The Concorde had its place in the sun for 27 years, shuttling passengers between Europe, the Americas and Singapore at supersonic speeds. But when British Airways retired the last jet in 2003 “for commercial reasons with passenger revenue falling steadily against a backdrop of rising maintenance costs for the aircraft,” it also put the brakes on commercial supersonic flight.
But things are stirring again. Several companies in the U.S. are working to build a new generation of civilian supersonic jets. They include the aerospace company Aerion Supersonic, which, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation and Honeywell, is developing a supersonic business jet called Aerion AS2. The plane is designed to cut a trans-Atlantic flight by three hours and a journey across the Pacific Ocean by five hours.
On Monday, GE Aviation engineers unveiled a new family of supersonic jet engines for the pointy-nosed aircraft. Called Affinity, the engines borrow from GE expertise in building jet engines for fighter planes and well as commercial engines for the latest generation passenger jets like Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Affinity engines will be able to operate as high as 60,000 feet and also meet stringent noise requirements. The engines come with next-generation digital diagnostics and controls known as FADEC, for full authority digital engine control, which, together with the mechanical design, “enable efficient supersonic flight over water and efficient subsonic flight over land,” and meet existing regulations. Brad Mottier, vice president and general manager for GE Aviation’s Business and General Aviation and Integrated Services, the unit that’s building Affinity, says that in the last 50 years, business aircraft speeds have increased by less than 10 percent. “Instead of going faster, cabins have increased in size and become more comfortable — and range has become longer,” he said, adding that speed is the obvious next step.
GE Reports previously reported that the key to Aerion’s design is a concept called natural laminar flow proposed by aerodynamicist and Aerion founder Richard Tracy. Unlike the delta-shaped wings of the Concorde, the Aerion wing design has a modestly swept leading edge, which allowed Aerion to reduce air drag over the wing by as much 60 percent, and the net friction drag of the entire plane is up to 20 percent lower. “We’ve been focusing on improving efficiency so we can lower the cost of operations and extend the range of the plane so it’s not limited to just barely getting across the Atlantic,” Jeff Miller, Aerion’s vice president of marketing, told GE Reports. “Now you’ve got an airplane that will really take you places.”
Aerion plans to fly the AS2 in 2023 and aims to complete the certification in 2025. Aerion, GE and Lockheed Martin started collaborating on the plane in 2017. Honeywell, which is developing avionics for the jet, joined the team this year.
“Today’s announcement by GE is a huge step forward in realizing this airplane,” David Richardson, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ director of air vehicle design, told GE Aviation’s BikeShop blog. “For us to design a clean-sheet airplane at Skunk Works, we always start with an engine. Without an engine, you don’t have an airplane. It is the enabler really for this whole enterprise.”