Author: Ashlee Vance
Blake Scholl just kept turning up. For months he would rent a plane in Silicon Valley, fly himself to California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, and get a table at the Voyager restaurant, a well-known hangout for modern-day aviation mavens.
Scholl would sit for hours, listening to conversations and introducing himself to pilots and engineers from aeronautics pioneers such as Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Scaled Composites LLC. Visit by visit, Scholl, an aerospace outsider, began to figure out the kinds of people and skills needed to bring a revolutionary new aircraft to life. “I’ve not seen such a practical approach before or since,” says Elliot Seguin, a test pilot who knows Scholl.
On Oct. 7 the results of Scholl’s scouting missions and subsequent years of hard work will be revealed to the public. His startup, Boom Technology Inc., founded in 2014, will unveil the completed version of its XB-1 supersonic jet. While only a demonstrator prototype designed for a single rider—the test pilot—the plane represents a milestone in the pursuit of superfast air travel.
For the first time, an independent company has built a supersonic jet and plotted a reasonable path toward a not-so-distant future full of overseas routes to many of the world’s major cities. Even still, it will take at least until the end of this decade to move plans from the drawing board to the commercial production line—and that’s without any major mishaps. The hope is that, by then, demand for air travel will have long rebounded after this year’s steep declines because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Six years ago, I didn’t think we had great odds of ever getting here,” says Scholl, 39. “It took longer than I thought it would, but it actually happened.”
Built out of carbon fiber, the sleek white and black craft resembles a fighter jet more than a passenger transport. The 71-foot XB-1 will start making its first flights early next year, reaching a speed of Mach 1.3 before going even faster as testing progresses. If all goes well, Boom will turn its focus in late 2021 to completing the design of its first commercial plane, dubbed Overture.
The 199-foot Overture will get the blood of businesspeople and travel enthusiasts pumping as they picture a thrombosis-free future. The jet will carry 65 to 88 passengers, with roomy seats on either side of the plane separated by a walkway, meaning everyone gets a window and an aisle seat, ideally at business-class prices.
But the jet’s best feature is speed: It will fly twice as fast as today’s typical commercial planes. The time to go from New York to London will fall from 6 ½ hours to 3 ½ hours. San Francisco to Tokyo will drop from 10 hours and 15 minutes to 6 hours. Where the Concorde had only a few routes, Overture should be able to fly to and from most major cities, with an early focus on coastal hubs. (U.S. regulations prevent Boom from flying at supersonic speed over land largely because of the sonic boom created by the craft, though lawmakers and regulators in the past couple of years have been considering loosening the rules.)
The biggest downside to Overture is that it won’t begin carrying paying customers until at least 2029, as Boom faces years more of engineering, testing, and regulatory hurdles. That said, the company has already made it further than most people expected, outpacing such competitors as Aerion Supersonic, Spike Aerospace, and Virgin Galactic on a number of fronts. Boom appears poised to inject new life into an industry that consumers have grown to despise. And, while it’s tough to pitch a new plane during a pandemic that’s grounded so many, the idea of spending less time on a more comfortable aircraft has as much appeal now as ever.
Based just outside Denver, Boom, which has raised $160 million, has made a flurry of announcements before the XB-1 unveiling. In July it said it will work with Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc on the engines for Overture. And in September, Boom said a contract with the U.S. Air Force will go toward creating a custom version of Overture for “Air Force executive transport.” In other words, the U.S. president may one day be blasting around the country and world in a Boom-built Air Force One. And Japan Airlines Co. and Virgin Group have placed preorders for dozens of Overtures.
The only thing holding Boom back at this point is, well, reality. The Concorde, which stopped flying in 2003, suffered from numerous issues, including a crash and dwindling passenger numbers, which made it too expensive to operate. The failure of the Concorde left so much emotional scarring on the aerospace industry that insiders shied away from even contemplating a new commercial supersonic plane. Bringing such a craft to market would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. And who would take such a risk, given that a previous experiment went wrong?
The answer has ended up being Scholl and his backers, who include John Collison, co-founder of financial technology startup Stripe Inc.; philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective; and Y Combinator Continuity. Their shared bet is that software, materials, and engines have advanced enough over the past 20 years to cancel out most of the Concorde’s shortcomings. “When you put a bunch of these improvements together, you get on the happy side of a tipping point,” Scholl says. “Supersonic no longer has to be only available to a tiny number of people on a small number of routes.”
Scholl, who’s from Cincinnati, is a computer science graduate, amateur pilot, and longtime aviation buff, but the early parts of his career don’t arc toward aerospace. He previously worked on advertising and social networking technology at Amazon .com Inc. and founded a mobile tech startup called Kima Labs, which was acquired by Groupon Inc. Most people don’t think of going from the business of online coupons to bending metal, but Scholl followed his curiosity after leaving Groupon in 2014.
Then in his mid-30s, he wondered why no one had tried to build a commercial supersonic aircraft in decades. He spent weeks researching the field, thinking he would stumble upon obvious answers that would talk him out of starting something like Boom. He took an airplane design class. He studied physics via Khan Academy. He cold-called people in the industry. As time went on, Scholl found himself only more encouraged, and he began compiling a spreadsheet model of the specs he wanted for a plane. He showed it to a Stanford professor, who, instead of laughing him out of the room, told Scholl many of the technical assumptions were too conservative. He was encouraged to keep going.
