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Boom does a virtual rollout for its supersonic plane

A year ago, you might have expected the rollout of Boom Supersonic’s XB-1 prototype jet to be a hands-on affair, attended by throngs of employees and enthusiasts.

Then COVID-19 hit.

As a result, today’s big reveal played out mostly as a hands-off affair, with the XB-1 rolling out under a sullen sky while the music swelled at the climax of a 45-minute video. It wasn’t computer-generated graphics, but the rollout had that feel to it.

Despite the social distancing, today’s event proved that Boom Supersonic’s vision is more than CGI — thanks to the efforts of nearly 150 employees at the company’s facilities in Centennial, Colo., and more than $140 million in funding from venture capital firms and high-profile investors such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

The coronavirus pandemic may have put a crimp in Boom’s development timeline, but the current plan calls for the single-seat XB-1 to start flight testing at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port next year, with veteran test pilots Bill “Doc” Shoemaker and Chris “Duff” Guarente taking turns at the controls.

If that plan holds, XB-1 will be the first commercial-purpose supersonic jet to take to the skies since the last Concorde flew in 2003.

The XB-1’s fuselage is longer than that of a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (71 vs. 60 feet) but its delta wings aren’t nearly as wide (21 vs. 44 feet). Carbon-composite construction and 3-D printing cut down on weight and complexity. Shoemaker said the plane has cameras mounted on its nose gear that’ll give pilots the visibility they need without having to employ a Concorde-style swiveling nose.

It’s powered by three tried-and-true GE J85-15 engines, but to cut down its carbon footprint, it’ll use fuel produced from captured CO2. “We’re going to get to zero from day one,” Boom CEO Blake Scholl promised during today’s festivities.

The XB-1 is a one-of-a-kind prototype, designed to fly at Mach 1.3 but not designed for commercial service. Instead, it’ll serve as a testbed for Boom’s bigger Overture airplane: Currently still on the drawing boards, the nearly 200-foot-long Overture is meant to fly 65 to 88 passengers at speeds of up to Mach 2.2.

Scholl said going supersonic would cut Seattle-to-Tokyo air travel time from 10 hours to four and a half hours. That’s why Japan Air Lines has already signed up to buy some of the Overture jets when they’re ready.

The current timetable calls for Boom to start building Overture in 2022, with rollout scheduled for 2025 and the start of service set for 2027. Boom’s past development schedules have slipped, however, and Overture’s timeline is likely to face delays as well.

Boom is one of several companies receiving funding from the U.S. Air Force to study options for the development of a supersonic Air Force One for presidential and VIP use. Georgia-based Hermeus has received $1.5 million for supersonic studies, and California-based Exosonic has a $1 million contract. Boom’s contract seems likely to be in the same ballpark.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has a $247.5 million contract from NASA to build a supersonic aircraft that would demonstrate low-boom technologies. Test flights could begin as early as next year.

Boeing has its own vision for commercial supersonic flight, and has invested in Aerion Supersonic to make it so. Spike Aerospace and Virgin Galactic also plan to field supersonic planes.

Will Boom be the first to make a splash in the supersonic market? Scholl certainly has big ambitions. “We’re sizing the initial factory to do between five and 10 aircraft a month, and I think it’s very likely that we’ll need to build a second factory and double that up,” he said.

Just this week, Boeing said the prospects for commercial airplane sales look dimmer than they did a year ago, largely due to the pandemic. But Scholl sounds much more bullish — or should we say, boomish.

“When you look at how many people are flying on routes that we can fly with today’s regulations, with a big speedup, we need to build a lot of Overtures,” he said. “In fact, we think we’re going to make more Overtures than Boeing has made 787s.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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