Boom welcomed a new Senior Vice President of Overture in March. Brian Durrence sat down with our team to discuss his background, interest in supersonic flight and plans for what he calls “my last aircraft program.”
Brian Durrence was appointed Gulfstream’s Vice President of Engineering in 2015 after spending the previous five years as the Chief Engineer for Gulfstream’s Large Cabin Aircraft.
As Vice President of Engineering, Durrence was responsible for establishing the strategic vision of the Engineering Organization, identifying and implementing best practices, and ensuring the correct engineering skills are in place for designing, integrating, testing, and certifying Gulfstream aircraft. A 30-year Gulfstream veteran, Durrence worked on numerous Gulfstream aircraft programs including the GIV-SP, GV, G450, G550, G650, G650ER, G500, and G600, where he held various leadership positions during the development of those aircraft including their fleet support following entry into service.
Durrence earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and his Master of Business Administration degree from Georgia Southern University.
Have you always been interested in aviation? Was that something that drew you to Gulfstream to begin with?
Absolutely. I grew up on a farm, and I distinctly remember working on the farm, looking up at the aircraft flying over and really thinking that that is probably an industry that I would like to explore as I got older. So that is the earliest time I can remember the initial interest, and then that just expanded from there. That was probably the childhood memory that I most clearly remember.
Working at an aviation company, I have always noticed as you are walking to your car after work, and if you have an aircraft fly over, I always like to see which people in the parking lot stop to look at the airplanes, and which ones don’t. For me, that’s always been an indicator of who the true aviation fanatics are.
What was your favorite project that you worked on at Gulfstream? Which ones really made your pulse race?
I would say that the G650 was probably my most fulfilling program. I had lots of satisfying programs, but that one was very special to me. The team was quite incredible and the aircraft is outstanding. It is a true reflection of the outstanding team that made it possible.
What prompted your interest in supersonic?
Gulfstream has nearly always had a supersonic project running in the background. And they’ve made some progress here and there. But it was going to be a while before they ventured to a supersonic aircraft. And at this point in my career, I thought I had one more aircraft program left in me, and I wanted to do something special with it. So that’s what brought me to Boom.
Did you ever fly Concorde?
I did not. That would have been great. I have flown supersonic, though. When you’re testing aircraft at very near the speed of sound, and you’re trying to hit an exact design point right before you cross the sound barrier, sometimes you can’t help but fly past it.
Can you just tell us about your role at Boom? Your title is SVP of Overture, is that correct?
My role will develop over time. Initially, it will focus on maturing the conceptual design of Overture: preparing for the launch of the program, setting up the framework and organizing the teams in order to basically execute the program. I will be responsible for the entire program all the way through entry into service of the aircraft.
What are the qualities that make for a great aerospace engineer?
It is a true love and desire to do what they do. It’s basically a labor of love more so than anything else. Plus, they need to really enjoy the technical challenge that’s there, which is an extreme challenge. And in the end, it all boils down to doing what’s best for the aircraft and taking care of the people that help make the aircraft what it is.
Can you talk a little bit about the technical challenge?
Well, aircraft are, in general, a give and take type system — like a balloon. Any time you push on the balloon, it’s going to expand someplace else. You want to make sure that you get the right shape because you’re not going to make the balloon any smaller. But you want to shape the balloon to basically provide the best solution for the mission that you’re looking for the aircraft to perform.
Is it true that having so many constraints gives you the space for creativity?
That’s right. Every time you do something that helps you here, it’s going to hurt you there. However, you have to make the decision: is that the better answer? Nothing’s free. There’s always a give and take, and you have to weigh everything and decide which one’s best for the airplane.
In terms of the Overture program, what do you think is either the most difficult or the most interesting engineering problem that’s facing the team?
