Going Direct: An Unexpected Reason Why The Supersonic Boom Jet Is Interesting

Probability and hype in the new airplane game.

By now you might have heard about the new Boom supersonic jet, a “demonstrator” version that’s set to fly sometime in 2017. That’s what the company making the jet, Boom Technology, out of Denver, Colorado, says anyway. Um…okay. Now here’s what will really happen.

Let me start by saying that there’s only one thing that makes this even a remotely interesting, potentially newsworthy item, and it has nothing to do with the specifics of the jet.

For the record—and these are all make-believe figures until somebody starts cutting metal for the real jet—the concept for the jet is to make it a Mach 2.2 airplane that can carry around 50 passengers and cover 4,500 miles at top speed. It would presumably slow to high subsonic speeds over land.

I find it refreshing that the company isn’t shying away from the one main problem that has plagued supersonic passenger aircraft development since, well, since forever: the window-rattling effect of a supersonic craft flying overhead. The company not only isn’t exploring ways to eliminate the boom—bigger, badder and better companies have spent millions in vain in that particular quest—but it’s making the very issue the name of its jet. It’s kind of like calling a big V8 SUV the “Guzzler.” Refreshing in a very in-your-face Harley-Davidson kind of way.

The company has nicknamed the demo jet “Baby Boom,” and it’s sized somewhere between a large light and a small midsized bizjet, though it looks nothing like anything flying today. The tri-jet is powered by notably archaic engines, General Electric J85 turbojets (not “turbofans”), a model that first flew in the 1950s. Then, again, GE is still making them and the military is still buying them. The demo Boom is a two-seater, strictly for test flying and, I’m guessing, lots of high-profile airshow fly-bys.

The big Boom will probably look to ply the same routes that Concorde did, Paris to New York, London to Rio and the like, though its hoped-for 4,500 nm range, about 500 nm better than Concorde (in theory, remember!), would add a few potentially desirable city pairs, though remember, too, that the vast majority of its mission must be not only over water, but over water and well away from any populations. Boom says the additional range will add hundreds of city pairs, but it’s also talking about aerial refueling, something that I’d bet my house won’t happen.

And exactly how will a 50-passenger plane make money for its operators? Especially since Boom is saying that ticket prices would be at the business or first-class levels that subsonic flyers pay today, on planes filled with hundreds of other paying customers, it should be added. It’s a mystery to me.

One thing that’s not a mystery is that Boom has the support to at least partially back up its venture, something that’s almost never true of such far-reaching sci-tru ventures. Behind the venture is none other than Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which will supply intellectual and material support to the Boom team. And Branson’s company, as the first to make a private space shot reality, has the track record of not just proposing amazing stuff, but of getting it done.

Boom has the demo jet nearly done and plans to start flying it this year, and then to develop and launch the full-sized jet into production by the early 2020s. Will it happen? Well, the chances are very slim. For all its talk of new materials and technologies solving Concorde’s problems out of the box, the bottom line with any new airplane program—even much less complex subsonic jets—is that problems will arise and sometimes those problems are deal breakers. The number-one deal breaker, of course, is to find customers. Virgin has dibs on the first 10 Boom jets as part of its deal to support the effort, but beyond that, the economics will have to not only sound-break even, but be profitable before other carriers will express interest.

Usually with stories like this, I’m beyond skeptical. In this case, I’m merely skeptical and would love to be proven wrong by this cool-looking jet for a cool future world.

Learn more at Boom Technology.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

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