a spark that set off a series of events. Enter Burt Rutan, the aerospace visionary who is well-known for his unique aircraft – not just in appearance but, more importantly, performance. He was building the GlobalFlyer, an all-composite aircraft for Steve Fossett’s record-breaking circumnavigation attempt. Branson speaks with deep admiration of his friend Steve, who died in an aircraft crash in 2007: “Steve Fossett was the greatest adventurer who ever lived, and a great friend. He set about 120 world records and many are still in the Guinness Book of Records. He was a very good learner, and this was very important in his successes. You wouldn’t believe it, but there was a time when he knew nothing about sailing. He started learning everything to do with the sport and eventually became one of the best in the world. He was the one who made the record-breaking flight around the world in the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer.”
The interior of SpaceShipTwo, with two huge windows per seat, one on the side and one overhead.
$10 million Ansari X Prize So, here’s where the stories of three men become one. Virgin Atlantic was sponsoring the GlobalFlyer. When the airline team came to visit Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites workshop in California to plan the building of the aircraft, they found out that Burt was competing for the Ansari X Prize. The $10 million prize would go to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that could launch suborbital space flights on a reusable spacecraft, twice within two weeks. The Scaled Composites Tier One, later renamed SpaceShipOne, seemed to be just the aircraft Branson had been looking for. The picture was complete and Virgin Galactic had a partner that would build its fleet. “These spacecraft will be absolutely unlike anything seen before,” says Branson. “The gforce is about 4.5 to 5 and only for a very short period of time. This means pretty much everyone can go. The passengers will go up in space and experience zero gravity for about six minutes, after that the spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere and glide back to the spaceport.” There are two spacecraft in the test programme. The first is VMS Eve, the mothership named after Branson’s mother, and one of the two WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that will eventually form the fleet of Virgin MotherShips. The second is VSS Enterprise – yes, it got the name from Star Trek –the spaceship that will actually perform the suborbital flight and offer its passengers an unforgettable experience. There will be five SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in the fleet. Shuttlecock Technology Let’s briefly cover some technology, firstly with the WhiteKnightTwo. It is a twin-fuselage, fourengine, all-composite aircraft that will carry the spaceship up to about 50,000ft in the centre of its 140ft wing. Note the similarity between its fuselages and that of SpaceShipTwo – they are indeed the same, and this will prove useful in passenger and crew training. As for the spacecraft itself, its six-passenger cabin is about the same cross-section as that of the Falcon 900, but it doesn’t have a floor. There are two huge windows per seat, one side and one overhead. SpaceShipTwo is powered by a hybrid rocket motor, combining the advantages of solid and liquid rocket motors. Solid rocket motors are very simple – a mixture of fuel and oxidiser is contained in a tube. When lit, they propel you to space, and they can’t be stopped. Liquid motors can be shut down and restarted, but they are very complicated – the fuel and oxidiser have to be kept separately and mixed very accurately for flight. Another unique feature of SpaceShipTwo is the way it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Legend has it that Burt Rutan got the inspiration from a shuttlecock and the way it slows down and dips due to its own drag. What SpaceShipTwo does on re-entry is rotates its entire wing up by 65 degrees, creating very high drag while keeping the spacecraft stable. This means the pilot doesn’t have to
“We launched Virgin Galactic to make space accessible to more people. Before, only a select few could reach space after exhaustive training, but I hope this will soon change.”
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resort to complex fly-by-wire systems to enter the atmosphere. Besides, the high drag and light weight of the spacecraft keep the skin temperature relatively low, so no special heat protection is needed. After entering the atmosphere, SpaceShipTwo folds its wings back into normal position and glides to the spaceport. Spaceline for Space Tourism Just three days are needed to train for the flight as a passenger and to pass all the simple medical checks. Becoming a pilot is another thing, however, and it’s far from easy. Virgin Galactic is currently looking for experienced pilots for its growing fleet. These people really have to know their flying; ideally they have to be test-pilots with experience on fast jet and multi-engine passenger aircraft. A unique adventure demands unique skill. “Don’t be fooled by the word ‘suborbital’,” Richard tells me. “They are actual spacecraft, and the people who fly them are astronauts. They have to get a license to fly up there, and they need good experience to do that. On the other hand, I feel we are encouraging people to become astronauts and this is very important for the future of spaceflights.” Space tourism is a very exciting prospect, and the price of $200,000 is by far more attractive and manageable than the $20 to 30 million the few space tourists have had to pay for their flights to the International Space Station. Besides, the health requirements are much less demanding. Yet, Virgin Galactic isn’t called a spaceline for nothing. It shouldn’t end at tourism, explains Branson. “We launched Virgin Galactic to make space accessible to more people. Before, only a select few could reach space after exhaustive training, but I hope this will soon change. The idea is to eventually do commercial flights; this is just the first step. There will be more spaceports across the world, and after that – space hotels, settlements on other planets, why not?”
Spaceport America in New Mexico, from where the first commercial space flight is due to take off.
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It’s a Family Affair Of course, a flight is already booked for Branson. It’s the inaugural flight, and he is going up with his mother and children, who are as daring as he is. “I’m very happy that my children are adventurous and follow family traditions. They’ve had their own record-breaking attempts and now they will be going up in space.” Amazing as it is, space isn’t everything. There’s also Virgin Oceanic, a project to launch manned subs to the deepest parts of the oceans. Branson will be piloting one himself – but that’s a story ❚ you’ll read in yachts magazines.
Published on Jun 10, 2014