Molly McMillin Wichita Eagle
Aerion Makes Progress on Supersonic Business Jet
November 23, 2012
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  • By Molly McMillin

    Aerion Corp. is heading into a second round of high-speed test flights in its development of a supersonic business jet.

    “We continue to make what we believe is very good progress, particularly on the technical side,” said Brian Barents, Aerion vice chairman and former head of Bombardier Learjet in Wichita.

    At the same time, Aerion is engaged with three planemakers on various projects. “We are looking at utilizing our technology on some of their internal applications,” Barents said.

    The transonic applications could be used in military and civil projects.

    Those discussions have been ongoing for the past year, Barents said recently.

    Aerion, based in Reno, Nev., sells or licenses its technology to other companies, or it can retain it for its own supersonic jet design.

    “We have a number of worldwide patents on our technology, so we are protected in the event that someone wanted to use our technology,” Barents said.

    Working with manufacturers has meant creating relationships that could eventually lead to a partnership to build the supersonic jet from Aerion’s design.

    “We are hopeful that at some point it will lead to that,’ Barents said.

    Manufacturers continue to show interest, Barents said.

    But the economy has affected progress.

    “I would have to tell you, in this economic environment it’s a little difficult to gain traction on a program of that magnitude … but there continues to be good interest,” Barents said.

    Despite the economy, Aerion has been able to maintain its $4 billion backlog of orders for the $80 million corporate jet that can fly faster than the speed of sound.

    “I think it shows the strength of the program and the desire for companies to ultimately have an aircraft with the capability that we have designed,” Barents said.

    In the meantime, Aerion is validating its technology

    It’s also working to increase revenue, and the company has a positive cash flow, Barents said.

    “So the company is very viable,” Barents said. “We’re paying our way.”

    Once Aerion officially launches the program to build the jet, it will take several years until delivery.

    “It’s a five (to) five-and-a-half-year program from the time we give a firm commitment and a firm launch,” Barents said. “That has stayed the same.”

    Besides the capability to break the sound barrier in the Mach 1.4 or Mach 1.5 range, more than 1,000 miles per hour, the jet also will fly subsonic at about Mach 0.96, about 731 miles per hour, said Aerion chief operating officer Doug Nichols.

    That’s faster than the fastest Cessna Citation X or Gulfstream 650.

    “That’s a sweet spot in terms of range and efficiency right when the other guys are essentially running out of steam,” Nichols said.

    The tests

    The second round of testing will be conducted in conjunction with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. The tests are to help define manufacturing standards for surface quality and assembly tolerances, the company said.

    In the tests, a 40-inch by 80-inch test article will be mounted underneath NASA’s F-15 research aircraft and flown at supersonic speeds.

    They will measure the “real-world robustness” of supersonic natural laminar flow, which is key to the design of the supersonic business jet, the company said.

    The last round of testing in mid-2010 used an instrumented flat plate under the F-15 to map high-speed air flow and validate computer modeling. The F-15 reached Mach 2.0.

    The test was to calibrate the flow field under the F-15 “to see what was going on with the air,” Nichols said. “We used that information to design this next test article.”

    The new test article is more representative of Aerion’s wing.

    The testing will look at factors such as manufacturing tolerances — how large the leading edge joint can be before air flow is disturbed or how large a rough spot from insect debris can get before problems begin, Nichols said.

    After this round of testing, Aerion will complete another round to look at other kinds of roughness or manufacturing issues.

    Aerion was formed from an advanced-engineering group in 2002. Its research began more than 20 years ago.

    Besides Barents, its board includes Robert Bass, chairman and president of investment group Keystone Group; Richard Tracy, Aerion’s chief technology officer; Michael Henderson, principal scientist and Boeing’s former program manager for high-speed civil transport; Robert Morse, a partner at Oak Hill Capital Management; and James Stewart, CEO of Mubadala Aerospace’s maintenance, repair and operations network.