I share Blake’s view that the world has been missing a supersonic commercial aircraft for quite some time. And it doesn’t come easy. The people that designed and certified Concorde did a great job. They conquered a good portion of the physics that were in play for an aircraft that size to do that type of work. However, we’re looking to take the next steps. Obviously, Concorde could not be certified under today’s regulations, so that’s a whole new challenge. And it is our challenge, also, to learn from the people that have gone before us, and to expand upon what they did and add value to the product by taking advantage of all of the technology that has come about since Concorde.
And specifically which aspects of today’s regulations would not be met by Concorde?
Everything from noise, both on approach and landing, to carbon levels and fan blade off considerations. There are material allowances that are much more stringent, particularly for the composites parts. So it’s basically just all over the aircraft. The physics of supersonic flight have been solved. Our challenge — and it’s a big one — is to pair the physics solutions pioneered by Concorde designers with the requirements of today’s certifications.
You talked about what you can learn from Concorde. You said, “Learn from the people before us and then expand upon it.” So what would be one of the key learnings that you would take from Concorde that you think we can continue to leverage?
There’s almost nothing we can’t learn from Concorde. As far as one of the key aspects, I believe their overall low speed performance and what’s needed to make the aircraft better. So a couple of the main things would be the climb and approach segments of the flight, both from an aircraft performance perspective and from a flyover noise type perspective.
You’ve had a lot of experience in building different engineering organizations. How do you put together a really successful and innovative engineering organization?
You need the right people at the right time, obviously. And you need different types of people. You do need those staunch scientist individuals to pull the heavy technical load from time to time and provide their experience to the other individuals. But you also need leaders of people who are knowledgeable in their particular disciplines, and the correct combination of those within each team really helps decide if they’re going to be successful or not, regardless of the challenge. The good teams are able to find their way through any obstacle.
Do you think that you are at a competitive advantage right now, in terms of finding and hiring great people, because supersonic is such an exciting opportunity? Or do you think that since an aerospace engineer works usually at a much larger company and is used to a certain pace and stability.
That’s a good point. And usually, the bigger companies have the same pace. The larger ones have their own pace. The size of a company like Gulfstream probably has a faster pace and you get broader views of certain things at a company that size. And then you come to startup companies like Boom and it’s even a different pace. It’s a startup pace. Sometimes you don’t have the complete infrastructure that you would normally expect. So sometimes you have to create the infrastructure as you’re creating the teams. That’s an additional challenge and opportunity that comes with working here at Boom.
What’s first on your to-do list?
Well, I would like to make sure that I reach out, and get to know the people that I’ll be working with over the next few years, understand where they’re coming from and what they see their mission as — from all parts of the company. I plan to hold back a little bit, initially. Learn and make sure that I have a clear view of the individuals and their surroundings. And then my next step after that would be to figure out the best ways that I can work with them and within their guidelines. And if there’s something that I can bring to the table that helps improve the environment that they may be in, I’d like to help with that. But in general, my focus is going to be heavily on the aircraft. My decision, my number one decision throughout my career has always been to do what’s best for the aircraft. And as long as you do that, the right people will always be in concert, because everybody’s focused on doing what’s best for the aircraft. And so that’s always been my chief decision making criteria.
So you’re talking about your to-do list. I imagine with your experience, you were evaluating a lot of options as to where to go next to do your final aircraft program, as you mentioned. What tipped the scales to Boom?
For one, the Boom team is full of great people with great capabilities, but I also liked the product that Boom was pursuing with Overture and I believe it to be, most likely, the next supersonic aircraft. The reason is because the approach that Boom is taking with a commercial supersonic aircraft does allow the aircraft to be designed under today’s current regulatory restrictions with overground noise restrictions for supersonic flight.
That’s one of the primary reasons I joined, certainly from a technical side, combined with my desire to do something special with my last aircraft. That was what drew me to Boom.
From my experience previously in supersonics, we’ve done other things to try to encourage the regulators to be forward thinking on the possibilities for overland supersonic flight. I could tell you that another design team built a “boom trailer,” which is an acoustical trailer. It’s full of La-Z-Boy chairs with very nice speakers, and the team basically pulled members of Congress in from DC and boomed them at different levels to show them the different levels of sound. They all don’t sound like the fighter jet that you think of that flies over and scares you. You can do certain boom suppression items that make them sound more like a strong thunder. But it’s certainly not as startling.
