Moments ago, Boom Supersonic rolled out its XB-1, the demonstrator airplane for its forthcoming Overture. It’s the first rollout of a civilian supersonic aircraft since the Tupolev TU-144 in 1968 and is a significant milestone in reinventing faster-than-sound travel for the masses.
Move over Concorde; there’s a new girl in town
More than half a century since the world first clapped eyes on Concorde, there’s a new airplane in the stable. When Boom Supersonic first revealed plans for the Overture in 2016, few thought it would get this far. It was largely viewed as a vanity project that would end up as little more than a paper plane.
Now, thanks to investment from venture funds and Japan Airlines, Boom has reached a significant milestone in the development of the Overture. Today saw the rollout of the one-third scale supersonic demonstrator, the XB-1, and we have to say, it’s a very impressive machine.
XB-1 was unveiled for the first time in its fully assembled form at 11:00 MT today. A rather low-key event with no press or audience on site, it was hosted by founder and CEO of Boom, Blake Scholl. He took us through a series of presentations, featuring engineers, executives, test pilots and more.
Deep insight was provided on the development, testing and manufacture of XB-1. The message from every member of the team was one of positivity, expertise and excellence, making for a very exciting proposition. You can see a timelapse of the build in the clip below.
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What is the XB-1?
Affectionately called the ‘Baby Boom’, the XB-1 is a one-third scale demonstrator for the forthcoming Boom Overture. It’s 68 feet long and has a 17-foot wingspan, and is powered by three 4,300 lbf engines. The XB-1 will only have a range of around 1,000 nmi but is only designed as a testbed for the technologies planned to be upscaled for the Overture.
The aircraft has been years in the making, taking into account all the design and preparation that has gone into it. July 2018 saw the construction of the horizontal stabilizer completed and the engines received. Wind tunnel testing was completed in November 2018 – tests that took a decade for Concorde.
The final piecing together of the XB-1 started in earnest in December last year. The wing load tests were undertaken in March, and by May, the fuselage was almost complete. Today, the completed airframe has been unveiled for the first time. Following today’s rollout, the maiden flight of this supersonic demonstrator is expected in 2021.
Putting pilots first
To complement the development of the Overture, Boom has developed its own in-house simulator, which it says is 100% representative of the flight controls and handling of its aircraft. Test pilots have already been flying the XB-1 for many hours in the sim, ready to take the real aircraft into flight.
The cockpit has been designed for optimal pilot comfort. The stick and throttle have been ergonomically tested to ensure they are in the ideal position, and all critical equipment has been placed within arm’s reach.
The seating position of the pilot has been built around the ‘design eye point’, which means the pilots’ eyes and line of vision are optimally placed for unrivaled visibility of both instruments and for landing.
One of the issues with the Concorde was the lack of visibility for pilots landing the aircraft. Concorde attempted to solve this problem with a mechanical droop nose, a heavy and expensive modification.
Boom has attempted to solve this problem by installing a forward vision system, to give pilots a clear view of what’s going on outside. A screen in the center of the instrument panel feeds real-time footage of the exterior, using cameras attached to the nose and landing gear.
Of course, supersonic flight is not something you can do with just any old plane. Weight, balance and strength all have to work in perfect harmony to ensure safety at these exceptional speeds.
In terms of materials, the XB-1 uses a combination of fabrics for different parts of the fuselage and wing. These include carbon composites, titanium and aluminum. Every single component has been individually crafted and designed for optimal strength, weight and stability.
Flying at supersonic speeds means things can get hot. Concorde tackled this problem by using high reflectivity white paint, but even then, the walls of the cabin could sometimes get warm to the touch. XB-1’s exterior has been crafted to withstand temperatures of more than 300 °F (153 °C), far higher than the typical 260 °F (127 °C) encountered during supersonic flight.
This has been achieved thanks to the assistance of Dutch TenCate Advanced Composites, the same company that supplies high-temperature materials to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If you’re interested, the high temperature leading edges and ribs use bismaleimide prepreg, while the rest of the airframe is primarily intermediate-modulus carbon fiber.
Designed for efficiency
The use of high-tech materials is further complemented by the stunningly streamlined design of the airplane. The ratio between length and width has been optimized to minimize drag and maximize efficiency. Laser tracking during the tooling process means the build is ultra-precise, correct to within the width of a human hair (no shims here).
Its delta wings use an ogival shape, which the company says will balance inflight control and stability across a wide range of speeds. This means that XB-1 will be capable of efficient flight both at supersonic and subsonic speeds.
In terms of the powerplants, the XB-1 uses three J85 engines from General Electric, together producing a maximum thrust of 12,300 lbf. These will push XB-1 to a maximum of Mach 2.2. Unlike Concorde, Overture will not use afterburners, thanks to advances in propulsion design. However, the XB-1’s off-the-shelf engines do require afterburners to reach supersonic speed.
Interestingly, the engines have been designed to be compatible with sustainable aviation fuels, so that when they become widely available, operators can choose to use SAF as they wish. In terms of carbon emissions, Boom says they believe the Overture will be more environmentally friendly on a per-seat basis than a subsonic business class flight.
Equally interesting is the fact that, although GE provided the engines for the XB-1, Rolls-Royce is the front-runner to develop engines for the Overture. With their experience of powering Concorde, this will be an ideal match for the 21st century’s first and only supersonic passenger transport.
The XB-1 will now undergo a series of on the ground tests to put its systems and build through their paces. The maiden flight of the type is scheduled to take place in 2021 and will be the first of many test flights that the XB-1 needs to take.
Test pilots, engineers and technicians will gather data from the XB-1’s test flying to inform the development of the full-size Overture. We could expect to see configuration locked in by the end of next year, including the engine selection, supply chain and production site.
Boom intends to fly six Overture testbeds for a two-year campaign prior to launching the model. This will put the timeframe for Overture’s entry into service somewhere between 2025 and 2027, if there are no further delays to the program.
Are you excited to see supersonic flight hitting a new milestone? Let us know in the comments.