United, Japan Airlines, and Virgin Are Going All-in on This Breakthrough Supersonic Tech

0 | By Michael A. Robinson

In the 1960s, as the United States and Soviet Union set their sights on outer space and the Moon, the United Kingdom and France embarked on an expensive joint “moonshot” of their own: Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger airliner.

Concorde – at the bleeding edge of 1960s and 1970s aviation technology – transported passengers in fine style across the Atlantic Ocean in a matter of three or four hours, shrinking exponentially the distance between the global cultural and financial command centers of London, Paris, and New York.

Concorde flew for British Airways and Air France for nearly 35 years. It was a glamorous technological triumph, but a commercial failure, never able to sustain the passenger numbers needed for profitability. Concorde’s first and only fatal accident, in 2000, threw its problems into sharp focus, and the supersonic liner made its final flight into London Heathrow in 2003.

There have been no civilian supersonic flights to speak of in the 19 years since.

But there are tantalizing signs this is getting ready to change – and we can all look forward to faster travel across a smaller world in the near future.

After the Concorde stopped flying, there were still people with deep pockets exploring the possibilities of supersonic flying. Aviation consultant Brian Foley has said over the past two decades that he’s heard two thoughts frequently:

“The first is that no one denies there’s a market for supersonic jets,” and “The other thing is that manufacturers keep saying it will be within 10 years.”

Billionaire Robert Bass partnered with Boeing (BA) but recently gave up on his quest to build eight to 10 supersonic business jets.

Yet two other companies are still working on their version of the supersonic jet. Boston-based Spike Aerospace and San Jose-based Exosonic Inc. are working on projects, and Atlanta-based Hermeus Corp. is working with the United States Air Force on its supersonic vision.

Trouble is, most of these firms are still on the drawing board.

But a hungry, Denver-based aviation startup is hard at work on a radical new airframe – capable of hauling up to 88 passengers at speeds in excess of Mach 2.2, or about 1,600 miles per hour. That’s more than twice as fast as a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in normal cruise.

And whereas the competition is still in the drafting phase, this company is getting ready to fly its very own demonstrator this year.

Here’s the company to watch right now…

One Aviation Company Has the “Right Stuff” for Mach 2.2

As I said, every few years since Concorde’s taxied into the history books, aviation watchers would note some on-the-drawing-board effort to get passengers travelling supersonically again. Most of these never got off the ground – literally – and, of those still in business, most are still in the conceptual phase.

Boom Supersonic, then, is far ahead of the crowd. It has built a working prototype – a “demonstrator,” as its known in aviation – of Overture, a totally new supersonic airframe design. The Overture prototype, known as XB-1, is one-third the size the commercial aircraft will be, ultimately, but it’s scheduled to fly for testing for the first time in the first half of 2022. Its engines, in fact, have already been through run-up tests as recently as this past January.

Just recently, Boom selected Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina as the site of its first full-scale “Overture Superfactory” manufacturing facility. The facility will include the final assembly line, test facility, and customer delivery center for the supersonic plane.

The company has worked with two exceptional and experienced pilots – Bill Shoemaker, a former Navy pilot and former chief test pilot at Zee Aero, and Chris “Duff” Guarente who flew F-22s for the US Air Force. Previously he was the Chief Test pilot for Scaled Composites LLC.

These folks will have the privilege of flying a truly remarkable machine.

Concorde was made of conventional aircraft-grade aluminum, same as any other subsonic jetliner. XB-1 and Overture will be built from carbon fiber and next-generation composites undergoing testing as we speak.

That’s going to place the Overture airframe light years ahead of most everything in the civilian fleet – and it’ll be cheaper to operate, too.

You see, Concorde was never particularly fuel efficient, and largely confined itself to hops between the Atlantic seaboards of the United States and Europe.

Overture, on the other hand, will have a range of more than 4,200 miles, opening up huge opportunities for routes around the vast Pacific Rim.

And, whereas Concorde burned conventional jet fuel – and lots of it – XB-1 and Overture will burn 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is expected to provide an 80% reduction in carbon emissions over the life of the aircraft.

Its high-tech, next-generation components and fuel ultra-efficiency mean these planes could conceivably fly from San Francisco to Tokyo in six hours, and New York to London in three-and-a-half.

Sounds like a breeze, but it’s actually been a long, hard road…

Per Ardua ad Astra

For as fast and high as they fly, supersonic transports (SSTs), have had a troubled history. A lot of that is down to noise.

You see, when an object breaches the sound barrier, or around 767 miles per hour, it generates a shattering, 200-decibel boom – a “sonic boom” – which is thrown out for dozens and dozens of miles along the object’s path. These have been known to disturb people and wildlife, and in some cases even shatter windows.

Back in the 1970s, when Boeing Co. (BA) had its eye on an American SST to rival the Anglo-French Concorde, it drew hordes of protestors concerned about the sonic boom. The protests, and a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruling banning sonic booms over land, put an end to Boeing’s supersonic dreams.

To make matters worse, “traditional” SSTs like Concorde must take off at much faster – and louder – speeds than subsonic aircraft which, again, creates more of the noise pollution regulators and taxpayers hate.

Frankly, there’s no getting around the creation of sonic booms – no matter how efficient the engine or how sophisticated the building materials, a jet punching a hole in the air is going to make a hellacious racket.

But, as it turns out, there are workarounds that only become available when you have these new manufacturing materials and fuels to work with. Boom is working with the FAA to figure out legal, overland flight paths across sparsely inhabited territory that will minimize disruption to people and wildlife. And as you might think, flying over water is no trouble at all.

Of course, the company has a very determined leader sitting “left seat.”

Only a Pilot Could’ve Started This Venture

Boom is the creation of Blake Scholl – an interesting character. Since high school, when he built an internet service provider in his parent’s basement, Scholl has had an entrepreneurial mind. After graduating with a degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, Scholl started and sold a few companies, and worked briefly at Groupon Inc. (GRPN) and Inc. (AMZN).

While in college, Scholl got his pilot’s license. Instead of buying a plane after selling his first company, he started Boom. With his entrepreneurial spirit and Top Gun mentality, Scholl makes sense here. As an aviator and entrepreneur, Scholl understands the aerospace business – and he has a pilot’s go-fast desire to resurrect supersonic air travel.

Scholl and Boom have also made some shrewd deals and partnerships along the way – after all, someone has to buy the plane they’re building.

The giants, Boeing and Airbus SE (EADSY), are rolling in profitable products they have no trouble selling; they don’t perceive an urgency to get into the supersonic aviation business, and remember, Boeing fell flat there back in the 1970s.

So, Boom went to the airlines themselves, and hit it big.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group holds options for 10 airframes (and Virgin Galactic Holding Inc.‘s [SPCE] Spaceship Company subsidiary will assist in developing Overture, too), while Japan Airlines ADR (JAPSY) has dibs on 20 of the next-generation jets. An “unnamed European major carrier” has the option to buy 15 Overtures, and United Airlines Holdings Inc. (UAL) signed a purchase agreement good for at least 15 aircraft as soon as they’re certified. As complete airframe testing results are due to be into the FAA by 2027, certification to fly should be issued sometime in 2028 or 2029.

That gives us plenty of time, but I’ll be watching this company from here on out – there are sure to be plenty of technological milestones and investable “tangents” to this story. Keep your eyes peeled for a follow-up.

This company reminds me of a recent pick I made, albeit in a company that’s much further along. It’s packed on more than 15% gains since I recommended it, and times being what they are, I expect much more to come.

Cheers and good investing,

Michael A. Robinson

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