Meet the XB-1: A prototype for a modern supersonic passenger jet

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Boom Supersonic will roll its XB-1 demonstrator aircraft out of its facilities in Centennial, Colorado, on Wednesday and reveal the vehicle publicly for the first time.

The rollout marks the handoff from the design, development, and build phase to testing, said Blake Scholl, Boom founder and chief executive. After undergoing a series of ground tests, the 21-meter-long aircraft will begin a flight test campaign in the third quarter of 2021 at Mojave Air and Space Port, Scholl said. “We’ll be supersonic by the end of next year,” he added. This is about a year later than the company’s original plans.

Founded in 2014, Boom is planning to build a new generation of supersonic passenger jets and sell them to airlines. Scholl said the company has already pre-sold $6 billion worth of its full-size aircraft, called Overture. These airplanes are expected to seat 65 to 88 passengers and will travel at subsonic speeds over land and supersonic speeds over water—more than twice as fast as current commercial aircraft.

Boom hopes to begin flying Overture for the first time in 2026 and that it will be available for commercial flights before the end of the decade. To make that happen, the XB-1 demonstrator represents the first step, Scholl said, to test key technologies for Overture, including shape and materials.

“It’s like our Falcon 1 rocket,” Scholl said. “We are demonstrating not just the fundamental technology, we are able to pull it into a design that works.”

Scholl was referring to the first rocket built and flown by SpaceX about 15 years ago. That relatively small rocket had just a single engine, and the company failed three times before reaching orbit. Scholl said Boom intends to fly the XB-1 to learn the lessons of supersonic flight with a lower-cost vehicle, and incorporate these findings into Overture’s final design. There is only so much technology that can be tested on the ground, and in wind tunnels, so the company needs to fly now to mature its design.

Perhaps the biggest difference between XB-1 and the full-scale aircraft, besides the size, is that XB-1 will use a smaller, off-the-shelf J85-15 turbojet engine. The company announced a partnership with Rolls Royce earlier this year to work on development of the Overture aircraft engine and expects to select a final design by the end of this year.

The challenges in building this engine include designing the inlet to convert supersonic air flow to subsonic air flow, before entering the engine, and some of the internal components. However, Scholl said, “It’s not much of a technology leap at all.”

There are still some questions about the viability of supersonic air travel, which has a checkered record. The Soviet Tupolev supersonic aircraft flew just a few dozen commercial flights back in 1977, and the Concorde, flown by British Airways and Air France beginning in 1976, retired in 2003 after a fatal accident three years earlier that compounded economic problems.

However, the success of commercial space companies, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab, has convinced investors that companies like Boom, as well as other ventures such as Hermeus, may be able to develop cost-effective, efficient, and more quiet aircraft that drastically cut the time needed to traverse an increasingly connected world.

Scholl said his goal for Boom is not to reserve such rapid trips for the wealthiest customers. “We get up every day, and we want to make supersonic flight available to anyone who flies,” he said. The company hopes airlines will be able to sell supersonic ticket prices at about the same fare as a business-class ticket today.

Listing image by Boom Supersonic

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