Imagine being able to travel from New York to London in 3.5 hours, or San Francisco to Tokyo in less than six. This is not something Elon Musk drew on a napkin – supersonic technology has been around since the seventies, but one company is trying to make it commercial. Startup Boom Supersonic just completed another round of funding, raising $100M to build jets that travel at twice the speed of sound.
A Denver-based company, Boom Supersonic was founded in 2014—the idea was to utilize supersonic technology for commercial purposes, selling trips across the Atlantic for the same price as a normal business class ticket. So far, they’ve raised $141M and have built several prototypes which are being tested in the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California. If all goes according to plan, up to 500 routes will be opened, beginning in 2023.
‘Son of the Concorde’
Supersonic technology is over 70 years old, and was first developed in the late 1940s. The famous US Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager was the first person to officially break the sound barrier, flying the rocket-powered experimental Bell X-1 in 1947. While most advanced military aircraft (especially fighters and interceptors) today are supersonic, commercial applications of supersonic technology failed to take off. The notable exception was the Anglo-French Concorde, which operated between 1987 and 2003 selling transatlantic tickets for the modern equivalent of $12,500. The only other supersonic transport aircraft operated commercially was the Soviet Tupalov Tu-144, which only managed to operate for around a year in the late 70s.
The attempt at supersonic transport was a commercial failure—the original budget of $70M was quickly spent and the project ultimately cost $1.3B, and they were unable to make a profit. Air France and British Airways faced several operational pressures. Operating the aircrafts was expensive, as it was mandatory to have an engineer present on each flight. Further, the noise of the flight going supersonic was an additional problem. These pressures and high ticket prices kept ridership low, and very few sectors remained active by the late 1990s as they were running at a loss. The one exception was the transatlantic flight, something the founders of Boom Supersonic were quick to notice.
For commercial viability, existing aircraft were often chartered by well-heeled travel groups, but this source of revenue froze due to an accident in 2000. The unfortunate Air France Flight 4590 was a private charter which crashed soon after takeoff due to runway debris which blew a tire and punctured a fuel tank. Rising costs as well as the pressures felt by the aviation industry just after the 9/11 attacks made the aircraft impossible to run at a profit, with travelers and operators unwilling to take the risk.
Boom Supersonic was founded by Black Scholl and Joe Wilding, only one of whom had a background in aerospace technology. Scholl’s background was in tech, with leadership gigs from Amazon and Groupon, while Wilding was an engineer who’d worked at three aerospace startups and as chief engineer at Adam Aircraft Industries. They decided to create a ‘Son of the Concorde,’ that was actually commercially viable, a fifty-five seat plane that could send passengers across the Atlantic for a forth the price the Concorde ever could. They believed that they could develop a supersonic aircraft that as the son of the Concorde would grow past the failures and weaknesses of the parent.
Boom’s XB-1 and its competition
Of the $141M raised by Boom Supersonic, most of the money is going towards the design and building of the plane.
“The build cost of the airplane itself is about $13 million. So that’s carbon fiber composites, and avionics and the hydraulics and fuel pumps and all the stuff of an airplane,” Scholl told TechCrunch. “The bigger cost is actually the engineering team, the development cost, so the $33 million is going towards continuing to fund the team as well as basically doubling in size this year.”
The team seeks to learn from the mistakes of the Concorde, making a plane that’s a fraction of the size and ‘at least 30 times quieter.’ Starting with the New York to London route, Boom Supersonic is opening up lines only amongst major business class routes: Los Angeles to Sydney, San Francisco to Tokyo, Miami, Santiago, Chile. Take-off will be as quiet as a normal aircraft, despite the three-engine plane system. The Boom factory is equipped to build 100 aircrafts a year to create 1,000-2,000 planes over the next ten years.
Other companies looking to create a successor to the Concorde have their own business models and plans. The most prominent ones are Boston-based Spike Aerospace and 3M’s Aerion Supersonic. Both are developing smaller craft with the idea of catering to 12-20 passengers at a time, transporting them at supersonic speeds and premium comfort between global business hubs. Spike is building its $125M aircraft in partnership with Greenpoint Technologies and Siemens. Aerion is working Lockheed Martin and NASA to develop its prototype.
Boeing has also thrown its hat in the ring, announcing in June 2018 that it was working on the development of a hypersonic commercial craft. Spike’s S-512 is expected to have a cruising speech of 1.6 times the speed of sound. Aerion’s AS-2 is projected to reach 1.4 Mach. While Boom’s Overture leads the pack with 2.2, Boeing’s hypersonic plane is expected to cruise at a mind boggling 5 times the speed of sound.
Boom Supersonic and its Partners
The aerospace industry, especially in the startup arena, tends to make bold claims and promise more than we have seen delivered. What Boom brings to the table today is established partnerships with major players in the industry, which add to its commercial viability following complete product development. Aircraft tycoon Richard Branson confirmed that Virgin Airlines has ordered ten, while Japan Airlines has pre-ordered twenty. Boom Supersonic is a Y-Combinator startup, with additional funding coming from venture funds such as Caffeinated Capital, Palm Drive Ventures, RRE Ventures, and Continuity Fund. Things are still early, but with a former Navy aviator going up in a prototype things are moving fast. Ultimately, Scholl says his goal is to make supersonic jets for everyone, not just those who fly business class. If these ambitions are met that’ll mean the world connecting in a newly-rediscovered, but much faster way.
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