Boston company believes key to supersonic travel is thinking small

Spike Aerospace’s planned S-521 jet.
Spike Aerospace’s planned S-521 jet.

Vik Kachoria wants to do what the world’s biggest aerospace companies have so far failed to achieve: making supersonic air travel a commercial success.

Kachoria, chief executive of Boston-based Spike Aerospace Inc., plans to have an $80 million corporate jet that can cruise at 1.6 times the speed of sound in the sky by 2021. The 18-passenger jet is designed to avoid the problems that doomed the last supersonic commercial airline, the Concorde, namely excessive fuel consumption and damaging sonic booms.

If Spike can pull it off, the startup could leapfrog corporate jet makers like Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and Canada’s Bombardier Inc. And Spike’s innovations could show the way to cost-efficient supersonic airliners for the masses.

“There’s an opportunity to advance aviation tremendously, and do something that’s daring and risk-taking, but still safe and viable and in demand,” said Kachoria, a physics graduate of Boston University who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration early in his career. Since then, he has worked as a business development consultant and founded an adventure travel website, RealAdventures.

Kachoria believes there’s a pent-up demand for faster travel and people are willing to pay for it. His proposed jet would travel from New York to London in three hours, about half the time of a subsonic jet flight.

Today’s commercial airliners and private jets cruise at about 600 miles per hour, the same speed achieved by a Boeing 707 back in 1958. The only commercial plane to cruise at supersonic speeds, the Concorde, was a money loser that left service over a decade ago.

Moving a big plane at supersonic speed requires a large amount of fuel, making it very difficult to operate at a profit, said John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics at MIT.

In addition, the Concorde could only fly at top speed over oceans. Once they break the sound barrier, jets generate an intense burst of noise and most nations forbid supersonic flights over their territories. As a result, potentially profitable routes like London to Beijing were off limits.

A smaller, lighter supersonic business jet could be more practical, lowering fuel consumption while reducing the intensity of sonic booms, Hansman said.

Anutosh Moitra, a former Boeing engineer who serves as Spike’s chief designer, said the S-521 will be 120 feet long, about the length of a Boeing 737 airliner, and weigh about 115,000 pounds, compared to about 175,000 pounds for the 737.

The S-512 would feature a specially shaped fuselage to act like a noise-canceling headphone, resulting in a much gentler sonic boom; at ground level, it should be about as loud as a normal conversation, said Moitra: “If I sat in the room and said, ‘Boom,’ it would be like that.”

Moitra said Spike recently filed two patents on its design. Kachoria refused to reveal his company’s funding sources, but said Spike is negotiating partnerships with major aircraft companies, which he declined to name.

Spike faces established rivals. Gulfstream has worked on supersonic jet designs for many years, and patented a number of innovations. Aerion Corp. of Reno, is taking orders for a 12-passenger business jet designed to fly just below the speed of sound above land, then go supersonic over water. Aerion hopes to bring the jet to market by 2021, at a price of $120 million.

“It’s very risky, very expensive, very challenging,” Kachoria said. But, he added, there’s a huge potential payday.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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