How Boom plans to bring back supersonic air travel

More than 50 years after the ill-fated Concorde jet took to the skies and made supersonic air travel a reality, Denver-based startup Boom is trying to revive that dream of traveling through the air at the speed of sound.

The Concorde was a technical marvel, but it never overcame the economics which resulted in flights that were astronomically expensive. That inability to reach mainstream flyers ultimately led to its failure and official shut down in 2003.

Boom’s founders believe advances in materials and designs will allow them to build a 75-seat supersonic jet that will fly at 2 times the speed of sound. That would cut the time of a Transatlantic flight to around 3 hours and begin a revolution in business travel as well as tourism.

“Our vision is to make the world more accessible,” said Boom co-founder and CTO Joe Wildling. “We’re trying to do that by removing the barriers that people have to experiencing the planet.”

Wildling spoke to VentureBeat as part of a podcasting partnership with Samsung Next at the recent Slush technology conference in Helsinki, Finland. The full conversation can be heard here:

Boom emerged from Y Combinator in 2016 and has so far raised $151 million in venture capital to realize its ambition of designing a Mach 2.2 jet called “Overture.” Such a jet would fly about 2.5 times faster than the typical transcontinental jet of today and harken back to the famed Concorde. But that plane was only for the ultra-rich, with a London-New York ticket costing $7,995 in 1997, or more than 30 times the typical ticket

“Technologically, [the Concorde] was a great success,” Wildling said. “Economically, it was not and it really was ahead of its time from a efficiency standpoint. And so ticket prices were insanely high on Concord.”

In the 50 years since the first Concorde flew, advances in materials, engine design, and aerodynamics have changed the game, according to Wildling. That includes lighter composite materials used to build current airplanes like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350.

In the course of building these airplanes, these two companies, which essentially constitute a duopoly over commercial airplanes, have won certification of a wide range of lighter and stronger materials and new engine designs that are more aerodynamic.

Those regulatory approvals can take a decade or more. In building the Overture, Wildling said Boom would essentially be able to use existing technology rather than needing to make some radical design or engineering breakthrough on its own.

“That is a huge enabler for this technology to come back,” Wildling said. “So really those technologies converging in just decade have really gotten us to where we are right now.”

Above: Joe Wildling, CTO and co-founder of Boom, speaking at Slush. Photo by Sami Heiskanen.

In terms of the engine, the company will purchase one from an OEM. Boom is currently negotiating with three potential partners to develop the engine that will only require some modification to fit the Overture’s design.

To keep the project moving forward, Boom also made a departure from its original plan. While it’s still designing the Overture, the company is also creating a smaller version to demonstrate the technology called XB-1.

Above: Inside the hangar where Boom’s XB-1 jet is being built.

“We’re building a one-third scale technology demonstrator aircraft,” Wildling said. “We’re about halfway through the build process right now.”

The goal is to roll out the XB-1 plane in 2020 while having it in the air shortly after that. Like Overture, it will fly Mach 2.2 using the same aerodynamics and materials of the full-scale airplane. Overture is more likely to be ready in the middle of this decade, Wildling said.

Five years may feel like an eternity by internet or consumer electronics standards, but it’s pretty fast by aeronautics timelines. That means Boom is already thinking about how to break into that aforementioned duopoly. The airline industry is so massive, just winning a sliver of it could be lucrative.

In Boom’s case, the company will target overseas flights, which are projected to carry about 65 million business class passengers by 2025 over 500 routes. That could require between 1,000 to 2,000 aircraft and it’s this slice where Boom believes it can capture a majority of the market.

The pitch for airlines and business travelers goes like this: Imagine making a day trip from the East Coast in the U.S. to Europe. Get on the plane in New York and be in London for lunch. Hit some business meetings in the afternoon, then go have dinner and drinks with colleagues. Now fly back to New York where you would land about 2 hours before you took off from London and be in bed by 11 p.m.

“That is a possible trip,” Wildling said. “That is a pretty massive change compared to what you can do today.”

Above: Cabin interior concept for Boom’s Overture supersonic jet.

Down the road, as the technology advances and costs come down, the company hopes to be able to build jets for mainstream travelers and perhaps even long-range domestic flights.

“We believe there’s a follow-on project at some point that’s even larger and that has some mix of business and economy section that can still compete with airlines,” Wildling said.

Over time, Wildling sees Boom’s jet being part of the larger revolution in mobility that has the potentially to dramatically reduce travel times while introducing new modes that could change both passenger travel and shipping.

“There’s a lot of synergy here between what we’re doing and what some of these other startups are looking at,” Wildling said. “Hopefully, society can speed things up like security and baggage claim and really attack this whole travel thing from every angle.”

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