Supersonic planes will replace conventional jets in our lifetime, says aviation CEO

Earlier this month, a demonstrator aircraft for what could be the first new civil supersonic plane to be launched since the 1960s took to the skies. It’s a milestone moment in the highly anticipated new era of supersonic travel.

The XB-1, a technology demonstrator aircraft built by Colorado-based Boom Supersonic, successfully completed its first test flight at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California, it was announced March 22.

The XB-1 is the the world’s first independently developed supersonic jet and paves the way for the development of Boom’s commercial plane Overture.

Now, 10 years after the Boom Supersonic project began in 2014, CEO Blake Scholl tells CNN Travel over video call, there are an exciting few months ahead.

The ‘hard part’ is over

“I very much believe in the return of supersonic air travel, and ultimately to bring it to every passenger on every route. And that’s not something that takes place overnight,” says Scholl. “The hard part of building a supersonic jet is making something that’s so sleek, and so slippery, take off and land safely.”

XB-1’s first flight met all of its test objectives, including safely reaching an altitude of 7,120 feet (2,170 meters) and speeds of up to 238 knots (273 miles per hour).

That’s quite a bit below the altitudes reached by commercial airliners, which fly between 31,000 feet to 42,000 feet.

As for Mach 1 – the speed of sound –  that’s about 760 mph, depending on altitude and temperature. But the plan is for XB-1 to achieve that supersonic ambition pretty fast.

“We’re gonna be doing a whole series of flights – 10 to 15 total – over the next five to seven months to break the sound barrier for the first time,” says Scholl.

Aerodynamics, materials, propulsion

There have been only two civil supersonic planes: the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 and the British-French Concorde, which flew for the last time in October 2003, more than two decades ago.

Now, the industry is abuzz with supersonic and hypersonic projects – from NASA and Lockheed Martin’s “quiet” X-59 aircraft, which limits sonic boom, to Atlanta-based Hermeus, which this week unveiled its first flyable aircraft.

“The advent of digital engineering is a huge enabler for why supersonic flight’s coming back,” explains Scholl. “Aerodynamics, materials, propulsion: Those are the big three areas where we’ve made huge progress versus Concorde.”

XB-1 made its first flight in March 2024. - Courtesy Boom Supersonic
XB-1 made its first flight in March 2024. - Courtesy Boom Supersonic

Computational fluid dynamics

Back in the 1960s, Concorde was developed in wind tunnels, which meant building costly physical models, running tests, then repeat.

“You just can’t test very many designs, when every iteration costs millions and takes months,” explains Scholl. But Boom has perfected its aircraft’s efficient, aerodynamic design using computational fluid dynamics, which “is basically a digital wind tunnel. We can run the equivalent of hundreds of wind tunnel tests overnight in simulation for a fraction of the cost of a real wind tunnel test.”

XB-1 is made almost entirely from carbon fiber composites, selected for being both strong and lightweight.

Augmented reality vision system

Concorde famously reduced drag when reaching supersonic speeds by having a long, pointed nose on a hinge that tilted forward when taking off, landing and taxiing so the pilots could see the runway.

“Today, we have this amazing thing called a camera and a screen,” says Scholl with a smile, when explaining XB-1’s unique augmented reality vision system. Rather than needing a complex moveable nose and windscreen views, the craft instead makes use of two nose-mounted cameras, digitally augmented with altitude and flight path indications.

“It’s far better than the view ever was on Concorde,” claims Scholl, and the augmented reality symbology will help pilots line up the target and achieve “a beautiful landing every time.”

Fueled by SAF

So, with the aviation industry having a target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, where does a supersonic plane whizzing round at twice the speed of modern, conventional jets fit into all this?

Overture is designed to be powered by conventional jet engines and to run on up to 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

We’ve covered the so-far slow adoption of SAF before here on CNN Travel, and Scholl is well aware of its current problems.

“There’s not enough of it, and it costs too much, but it is scaling,” says Scholl, but he reckons that one day it’ll be used for all long-haul air travel. It’s the “future of aviation,” he declares.

The need for speed

Scholl concedes that “flying faster is inherently more energy intensive,” but argues that “we shouldn’t have to choose between climate-friendly and passenger-friendly. In fact, we can accelerate the transition towards lower carbon transportation by making sure that the most desirable airplane is also the most climate-friendly.”

He compares today’s transatlantic air travel to “driving across the Atlantic in a not-very-good SUV. Aboard Overture, driving across the Atlantic is gonna be like driving a Tesla across it. And yeah, it’s gonna be more energy-intensive, but from a climate perspective, it doesn’t matter because the energy source is green.”

XB-1 made its maiden flight in Mojave, California. - Courtesy Boom Supersonic
XB-1 made its maiden flight in Mojave, California. - Courtesy Boom Supersonic

‘If we have faster airplanes, we don’t need as many’

He also argues the case for other efficiencies offered by faster flight.

“A faster airplane is much more human-efficient, and it’s much more capital-efficient. You can do more flights, with the same airplane and crew,” says Scholl. “We can significantly reduce all of the cost and impact that goes into airplanes by making them faster. if we have faster airplanes, we don’t need as many.”

The reason we don’t use propeller flights between London and New York, he says, is that while it might be less energy-intensive than a jet engine, it would be “more expensive and more impactful overall, because going at half the speed you would need way more.”

He predicts that, in the same manner jet airplanes replaced propeller airplanes, “in your lifetime and mine, supersonic is going to replace today’s jet airliners, and it’s going to be both faster, more sustainable, and more affordable.”

‘Anywhere in the world in four hours for $100’

Back when CNN Travel spoke with Scholl in May 2021, he told us his dream was for people to one day be able to “fly anywhere in the world in four hours for $100.” Three years later, he says it’s still his “North Star.”

“If you look back at Concorde, you know, built out of 1960s technology, this was like a 20,000 quid ticket, and it just wasn’t attainable,” says Scholl.

On the first iteration of Boom’s Overture plane, dubbed Overture One, “our goal is to cut that by a factor of four, and be able to have supersonic flight available to the tens of millions of people who can fly business class today.”

The long-term vision is for later versions of Overture - there’s plans for Overture Two, then Overture Three – will bring supersonic flights on more routes to more passengers at lower costs.

Boom’s goal is to cut flights to “half the time or less than it takes today.” The ultimate goal is “flights that are faster, more affordable, more convenient, more sustainable. And we’re just gonna keep working on that until we can travel effortlessly around the planet.”

2024 is ‘one of the biggest years yet’

Boom aims to carry its first passengers on Overture – between 64 and 80 of them, at Mach 1.7 – before the end of the decade. Presently, it boasts an order book of 130 orders and pre-orders from customers including American Airlines, United Airlines and Japan Airlines.

Scholl says, “2024 is going to be one of the biggest years yet for supersonic flight. Later this year, we’ll open the super-factory in Greensboro, North Carolina, where we’re going to be building Overture. And then we’re very much off to the races.”

Above all, he is proud of leading “a private company with a commercial model that scales,” he says. “The world needs a new innovative maker of commercial airplanes.”

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