Robert Silk
Robert Silk

On average, nearly 10,000 commercial aircraft carrying well over 1 million people are in the sky at any one time. Airlines flew more than 4 billion passengers worldwide in 2017.

With air travel having become so commonplace, it's easy to forget just how amazing it is that humans are now routinely hurled through the atmosphere inside relatively small metal tubes. In addition, the many attendant hassles that come with air travel -- ranging from time-consuming and intrusive security screenings to unpleasantly tight aircraft interior configurations -- often make what is still the miracle of human flight feel decidedly unmiraculous.

Perhaps that's why a moment I witnessed last month at the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Denver served to sharply remind me of the way flying can and should still capture the imagination.

After a morning full of the type of talks that inspire only wonkish industry insiders, the representatives of six aircraft makers gathered on the stage of the conference room in the downtown Hyatt Regency for a photo op.

But as each of the six men (yes, they were all men) held up a model aircraft he was set to give away in a drawing, I mostly trained my eyes on Blake Scholl, the founder and CEO of the start-up Boom Supersonic.

Scholl didn't look nervous or on edge. Still, it couldn't have been lost on him that he was surrounded by representatives of aerospace industry giants Boeing and Airbus as well as by representatives of the next two most significant commercial aircraft makers in the world, Embraer and Bombardier. Gordon Preston, a vice president of the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp., was the sixth man on that stage.

That's a high-octane bunch for a guy whose company has yet to produce even the 1/3-scale prototype of what he hopes will one day become the first supersonic jetliner in the sky since British Airways and Air France grounded the Concorde in 2003 because it wasn't economically viable.

Still, in putting Scholl and Boom on a stage with the likes of Airbus and Boeing, International Aviation Forecast Summit organizer Mike Boyd wasn't the first person to put his faith in the start-up and its baby-faced, 37-year-old owner. Last December, Japan Airlines invested $10 million in Boom and obtained an option to purchase up to 20 Boom aircraft.

A year earlier, Richard Branson's Virgin Group took an option on Boom's first 10 airframes while agreeing to provide the venture with engineering and manufacturing services, along with flight-test support and operation.

To be sure, Boom isn't alone in the quest to build the next generation of commercial supersonic planes. Boston-based Spike Aerospace began its supersonic program with the development of an 18-seat business jet for which it plans to begin scaled supersonic flight tests late next year in hopes of having the full-size craft ready for market early next decade.

Spike has since segued into concept design for a commercial jet. If it moves forward on the commercial side, CEO Vik Kachoria told me, Spike expects to have a 50-seat supersonic aircraft ready for sale in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Under Boom's latest developmental schedule, the prototype is to take flight late next year. Scholl expects to begin testing the full-scale aircraft, which would hold 42 to 50 seats, in 2023. If all goes well, deliveries would begin in 2025.

"We all know that in 2050, we're not going to be going Mach .85 anymore, and the question is, who's going to be the winner," Scholl said in a recent talk at Denver's Centennial Airport.

Boom and Spike have markedly different visions for their supersonic aircraft.

Boom is developing an aircraft with a maximum speed of Mach 2.2, about 10% faster than the Concorde (the speed of sound is 767 mph). Spike, on the other hand, is working toward a speed of Mach 1.6.

A primary reason that Spike plans to build somewhat slower aircraft is to keep sonic boom decibel levels lower. Overland civilian supersonic flying has been banned in the U.S. since 1973, though Congress is weighing the creation of a pathway to allow such flying as part of an FAA reauthorization bill.

Kachoria says overland flying is vital for his company's aircraft to be economically viable, and the less noise the craft creates in the form of supersonic booms, the more likely it is to one day receive overland certification.

While Scholl also would like to fly overland, he said that as long as they go fast enough, Boom aircraft can be viable in the marketplace even if restricted to overseas routes.

During his Centennial Airport talk, Scholl noted that over the past five decades, commercial aircraft have become larger, more fuel efficient and have also changed in many other ways, but they haven't gotten faster.

"We've changed everything about the aircraft except what the passengers care about, which is speed," he said.

I don't know who will ultimately win the race to design the first next-generation supersonic commercial aircraft. It could be Boom. It could be Spike. It could be someone else. And whoever it is could well end up merging into Boeing or Airbus before the aircraft ever takes to the sky as part of the fleet of a commercial airline.

But for now, the raw enthusiasm that Scholl exudes as he talks about the transformative potential of supersonic flight makes him a valuable spokesman.

For example, as he went through a slideshow at Centennial Airport, Scholl talked about some of the top executives among Boom's 85-person staff.

One individual he mentioned was Steve Ogg, the company's chief aerodynamicist. Ogg joined Boom from the golf ball industry, where he worked at various companies, including 11 years with Callaway.

Scholl said that while recruiting Ogg, he asked him a simple question: Do you want to make a golf ball fly farther, or do you want to change the world?

When Scholl speaks, he always presents the concept of flying as a big idea, something more important than mere dollars and cents -- something, in fact, that has for centuries captured human imagination.

Nor does he fail to remind his audience that the onset of broadly deployed and affordable supersonic flying would be transformative to the world, just as the onset of the jet age was in the middle part of the last century and just as the invention of manned flight itself had been a half-century before that.

"The goal is to remove the barriers to experiencing the planet." Scholl said in characteristically high-minded language.

I wonder if that was something Orville and Wilbur Wright thought about as they developed their first "flying machines" around the turn of the 20th century. Maybe not. It would have perhaps taken even more genius than the Wrights possessed for them to see into a future consisting of thousands of flights carrying millions of passengers safely around the globe on any given day.

To be clear, I don't mean to compare Scholl to the Wrights. (In fact, just bringing them up here makes me worry that I'll be seen as engaging in such argument-wrecking hyperbole.) But to me, the most astounding part of the Wrights' story is that they invented the first aircraft almost entirely on their own. They were neither wealthy nor did they receive financial backing.

And yet, they beat competitors, including a Smithsonian-backed effort, into the sky through din of brilliance, persistence, self-belief and a vision that man indeed could and would fly.

I don't especially care if it's specifically Scholl and Boom who usher us into the next phase of commercial air travel. Maybe it will be another small player, like Spike Aerospace. And it's true that Boom isn't exactly going it alone. Unlike the Wrights, they've got investors, including Japan Airlines.

After all, this isn't 1900, and developing an economically efficient supersonic jetliner is a bit pricier than that original one-man Wright Flyer.
Still, seeing Scholl on that stage in Denver, standing among representatives of Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer and Mitsubishi, was inspirational.

Flying is still amazing, it reminded me. And just maybe, it's still an arena in which a person with a vision can accomplish incredible things.

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