The Supersonic Age
An Interview with Blake Scholl of Boom Technology
Supersonic flight is both a technology of the future and a technology of the past. The sound barrier was first broken in 1947, and the Concorde started offering supersonic passenger flights in 1976. But the Concorde was mothballed in 2003, ending the era of commercial supersonic flight—for now.
Boom Technology is one of a handful of startups trying to change that. I recently talked with Boom founder and CEO Blake Scholl, an engineer who started out at Amazon and worked on several Silicon Valley startups before taking on the problem of supersonic flight.
Rob Tracinski: What is Boom Technology trying to accomplish?
Blake Scholl: You know, the funny thing is humans have walked on the planet for 200,000 years, and for most of that time we've only walked. In the last sliver of human history, the last couple centuries, we've had incredible progress in our ability to access the planet with steamboats, railroads, prop planes, jet planes, but the weird thing is 60 years after the dawn of the Jet Age, we're still living in the Jet Age. We had a supersonic airplane that was twice as fast, but we never took it mainstream. We believe at Boom very strongly that faster travel matters—the ability to do more things in a day, go more places in a day, and yet be home with loved ones—and so we're working on the first supersonic aircraft that a lot of people are going to be able to afford to fly.
Tracinski: What exactly are the capabilities that you're looking to create in the aircraft?
Scholl: Ultimately, we would like the ability to go anywhere in the world in five hours for a hundred bucks.
Tracinski: One hundred dollars?
Scholl: Yes. That's the long-term mission. That's our equivalent of going to Mars.
Where we're starting today is with travel that's two and a half times faster, for the same price as business class. That's what we have the technology for right now. So, say, New York to London, instead of seven hours it'd be three hours and fifteen minutes. That's fast enough that the first flight of the day gets you into London in time to make afternoon meetings, and you can be home in time to tuck kids into bed. And that would cost you the same you'd pay for a ticket in business class today. So about $5,000 round trip.
Tracinski: So it's a little over Mach 2, similar to the speed of the Concorde?
Scholl: Yes, it's about 10% faster.
Tracinski: You have a partnership or connection with Virgin Airlines.
Scholl: Virgin is the launch customer for the airplane. So they've got options on the first 10 aircraft, and they'll be the first 21st-century supersonic airline. It's hard to imagine a better launch partner for supersonic then Virgin. You know Richard Branson tried to buy Concordes several times and couldn't get them. And so he can't wait to have these Boom airplanes.
Virgin Galactic, which is their space unit, is helping us with manufacturing and flight testing. So we'll do the subsonic flight testing ourselves. Virgin Galactic has a test facility located near a supersonic test corridor, so when we're ready for that, we'll go down there, and they're going to assist us with the flight testing and also some pieces of manufacturing.
Tracinski: Why didn't the Concorde last? Why didn't this become mainstream?
Scholl: The technology works. The technology for safe supersonic flight has existed for over half a century. The problem was it was too inefficient and therefore unaffordable. So a ticket, round trip New York to London on Concorde, would set you back $20,000. For most people, that's not transportation, that's more like a bucket list thing.
Tracinski: What is the new technology that's going to make it work better, more economically this time?
Scholl: We're taking advantage of 50 years of fundamental progress in aerospace technologies. So we haven't had speedups, but we've had new materials, better aerodynamics, improved engines. And we're taking those technologies like carbon-fiber composites and turbofan engines to build a new generation supersonic airplane that is 30% more fuel efficient than Concorde. That lets you hit a much more mainstream price point for the ticket.
Tracinski: Some people are working on "quiet boom" technology, but you're not doing that?
Scholl: Our aircraft are significantly quieter than Concorde, but above all, we're focused on affordability of tickets. In the US we have an actual ban on supersonic travel over land. Literally, it's a speed limit. Supposedly that's about noise. I think it had to do with protecting Boeing from Concorde. So today, you can make an ultraquiet supersonic airplane, and you still wouldn't be allowed to fly it over land. We're focused on making the aircraft as efficient, as affordable as possible. And we're starting off focused on routes that are mostly over water—New York to London, San Francisco to Tokyo, LA to Sydney—where you can give people a big speedup without making a change in the regulation.
Tracinski: What's the long-term strategy for dealing with the regulations?
Scholl: My view is that when you can get from San Francisco to Tokyo faster than San Francisco to DC, there are going to be a whole lot of influential people who are motivated to get those rules fixed. I think we'll see that coming. That said, apparently fixing this is on Trump's first 100 days agenda, so we'll see whether that comes to fruition.
Tracinski: How do you get down to a mass-market price level? Five thousand dollars is competitive with business class, but it's still not a family vacation price.
Scholl: First off, the scale even at business class prices is completely different from Concorde. Concorde was profitable basically on one route, but there are over 500 routes on the planet that have enough traffic today to support at least one daily service.
Now here's the interesting thing about how you get to making this possible for everybody. History shows that when you have a big speedup in transportation at an existing market price point, people travel more often. When jets were introduced on routes, typically travel went up by a factor of six in the first ten years. We expect something similar to happen with supersonic. When people travel more often, it means you need bigger airplanes to take all the people. Especially for a supersonic airplane, when you make them bigger, it's easier to make them more fuel efficient. So our first aircraft is 45 seats, but we expect follow-ons that are 60, 80, 100—eventually I think up to 200 is going to make sense. When you have the market developed to the point of having a 200-seat supersonic airplane, you could actually do it for fares that are less than subsonic economy.
Tracinski: The airline industry hasn't increased in speed in the last 50 years, but what they have focused on is safety. That's a high bar to reach with something that's not just incremental, but a fundamentally new technology.
