An ambitious vision for a new and affordable age of supersonic flight is taking off.
As inveterate travellers, Australians are easily seduced by the prospect of supersonic travel. Now entrepreneurs spruiking a son of Concorde are reviving the dream of transglobal flight with travel times halved.
There has been a flurry of high-flying talk recently. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus embarked on a "conceptual" study of sub-orbital "hypersonic" aircraft designs last year and another three consortia (not counting Club Concorde, a group aiming to revive the airline) are working on next-generation supersonic transport, tackling what is seen as the last major hurdle for conventional flight: a design that eliminates the sonic boom, a shock wave so destructive that flights faster than sound are currently banned over land.
But technological limits aside, Concorde was grounded primarily by its exorbitant fares.
Enter 35-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur Blake Scholl with a radically simple idea for supersonic flight made possible by technological advances achieved in the past 20 years. He has assembled a team of aerospace engineers and designers to create a smaller, lighter, faster and more fuel-efficient carbon-fibre version of the Concorde that he says will be profitable based on the equivalent of standard business-class fares. For instance, he envisages return fares between London and New York of $6,500, a quarter of Concorde's equivalent fare.
"The world is hungry for innovation in travel," says Scholl, a pilot and former Amazon web developer who founded Boom Technology in 2014 in Denver, Colorado. "We haven't gone faster for 50 years - not in a way that a lot of people can afford."
Boom aims to launch commercial flights on a 40-seat supersonic plane by the early 2020s. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic announced in March it had taken options on 10 aircraft, while another European carrier wants to buy 15. One of Branson's subsidiaries, The Spaceship Company, will be involved in Boom Technology's certification program.
Scholl was barely an adult when Concorde was grounded in 2003, three years after it crashed in Paris, killing all 109 passengers and crew and four people on the ground. The end of Concorde coincided with an industry slump triggered by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001.
"I started this company because I never got to fly on Concorde," Scholl says. "Even if I could have flown, I couldn't have flown routinely [because of the price]. And that's what I want to bring to the world."
Developed from a one-third scale model Boom aims to have flying next year, the company's supersonic jet will be aimed at the trans-Atlantic market operated by Concorde, but also trans-Pacific markets.
The company says all its trans-Pacific flights will involve one fuel stop. The plane's relatively small size means it won't fly non-stop from, say, San Francisco to Tokyo or LA to Sydney, but Scholl says it will be a Formula One-style pit-stop. "You land, you do a high-pressure refuel, you take off and everyone stays in their seats," Scholl says.
Even with the refuelling stop, Boom is pitching a flight from Sydney to LA of just six hours at Mach 2.2, or 2,335 kilometres an hour, more than halving the current flight times:13.5 hours to LA and up to 15 hours to Sydney - and for about $9,000 round trip.
In the much larger markets between the US west coast and Asia, flight times are even more appealing: San Francisco to Tokyo in as little as 4.7 hours, with a fuel stop, compared with about 11 hours now.
"If you look at long-haul business class, there are 20 million passengers who fly on routes that are mostly over water - trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic. Plus Hong Kong to Sydney is a viable route," Scholl says. "It's a huge market - big enough to justify this airplane."
Scholl approaches supersonic flight as an accountant rather than as an enthusiast. "Our philosophy is to be very conservative in technology and markets," he says. "We're not assuming any market growth. We're no assuming any price premium on supersonic or any regulatory change. The more conservative we are, the faster we can get this thing to market."
Scholl wants to change the world. "Most people alive today didn't live through the last speed-up," he says. "They forget what happens when you make the world smaller and how it changes business or personal relationships... It's hard to predict ahead of time how that would change the world, but we know for sure that it will."