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27 July 2006

Skunk Works plans worldwide network of Thunderbirds-style supersonic jets

By Bill Sweetman, IDR Aerospace and Technology Editor

Plans for a fleet of supersonic jets linking the world's major financial centres, with London as a hub, were disclosed to Jane's at the Farnborough Airshow last week. Designed by Lockheed Martin's renowned Skunk Works, the 12-seater jets would be much smaller than the 100-passenger Concorde, retired in 2003 and would use radical aerodynamic technology to eliminate the sonic booms that prevented Concorde from cruising at high speeds overland.

Frank Cappuccio, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works vice-president, predicted at Farnborough that the company's low-sonic-boom supersonic transport design which it is developing as a partner with new-start company Supersonic Aerospace International (SAI) has a "100 per cent chance" of going ahead.

SAI's Quiet Supersonic Transport (QSST) project for a Mach 1.8 (1,200 mph) long-range business jet was unveiled in late 2004. Little has been heard of it since then because its activities have been protected by non-disclosure agreements.

Chris Toffales, SAI vice-chairman who joined the project last year, said that SAI has been seeking investors to launch the project wealthy individuals with a passion for aviation, rather than institutional venture capitalists. SAI is also still talking to primary risk-sharing partners, including commercial airframe manufacturers and all three major Western engine suppliers.

The plan is that Lockheed Martin will continue to act as design authority for the aircraft, but that another company an established aircraft manufacturer experienced on both supersonic and commercial aircraft will produce it. Toffales added that SAI could announce an engine partner within a year and that the QSST could be certificated in 2013-15.

SAI has identified a market for 300 of the aircraft among extremely wealthy individuals and companies, and is also in discussions with an investor group that wants to use a slightly heavier version of the aircraft, with 12 passenger seats and a 1000 km range boost to fly London-Tokyo non-stop, to link the world's major financial centres with supersonic scheduled services. Some years ago, US business-jet manufacturer Gulfstream Aerospace carried out a market study that showed that an airline-type service with a small supersonic jet could be profitable at business-class fare levels.

The QSST's Thunderbirds-like shape, with a slender 40 m-long body, dart-shaped wing and an inverted-V tail, is designed to reshape the sonic boom to eliminate the sharp pressure spikes that cause damage and annoyance. The principle of boom shaping was demonstrated in 2003 using a modified F-5 fighter. SAI and Lockheed Martin are confident that it can be applied to a bigger aircraft; the key, said Cappuccio, is computer-aided aerodynamics technology that allows the airflow around a complex high-speed aircraft to be modelled in far greater detail than was possible even 10 years ago.

Rolls-Royce is one of three candidates to supply a new engine for the QSST, along with US rivals General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. Rolls-Royce earlier proposed a relatively simple engine for the QSST, combining a core based on its Trent family of large commercial engines with a smaller fan. A successful QSST engine would also be a good match for the US Air Force's Long Range Strike (LRS) aircraft, planned to enter service in 2018, if the USAF elects for a supersonic vehicle.

SAI was founded in 2000 by Michael Paulson, the son of Gulfstream founder Allen Paulson, to fulfil his father's vision of a supersonic corporate jet. Other supersonic jet projects are being pursued by Russia's Sukhoi company which has long-standing links with Boeing in this area and by Aerion, another US start-up founded by Texas billionaire Robert Bass.

Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works has designed the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QSST) for Supersonic Aerospace International (artist's impression pictured here). The 12-seat, 1200 mph aircraft could fly from New York to London in around three hours.
(Credit: SAI)

2006 Jane's Information Group. All rights reserved.

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