Breakthrough in business jets developing in Reno
Northern Nevada Business Weekly
Richard Tracy figures he needs to wait only five years, maybe six, to go until he sees his dream of a supersonic business jet come to reality.
And in the business of developing a new type of aircraft, half a decade is barely more than the blink of an eye.
Tracy, chief technology officer of Aerion Corp. and a director of the Reno-based company, says the company expects production to begin on the Aerion Supersonic Business Jet by 2016.
And the company has enough believers that 50 buyers have placed orders – each including a $250,000 deposit – and Aerion’s backlog totals more than $4 billion.
Buyers include at least five Indian companies as well as a sheik in the United Arab Emirates who signed the first letter of intent to acquire one of the craft.
The draw: A business-sized aircraft that can fly from the East Coast of the United States to Asian destinations in a little over nine hours, an aircraft that could beat the morning sun across the Atlantic on flights from Paris to New York City.
“We are a disruptive technology,” says Tracy. “This will change aviation much as when we went from propellers to jets.”
But change, even disruptive change, comes slowly to the aircraft industry.
Aerion traces its roots to 1968 when Bill Lear, the creator of the first business jet, the Learjet, paid $1.3 million to buy the old Stead Air Force Base and set up shop to develop advanced business jets.
Among those fired up by Lear’s vision was Tracy, who worked as chief engineer of LearAvia. (The company’s design for a craft it called the LearStar 600 has been the basis of Bombardier’s family of Challenger aircraft since the late 1970s.)
“This has been a passion of mine for a long time,” Tracy says.
The key technology in Aerion’s Supersonic Business Jet is laminar flow, a design that dramatically reduces drag around an aircraft in flight and allows a supersonic craft to operate at competitive costs with traditional business jets.
While laminar flow design was well-known in applications such as re-entry vehicles for spacecraft, Tracy and the team at Aerion needed to conduct much of their research from scratch.
“There wasn’t any test data available for wings the size we were looking at for supersonic speeds,” he says.
Tests in European and American facilities have confirmed that the laminar flow design works. Aerion researchers now are conducting propulsion integration tests in which they make sure that the Pratt & Whitney engines planned for the aircraft will work with the rest of the design.
That research moved into high speed in 2005 when Texas billionaire Robert Bass led a group of venture capitalists who staked the company. Bass is now chairman of the board of privately held Aerion.
The group led by Bass sees a market for about 300 supersonic business jets during the 15 years after the craft are introduced. The price tag is expected to be about $80 million per plane in 2008 dollars.
That makes a total market of about $24 billion for the first generation of aircraft, although Tracy envisions a family of supersonic business jets. Development costs of the plane were estimated a couple of years ago at between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion.
While the plane is designed to cruise at more than 1,100 mph, Tracy says it would fly over land areas in much of the world at a hair below the speed of sound to prevent sonic booms.
While it conducts tests of the propulsion system, Aerion also is in talks with undisclosed aircraft companies that would build the craft. An established manufacturer, Tracy explains, has systems and equipment in place that would be prohibitively expensive for a company such as Aerion to duplicate.