“Conditions are ripe for a supersonic renaissance,” said Brian Barents, Executive Chairman, Aerion. “We believe that speed is the next frontier in civil aviation, and we will begin that journey with a supersonic business jet capable of reaching demanding city pairs frequently traveled by the business community.”
Barents made his comments during an announcement in mid-December that his company and Lockheed Martin, along with GE, are participating in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the engineering and development necessary to bring Aerion’s AS2 supersonic business jet to fruition, runways, and airspace.
Out of those three companies, Aerion is the newest player in this market, having announced its Aerion program in 2003.
“We recognized several critical factors essential for our success. One of those was teaming with an established, reputable airframe manufacturer that would help us to design, certify, build, and support the airplane going forward,” said Barents. “We've been engaged with Lockheed Martin for the past year, including months of vetting the technology and the AS2 conceptual design.”
Lockheed Martin’s commitment to Aerion appears new, but its entry into the supersonic realm predates Aerion by well over half a century.
“We think of it as being in our DNA, especially in the DNA of our Skunk Works team, who have pioneered new technologies that have pushed the limits of what's possible,” said Orlando Carvalho, Executive Vice President, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.
While most of its supersonic knowledge and talent has been applied in the defense arena, “…today we believe that new materials and new technologies are making civil supersonic flight a realistic near-term possibility,” said Carvalho.
“For us, the supersonic era started with our J-79 engine that was introduced on the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in the late 1950's,” said Brad Mottier, Vice President, General Manager of GE Aviation and Integrated Systems. In May, GE officially announced it was working with Aerion on an engine development study for the AS2.
Just in the civilian space, GE’s work on other engine programs include the Leap, Passport, Advanced Turboprop for the Cessna Denali, and the GE9X for the 777X. “Combined, these engines introduce nearly 500 new technologies to the aviation marketplace. The toolbox of engine technologies we are introducing is mounting at its own supersonic speed,” said Mottier. “Ceramic matrix composites, additive manufacturing, titanium aluminides, along with digital services and artificial intelligence, are maturing technologies and will enable new solutions to some of the more complex challenges ahead.”
Mottier admits that developing an engine for a supersonic business jet is no easy task, “otherwise someone would have done it before.” And while it will take “a tremendous amount of collaboration between the airframer and engine maker to pull off this integration, this will really be a marriage of technologies.”
Even with leveraging hundreds of technologies developed for other past and future programs, there are obviously unique challenges with a supersonic engine and aircraft.
“When you fly at high speeds, at high altitudes, you have high inlet temperatures, and so managing the thermal aspects of the engine are important,” said Mottier. “We are taking one of our proven existing commercial cores that has millions of hours of operation, and we're going to put a new low-pressure system on the engine, more like a military aircraft, but it's obviously commercial. The tasks we have ahead of us are developing that engine to be fuel efficient at high subsonic speeds and also fuel efficient at supersonic, at Mach 1.4. And, of course, integrating that into the inlet and exhaust and the airframe to maintain the low drag of the airframe.”
The AS2 engine will have “state-of-the-art digital diagnostics with engine parameters transmitted to the ground for trend monitoring analysis on each flight, and dispatch reliability that's best in class, something we do on our commercial transport engines today,” said Mottier.
The range objectives of the aircraft are 5400 nmi at Mach 0.95, and 4200 nmi at Mach 1.4. First flight of the aircraft is expected in 2023, with deliveries beginning in 2025. Flexjet has already ordered 20 aircraft valued at over $2.4 billion.
Aerion is initially targeting the business aviation segment “because that is where we'll find early adapters relatively insensitive to price. Business aviation users attach a high value to their time and to speed, so this is a natural first place to introduce supersonic capability,” said Barents. He also projects the market for the AS2 to be over 300 aircraft in the first 10 years of production, and will yield revenue exceeding $20 billion in the first five years.