Over the next year, Scholl made his trips to Mojave and marched through his LinkedIn contacts looking for anyone who knew someone at a place like SpaceX or NASA or Lockheed Martin. Slowly, he began assembling a list of smart people to talk to and good people to hire. “When I told people I was building a supersonic jet, their first question was ‘Are you crazy?’ But their second question was ‘How can I help?’ ” Scholl says.
By 2015 he’d hired about a dozen people and set them up in singer John Denver’s old hangar at the Centennial Airport in Colorado, which caters to private planes. Scholl had tapped deep into his voluminous stores of enthusiasm to talk a small team of people into believing they could build a supersonic plane from these humble digs. Brimming with optimism, he expected Boom to build and fly its first jet by late 2017. Aren’t dreams wonderful things?
Their original plan for the plane has held true today. It would be built out of carbon fiber instead of aluminum, making it lighter and faster than an aircraft like the Concorde. It would run on readily available engines, which are now much more fuel efficient than what the Concorde’s designers could access. And Boom would use modern software to perform millions of simulations on its designs instead of trying out new approaches bit by bit in wind tunnels. “The Concorde did a dozen wind tunnel tests,” Scholl says. “It would take six months and millions of dollars for each test. Today we test designs in simulations that take minutes to hours.”
Each engineering choice came with knock-on benefits. Designers of the planes, for example, don’t like straight lines. They want to taper them into perfectly aerodynamic works of art. It’s much easier to achieve these sultry shapes with carbon fiber that can be molded, and then hardened in an oven, than it is with aluminum, which prefers to remain in a linear form. The more efficient engines will save on fuel costs and allow Boom to fly much longer routes than the Concorde. Modern software and electronics help, too. A supersonic plane needs to be two airplanes at once: one that’s maneuverable at low speeds for takeoffs and landings, and another that’s an unleashed beast, traveling as fast as it can in a straight line while using the least amount of fuel possible.
To deal with this split personality, the Concorde had a heavy, complicated movable nose cone that would tilt down so pilots could see the runway, and then raise up in the air for speed. Boom’s planes have the same angled, pointy nose, which shapes the air into a low-pressure vortex ideal for the wings, but the nose stays in place. Pilots use cameras affixed to the bottom of the plane to see the runway, and software to guide them.
While this all sounds highly sophisticated, the truth is that building a private supersonic plane comes with its share of mundane challenges. With the XB-1, Boom wanted to acquire three J85-15 engines, which were older machines used on military planes and would give the plane enough muscle to go supersonic without costing a fortune. The engines had been widely used on the F-5A fighter jet that the U.S. military sold to other countries. Used versions turned up in places like Brazil and Taiwan. Boom, however, struggled to get clearance to import the engines. Scholl’s team thought it was going to have to give up and possibly redesign the plane. Thankfully, however, a guy knew a guy who knew a guy who had four J85-15s sitting in a warehouse in Florida. Boom sent a couple of people to the collector, who had never-used engines that had been stored dutifully for 30 years with nitrogen inside to prevent decay. “I think we got the set of four for about $1 million,” Scholl says. “It felt way too much like trying to conduct a drug deal.”
After the unveiling this week, the XB-1 will be put through a series of ground tests. The plane will gradually be pushed harder and faster, and data will be gathered and analyzed. Eventually, the moment of truth will arrive, and someone will have to put it in the air. In this case, that someone is Boom’s chief test pilot, Bill “Doc” Shoemaker, who has a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford and years of flying fighter jets for the U.S. Navy behind him. “You reach a point of belief,” he says. “You fundamentally believe you know what the outcome will be. Ultimately, the airplane just wants to fly.”
Like many a test pilot, Shoemaker was casual when describing the risk involved and the process of flying the plane. During a visit in January to Boom’s new and expanded factory, still right at Centennial Airport, Shoemaker hopped into a flight simulator to show me how the camera system will be used to see the runway. He took off, flew for a bit, and then came in for a landing, lining up a cross and other objects on the screen with targets superimposed on the runway. “You put the thing on the thing,” he explained.
Some of Boom’s earliest hires have left the company and been replaced by veterans of heavy industry. Julie Valk, vice president for programs and operations, spent a decade at General Electric Co. Part of her job has been to make sure Boom gets better at sticking to schedules, which has meant creating a software model that tracks 30,000 line items. Boom also hired Brian Durrence, who spent the previous 30 years at Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., as its senior vice president in charge of Overture’s development. “I felt like I had one more big program left in me and wanted to do something special with it,” he says. “I do believe Overture is the next supersonic aircraft.”
Overture isn’t expected to be ready for test flights until 2026 at the earliest. It will then take about four years to make tweaks to the aircraft and prove it’s safe enough to carry people, according to the company’s work plan. “At Stripe we had our first customers within three months of writing code, and you get that quick validation that things are making progress,” says investor Collison, president of Stripe. “Here, Boom is already five years in. I don’t know if I could do it.” Scholl is aware that perceptions of air travel seem to be changing because of Covid in the short term and climate change in the longer term. To the latter point, he’s pledged to make Boom’s flights carbon neutral. Mostly, though, he thinks people will always want to fly—the faster, the better—and we all benefit from the experience of making the world a smaller place. “We have not had a world war since the jet age,” he says. “When you meet people face to face, their humanity comes through.”