Boom talks supersonic inevitability on the Slush Quantum Stage

For those who attended the world’s leading startup event last week, one thing is certain — supersonic is here.

More than 25,000 entrepreneurs, investors, and forward-thinkers descended on Helsinki, Finland last week for the 2019 startup-conference Slush.

Considered the world’s leading startup event, Slush is known for attracting some of the most impressive up-and-coming companies to share their stories and vision.

Boom co-founder and CTO Joe Wilding sat down with Bloomberg technology reporter Natalia Drozdiak on the Quantum Stage to share how a simple idea became a supersonic inevitability.

Photo courtesy of Jussi Hellsten

An excerpt of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is shared below:

Natalia Drozdiak: Joe, before we begin, I bet there are a lot of people in this crowd who are completely jet-lagged. You’re in aviation, so what is the ‘go-to hack’ for curing jet lag?

Joe Wilding: I’m an aviation guy, but I’m also a startup guy. That means a lot of late hours. My jet lag hack is to work all night and sleep on the flight.

But if you want an even better answer, make airplanes faster.

ND: That’s a great answer. Tell me more about Boom. This is bringing back memories of Concorde. How is Boom different and what is your plan?

JW: The vision of our company is to make the planet more accessible and we’re doing that by removing the barriers to experiencing the planet. Those barriers are time, money, and hassle.

We’re focusing on the ‘time’ aspect of that, bringing supersonic air travel back in a way that is socially and environmentally sustainable for generations to come. Think Concorde in a way that is much more efficient and mainstream.

ND: I think the question that everyone wants answered is, when can we book these flights and how much will they cost?

JW: We’ve been working on this for several years and have several years to go still. Likely, we will be in the flight test and certification process in the mid-2020’s.

In regards to cost, many technological advancements have been made since Concorde in engines, materials, and even aerodynamic shape. We believe that those combined technologies will allow us to achieve economics that are competitive with business-class travel today. If you can afford a business class ticket on a subsonic airliner today, the ticket price aboard supersonic will be comparable.

ND: Business-class still isn’t affordable for everyone. How can you compete against low-cost flights?

JW: We consider a much longer view of this market. What we’re designing right now is a business-class airliner. As a follow-on to this, when supersonic becomes more mainstream, the next stage is to develop an aircraft with both economy and business-class seating. As technology advances and ideally, even more efficient engines, materials, and such arise, we believe supersonic could replace all international air travel.

ND: Boom is really disrupting the aviation industry. How does the company approach safety?

JW: Safety is job number one for us. We’re in the middle of a build of a supersonic demonstrator aircraft today, which we will use to test the efficiency and our design principles before building the full-scale aircraft.

A major part of that is building a safety culture. Our demonstrator is a human-piloted aircraft and the safety standards we implement for that, we’re taking extremely seriously.

For our airliner, we’ll be going through the same certification process of every commercial airplane in service today. It’s an extremely rigorous process to prove that the airplane is safe for passenger travel.

ND: Tell us about the operations side. It’s great if you can cut flight time in half, but not if you’re stuck at the airport because of delays.

JW: That has been a big part of our focus from day one — delivering an aircraft that delivers not only safety, but also reliability and dispatchability.

We have a partnership with Japan Airlines. Japan Airlines is one of our first customers and they have also invested in our company. We spend a lot of time with them developing details on the airplane. Our team spends time at their facility in Tokyo observing airline operations both on the tarmac and in the maintenance facilities to really understand how to best design a product that fits their needs.

Boom’s supersonic airliner, Overture,

ND: One thing I’d love to get your thoughts on — what is it like to fly supersonically? Is it different from another airline?

JW: In general, the answer is no. As a passenger when you break through the sound barrier, you don’t really know that you did that. There is no sound and no experience that tells you that you’re flying that fast.

The one thing that is unique that all passengers will notice is our cruising altitude of 60,000 feet. Most airliners top out around 40,000 feet. At that altitude, you can start to see the curvature of the earth, the sky will be darker, and you’ll be above really any weather system, so the ride can be smoother.

ND: Part of your process is about building this demonstrator plane first, a smaller model, before moving on to the full-scale commercial airplane. Can you tell us about that and why you’ve chosen to do that?

JW: XB-1, is our smaller scale supersonic aircraft. As a company, we embraced the idea of a minimum viable product, which is common in the software industry. “Ship something simple, get it in front of your customers, and upgrade it over time.” But that idea doesn’t work perfectly here. You can’t just ship an airliner a wing, receive feedback, and then ship a fuselage.

Building a demonstrator before the full-scale airplane allows us to build a team and test design philosophies in a setting where we can react to changes quickly and cost-effectively.

ND: Are the problems that you need to solve the same between the demonstrator and the full-size airplane?

JW: There are a lot of similarities and that’s why we chose to do it. Things like the aerodynamics, systems, material, inlets are very similar and scaling from one size to the next is a very simple task. Today, we’re proving that this is achievable at the efficiency levels we believe are possible.

ND: I have one last question. Part of the experience of flying is about enjoying horrible plane food. What is served on a supersonic flight?

JW: If you’re flying a supersonic airplane, of course you need to serve fast food.

To enjoy the full Slush conversation, check below:

 

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