The magic of supersonic flight
Thirty-six-year-old Blake Scholl – former Amazon manager, technology entrepreneur and certified pilot – is the founder and CEO of Boom Technology, Inc., a start-up from Denver, Colorado. Boom’s mission is to bring the first supersonic passenger airliner to market since the Concorde, with the 55-seat jet expected to enter into service in 2023. So far, Boom has received purchase commitments for 76 jets from five major airlines. A two-seater demonstrator aircraft dubbed “Baby Boom” is expected to take to the skies as early as 2018.
08.2017 | Text: Andreas Spaeth
Andreas Spaeth has been traveling the world as a freelance aviation journalist for over 25 years, visiting and writing about airlines and airports. He is frequently invited to appear on radio and TV programs.
AEROREPORT: How did you become hooked on supersonic travel without ever having flown on the Concorde?
Blake Scholl: It all started in 2007 when I was working at an internet start-up in Seattle. One day, my girlfriend was stuck on one of those hopelessly delayed flights. While I was waiting for her I wondered: “What happened to the Concorde and supersonic flight?” There has been no credible effort to build a new supersonic aircraft that I could see myself flying on – just some science fiction stuff or maybe a private jet for billionaires. I wondered if could I start my own company to build a supersonic jet and started to look into it more seriously about three years ago. Back then, I thought I would do two weeks of research and get the whole idea out of my system.
AEROREPORT: But you obviously didn’t. Why not?
Scholl: The more I learned, the more I realized that the idea was actually viable because we already have all the key technology we need. Aircraft design and construction has progressed significantly in the last 50 years since the first Concorde was built. We now have optimized aerodynamics, new materials – such as carbon-fiber composites – and significantly quieter and more efficient engines. If you put all these things together, you have the basis for building a new-generation supersonic airplane that costs 75 percent less to fly than the Concorde. Once we realized that, we had two options: either stop things there, or have the courage start this company and see it through.
Optimized Engineers use computer simulations to test potential design options.
Optimized Engineers use computer simulations to test potential design options.
AEROREPORT: Boom is relying on existing technology rather than branching out into the unknown. How do you harness the progress made since the Concorde?
Scholl: We use the same state-of-the-art technology as the latest subsonic airplanes. You used to have to design an airplane in a wind tunnel. It took about six months, which put a limit on the number of designs you could test. Today’s computer simulations, however, enable work that previously took six months to be done in half an hour, which means we can test thousands more design ideas than before. You can pick out the best ones so you end up with a considerably more refined aircraft shape and optimum aerodynamics that deliver more lift and less drag. Furthermore, new materials enable us to develop very complex aircraft shapes. It’s hard to find a straight line on our jet.
AEROREPORT: For the engines, you also stick with conventional technology – at least for your “Baby Boom” demonstrator. Why is that?
Scholl: Yes, the production aircraft will use the same turbofan technology as you find in Airbus or Boeing aircraft. Baby Boom will use a small, older engine because that’s what fits the airplane, but we know it’s going to work with the turbofans for supersonic flight. Basically, you take three existing widebody engines to power a much smaller airplane, which gives you much higher thrust. The way you adapt the engines themselves varies: for subsonic flight, you work with large fan diameters and high bypass ratios. Conversely, to keep supersonic flight operations as efficient as possible, the bypass ratio should not be too high. We need to strike a balance between meeting airport-noise requirements and achieving the greatest fuel efficiency at high speed. Essentially, you just reduce the size of the fan. We haven’t chosen an engine yet as we are still in talks with all the potential suppliers.
AEROREPORT: What about engine noise and the sonic boom a supersonic aircraft inevitably produces?
Scholl: Engine noise at the airport will be 30 times quieter than with the Concorde, which was really loud. And we don’t use afterburners on take-off, which is a big factor. The sonic boom produced by the Boom passenger airliner is also 30 times quieter than the Concorde’s.
AEROREPORT: How will you be able to keep the diverging factors of speed, noise and sustainability in check?
Scholl: Our longer-term vision is to improve fuel efficiency and, as a result, bring costs down so more people can afford to fly this way more often. Efficiency improvements in turn lead to reductions in emissions. The generations of aircraft we will build in the future will be larger and more fuel efficient – and therefore also more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. On the noise side, there is some tension between noise and efficiency. But it turns out you can hit all these efficiency targets without the aircraft being any louder than anything flying today.
AEROREPORT: Your current budget is 41 million dollars, but many experts say four billion would be a more realistic figure. How will you make ends meet?
Scholl: Of course you can’t complete the whole program with 41 million, but it is more than enough to build and fly the Baby Boom. Money is not the problem; in fact, we had to turn down offers from investors. As a start-up, you actually don’t want to take more money than you require – it gives investors too much influence. Once “Baby Boom” flies, airlines are going to be lining up for it. At that point, we’ll get the much larger chunk of money that we’ll need to go into production and for certification.
Enthusiastic Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of Boom Technology, Inc., explains his vision for a new supersonic passenger aircraft.
AEROREPORT: Is there really a certain magic surrounding supersonic flying that attracts the brightest minds to work for you and the biggest investors?
Scholl: Yes, I think that’s the secret. We are doing something that’s technologically hard, capital intensive and that takes time. The reason it’s possible is that big ideas attract great people: amazing employees, engineers, marketers, investors and advisers. The people that work for and with us are world class.
AEROREPORT: Scientists argue that the speed of Mach 2.2 you are aiming at – ten percent faster than the Concorde – is unrealistic. Is it?
Scholl: The opposite. I think the lower speeds that other projects target are actually the problem. The point of supersonic flight is not to save you an hour here and there, but rather days. The most important business travel route in the world today is New York to London. If you catch the first flight of the day from New York, and you travel at Mach 1.5 (approx. 1,600 kilometers per hour), you arrive in London after everyone has already closed up shop. With Mach 2.2 (approx. 2,350 kilometers per hour), you would make it there in time for an afternoon meeting, even taking ground transportation into account. And my belief is that 50 years after the Concorde, we need to fly faster, not slower.
AEROREPORT: Critics also argue that your aircraft will be too big to be economical. Is that true?
Scholl: I think if anything it will be too small. Our aircraft will be able to fly on hundreds of routes that have enough premium traffic to fill it. We’ve already announced orders for 76 aircraft from five airlines, and this is just scratching the surface. The market is going to be huge. We’re forecasting sales of up to 1,300 units of our Boom aircraft over ten years and our forecast is supported by an independent analysis by the Boyd Group. Historically speaking, when flights get faster, passenger numbers increase: when jets replaced propeller aircraft, air traffic grew sixfold. If you can get from London to New York in three and a half hours instead of seven, you will see a big increase in demand.
AEROREPORT: What do you expect it to be like as a passenger on your first supersonic flight?
Scholl: It’s going to be awesome; I can’t wait to see the curvature of the earth for myself from 60,000 feet through our big windows. It’s going to open the eyes of the world to a faster future.