Scholl: I wouldn't describe it as fundamentally new. The basic technology for supersonic flight has been around for a long time. In 27 years, Concorde had one crash due to debris on the runway. It had nothing to do with supersonic flight. It had to do with debris on the runway from another airplane and not having enough reinforcement of the fuel tanks. So of course we're taking the lessons learned from that, and folding it into the design of our airplane.
From the perspective of the technology, they're all existing technologies. The carbon fiber composites, those are on the 787s. They're on the A350. The engines are a derivative of what's flying already. The flight controls, avionics, down the line, we're taking off-the-shelf, proven, reliable technology, and instead of using it to eke out another percent or two of fuel economy, we're using it to give more human efficiency. The capability for passengers is radically different. But there's no reason why it not going to be just exactly as safe as anything else.
When you look at what Big Aerospace has done for the last fifty years, it hasn't really changed the design of the airplane much, but they've changed the way you build them. They've changed the technology tremendously in the name of optimization, of safety, and of efficiency. And you can take those same technologies and deploy them in a new design that gives speed instead of a little bit more fuel economy.
Tracinski: What are the steps along the way?
Scholl: We're starting off with a one-third scale demonstrator that we call the XB-1 or colloquially "Baby Boom," and that aircraft's under construction now. It's going to fly towards the end of next year. It will be the fastest civil airplane ever made, the first privately developed supersonic jet, and it's essentially the same design as the production aircraft, just smaller.
It will test out the basic design of the aircraft and prove that we're getting the efficiency and the stability or reliability that we need to make a 45-seat airplane that we're ready to put our families on.
Tracinski: How about finding customers for it?
Scholl: Well, there's really no airline on the planet that isn't interested in this. These are the guys who have to differentiate on mood lighting and champagne today, because they're flying the same airplanes, the same routes as everybody else. So it all comes down to economics. It comes down to being able to build a reliable, safe airplane that you can fly at a mass market price point and still make money for airlines.
Tracinski: There's a trend of Silicon Valley people who came up in the world of software and apps and algorithms, who are moving into what some call "hardtech," more old-fashioned industrial technology. Was that part of your motivation for Boom?
Scholl: For me personally, I wanted to work on something I found inspiring. I think all start-ups are hard, and what often makes the difference is whether you take something that you're personally passionate about, that you'll keep going at no matter the obstacles. And there's this irony, where in some ways the more audacious missions are actually easier, because you can attract the best people in the world to them. The team we have working at Boom is far and away the most talented, most driven, most inspired team I've ever worked with anywhere. That group wouldn't have come together if we were doing something like another app or even another business jet. It's something that only happens for important missions, and that makes them actually easier to accomplish and more fun along the way.
What we've had happen in Silicon Valley in many ways is because software companies are relatively fast and inexpensive to create, a whole lot have been created, and the community has learned entrepreneurial lessons relatively quickly about how you build a new company, how you scale it, how you put capital together for it, how you pick a first product, and there are just tremendous lessons that come out of that that are everyday knowledge in Silicon Valley but don't really exist in other industries. And so you find that folks who have grown up in aerospace haven't been exposed to a lot of that entrepreneurial knowledge, and in my view, it's actually easier to go learn the new technology domain then it is to go learn how you build a company. You see this pattern with Jeff Bezos, with Elon Musk, and it's what we're trying to do at Boom. You learn the entrepreneurial skills in software, where you can see a whole lot of companies quickly. And then you go to a different domain and learn that domain but apply the same entrepreneurial lessons.
Tracinski: The argument on the other side is that Silicon Valley people think, "We can do everything better than the existing players in every other field," and that might not really be true.
Scholl: Well, you have to build an amazing team. We have about 25 people today, and the backgrounds are just phenomenal. This is our chief engineer's seventh project that will go through FAA certification. Our head of propulsion came from Pratt & Whitney, where he worked on virtually every jet engine they make and owned the front half of the engine that's in the Joint Strike Fighter. Our most recent hire came from SpaceX, where he owned the entire second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and invented some of the key technology that helped them land the first stage. You can't go hire a bunch of software guys and say, "Let's go build an airplane." You take the spirit of it, but the hard knowledge and experience you have to get from people who've been in the field.
Tracinski: I know you from years ago in the Objectivist movement—fans of Ayn Rand and her philosophy. What role does that philosophy have in helping you create something like this?
Scholl: First off, the heroes of Ayn Rand's novels I find tremendously inspiring. The first time I read Atlas Shrugged, I loved Hank Rearden. Here's this scientist-turned-businessman who can go do amazing things. And that gets you thinking about, "Why can't I do that? Why can't we go do some amazing things and push through problems, and damn the deniers and the skeptics and just go forward and do it?"
I think the big thing I got from Objectivism is a better understanding of what mental clarity looks like, what real understanding is, where you get it all the way down, and what it is mentally when you're kind of woozy and not clear on a topic. I'm largely self-taught in aerospace. And that first year working on this I was reading textbooks, taking classes, and I found that relative to when I was in college, I had a much better idea of what understanding looks like.
I think that's huge, and it also helps you evaluate other people. So, when we're interviewing people for Boom, we expect them to understand the physics all the way down to what the air is doing and why. And so if you can ask clear questions, you can separate out the folks who really deeply understand what they're working on, and they know it all the way down to first principles, from those who are—they've got rules of thumb. You want to go do something innovative, you can't have just rules of thumb. You have to have real understanding down to the physics.
Tracinski: What's the next big milestone you're looking at?
Scholl: The next big milestone is flying the world's first privately developed supersonic jet. We're hard at work on the engineering and build of that. It's happening, but it's a lot of hard work.