The FAA’s current regulations around supersonic travel are 45 years old. The new proposed rule “modifies and clarifies existing regulatory procedures for a more efficient way to obtain FAA approval to test supersonic aircraft,” FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell said. According to Reuters, which reviewed a draft of the FAA proposal, the proposed updates “are intended to support the growth of the civil supersonic industry.”
This news rides a crest of building excitement as a new generation of travelers gear up for supersonic flights in their lifetime. The Concorde, flown by British Airways and Air France, zoomed between Europe, the Americas and Singapore for 27 years before being grounded in 2003 due to low ticket sales and rising maintenance costs. The plane also ran into environmental restrictions dealing with sonic booms, loud sounds that ricochet across the sky when jets cross the sound barrier and make air compressed in front of the plane snap like a rubber band. Sonic booms are a big part of the reason the FAA and global air regulators have prohibited civilian supersonic flights over, or within earshot of, land.
But those restrictions haven’t stopped aviation entrepreneurs from pursuing a return to supersonic flight. Several startup companies in the U.S., including Aerion Supersonic and Spike Aerospace, are working to build new, smaller supersonic jets. GE Aviation is partnering with Aerion, as well as Boeing and Honeywell, to develop a supersonic business jet, the Aerion AS2. GE’s Affinity™, the first civil supersonic engine in 55 years, will be able to operate as high as 60,000 feet and beat current emissions standards, including stringent noise requirements. It has the highest bypass ratio for a supersonic engine which means GE’s Affinity will be the most fuel-efficient supersonic engine ever.
The AS2 engine is designed to enable efficient supersonic flight over water (768-plus mph) and efficient subsonic flight over land (just under 768 mph), without requiring modifications to existing compliance regulations. So even if the FAA does not modify its rule of no supersonic flight over land, the AS2 will still operate under the existing rules.
The AS2, which can carry up to 12 passengers, is scheduled to begin flight testing in 2023. It will be able to fly 40% faster than the speed of sound and 70% faster than today’s conventional business jets, cutting the travel time from New York to London to just 3 hours.
The key to Aerion’s design is a concept called natural laminar flow. While the Concorde’s wings were delta-shaped, the Aerion wing will have a modestly swept leading which will allow it to reduce air drag by as much as 60% and net friction drag by up to 20%, creating a faster, more efficient and quieter aircraft.
Elwell assured the new crop of supersonic jet builders that the new rule proposals will help them access up-to-date information and processes in order to conduct flight testing under FAA approval. For those looking forward to a return to old-school Concorde glamor, their flight might be just a few years away.