But my census said that no matter how logical of an argument that would be presented, they were always going to be resistant to lean forward on making a change to that rule or that law until they had additional experience somewhere. I think Boom is going to provide that capability. If we can do it right, we can also help clear the way for other OEMs, even other programs, to expand the future capability of supersonic flight over land.
So you’re going to let the marketplace talk to the regulators?
Correct. You need a demand pull, as well, not just a push.
How would you prioritize the staffing that you need to put into place for the program?
The initial staffing priorities would be in what I would call the design or conceptual design area. Those are broad. That’s basically all pieces of the aircraft. There aren’t very many people because you want to keep the team small.
You referenced Skunkworks previously. Usually, a small team can move faster over broad topics than a big team that you’re trying to drag along with you. So we would utilize that small team, fill in the missing pieces that we may have, and shore up other areas, to build a relatively small, agile organization to complete or mature the conceptual design. And then later on you would build up your larger team to do the detail design and engineering activities.
And given where we are right now, everybody locked inside their houses, can you proceed with the conceptual design?
Yes, we can. We’re adding team members even today. Internally and externally. It’s not as efficient, obviously, but we can make progress, and we will.
What is the design cycle for this aircraft? To mature the conceptual design, what’s that timeframe like?
It will likely take a little over a year.
So presumably we’ll be leaving the house by then.
How much progress can you make on the design before an engine manufacturer comes on board?
That’s a key part of the conceptual design activity. Fortunately, we are already collaborating with potential engine suppliers in these initial design stages. At some point in time, we will enter into some high level agreements with one of them. But it’s usually best to keep a couple of the horses in the race before you choose which one you’re going to jump on.
How do you think about the passenger experience when you’re focusing on what’s best for the aircraft? Or what role does the passenger play in the design?
Well, in general, I gave you the number one item, which is what’s best for the aircraft. The number two item is what’s best for the people. And it’s not necessarily a given. However, what’s best for the aircraft is always what’s best for the people. And the people can be divided up into different categories… They’re the passengers, they’re the customers, they’re our investors, they’re our employees. And all of those may have something individually that may not line up exactly with each other. However, what’s best for the aircraft is what’s best for the people as a whole.
Now, looking at the passengers in particular, you want to make their experience as enjoyable and as comfortable as possible. But the product we’re providing does something more. So we’re going to look to make them comfortable to give them a great aviation experience, and part of that aviation experience is also the time saving that the product will be providing. So not only are you improving their experience on the aircraft, which will be a focus of ours, we’re improving the experience of their day because they’re able to spend additional time with their families, with their business partners, etc. So our effect is twofold. One is making sure they have the best experience on the aircraft. And the second expands beyond that to giving them the best experience for their day.
How do you go about building a safety organization?
Safety is integral in everything we do. The one chief fundamental requirement is the safety of the product. That obviously outweighs anything else that you’re doing. Fortunately, the regulations in place help drive a lot of the safety requirements, but those provide the minimum requirements. I’m certain at Boom we will ensure through our design activities that we far exceed those expectations from a regulatory standpoint, and also provide additional safety features for the passengers and the crews that may not be available on other aircraft at that time.
What role do you think sustainability initiatives will play in the conceptual design of Overture?
From the beginning, the engines will be designed and certified for renewable fuels of various kinds. So it won’t be tied into any one specific product, but multiple products of renewable biofuels. That would be one of the chief efforts toward sustainability. But also the acoustics, the noise, and the CO2 type items, I’m sure we’ll set additional standards or we will make sure that we far exceed the standards that are in place at the time of certification for the aircraft.
Since joining Boom, Durrence has recruited a number of top flight aviation veterans, including one of the industry’s top acoustics engineers, a leading mass properties engineer and flight sciences engineer. With their addition, the Overture team has added decades of aviation experience to its ranks.