Aviation History: Boom Supersonic Unveils XB-1

By Emma Rasmussen, Correspondent 

Image Sources: Boom Supersonic & Emma Rasmussen

XB-1 on the runway.

In October of 2003, the world bid farewell to British Airways’ iconic Concorde after twenty-seven years of commercial airline service. A few short months earlier, Air France said goodbye to its own Concorde fleet. Concorde, the world’s only successful supersonic airliner, ferried celebrities, businessmen, dignitaries, and even Queen Elizabeth across the Atlantic. Since Concorde’s retirement, one may find that the world is a bit bigger than it once was. Commercial airliners travel at a comparative crawl, and lack the same magic of a supersonic airliner.  

Today, no similar aircraft offers the same level of speed and luxury. While Concorde was an engineering marvel and disrupter in its own right, she failed to make supersonic passenger travel a mainstream commodity. With airfares reaching $10,000 USD one-way, a flight on such an aircraft was nearly unattainable to the average person. After the American aviation industry failed to produce a viable competitor in the 1970s, mainstream efforts to develop a supersonic airliner fell off the radar. 

In the near-two decades since Concorde’s retirement, aerospace startups all over the world have come forward with various designs for a probable successor. Most of these companies have come and gone, often failing to put forward an aircraft or feasible design concept of any kind. Concorde came very close to never seeing the light of day after the program met several technological limitations and design obstacles. The task of bringing speed back to the skies for public consumption is an arduous one, and requires a manufacturer with the talent and foresight. 

As luck would have it, such a company exists in Colorado’s “Aerospace Alley.” Entrepreneur, Carnegie Mellon alum, and former Amazon software engineer Blake Scholl is tired of a world that moves too slow— so he founded Boom Supersonic. In his eyes, a successor is long overdue. Beginning in 2014, he conducted aerospace research and recruitment out of his own home, marking the genesis of Boom Supersonic. 

Former Concorde pilots, CEO Blake Scholl, and correspondent Emma Rasmussen (former intern) at the November 2016 unveiling event. 

In November 2016, two years after its founding, Boom Supersonic unveiled a foam mockup of its XB-1 demonstrator aircraft to airline executives and investors. Wind tunnel testing, materials testing, and extensive design review commenced shortly after the event. The one-third scale aircraft is intended to validate the aerodynamic design principles of a larger airliner, named Overture. Like the Anglo-French aircraft designers before them, Boom Supersonic wants to take it one step at a time.

On Oct. 7, 2020, the culmination of hard work across six years arrived. “We’re on the cusp of making supersonic flight mainstream, even more so than Concorde did,” said CEO Blake Scholl during his virtual rollout event. “Everything we’ve learned from XB-1 has directly informed the design and development of our Overture passenger airliner,” he added. XB-1 is the critical stepping stone towards Overture, which will carry between 65 and 85 passengers at 

Breakthroughs in technology since Concorde’s introduction have allowed existing innovations to evolve for a greener and more efficient future in aerospace. For example, Concorde’s cruise speed was limited to Mach 2, as aircraft aluminum cannot withstand temperatures at speeds exceeding this. Faster speeds would necessitate heavier and more expensive materials, further harming fuel efficiency and developmental costs. By utilizing With carbon composites, now widely used on current Boeing and Airbus aircraft, Overture will be able to can fly at Mach 2.5 without sacrificing efficiency. The aircraft will also be more recyclable at the end of its service life than comparable aluminum designs. 

Additional technological improvements include better power-plant design and on-board cameras. Concorde utilized a “droop-snoot” mechanism, which lowered the aircraft’s nose on takeoff and landing to improve visibility. The size of the aircraft’s nose and angle of attack at non-cruise stages of movement required this innovation. While unique and often marveled at by observers, this mechanism added additional weight to an already very fuel-inefficient aircraft.

 Overture will instead utilize advanced external cameras and augmented reality that allow crew members to achieve the desired visibility without additional weight. Moreover, Overture will use non-afterburning . Rolls Royce, which holds the rights to Concorde’s afterburning Olympus 593 turbojet engine, is utilizing its heritage and expertise to design a new power-plant for Overture. Afterburners contribute to excessive fuel-burn and kill efficiency. 

The sleek XB-1 on display for the 2020 virtual rollout event.

During the virtual rollout event showcasing XB-1 and the aforementioned leaps in aerospace technology, Blake Scholl announced that the aircraft would begin test flights next year over the Mojave Desert. Scholl also further elaborated on his partnership with Japan Airlines, revealed Rolls Royce’s involvement, and featured former British Airways Concorde pilot Mike Bannister as a nod to the plane that started it all.

However, the company did not proceed with its presentation without emphasizing its priorities in safety and sustainability. “From day one, we will have a net-zero carbon flight test program,” said Julie Valk, Boom Supersonic’ Vice President of Programs and Operations. The company revealed its intentions to research and invest in clean, zero-emission fuels. “Speed is what motivates us, but safety is always at the forefront of our minds,” added Brian Durrence, Senior Vice President of Boom Supersonic. 

For many, Concorde remains an inspiration and aviation icon. As XB-1 and Overture breathe new life into the pursuit of continuing a supersonic legacy, Concorde serves as a reminder of what the human race has done, can do, and will do. For now, it’ll take you about seven hours to fly from New York to London or Paris.