From New York to London in just three hours and fifteen minutes.
Boom Supersonic is Denver based startup that has the incredibly ambitious vision of building the world’s next supersonic passenger airplanes. Their planned plane will fly you between New York to London in three hours and fifteen minutes, at a cost of $2,500. It’s been half a century since there has been an increase in speed for passenger air travel, and Boom is going about changing that.
And they are already well on their way. Founded in 2014, they have recently closed a $33 million Series A financing round with investors including 8VC, Caffeinated Capital, as well as Paul Graham and Sam Altman, with Altman joining the board.
So how does one actually build a startup that makes supersonic passenger airplanes? I spoke to their founder and CEO Blake Scholl to find out.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Boom story is that Blake has never worked in the aerospace industry, with his background coming from a Amazon and Groupon.
“Well there's nothing like working on Internet coupons to make you yearn to work on something you are really fond of.” Blake explains.
“I loved airplanes since I was a kid, I took flying lessons, I was flying for fun when I was in college”
Whilst working in tech, he observed how the world was achieving technological advancements in almost every field, things had seemed to regress when it came to supersonic travel.
"Gaining 30% fuel efficiency on an aircraft that was designed 50 years ago using slide rules and wind tunnels using today’s technology, that sounds doable”
“Our phones are getting better, our computers are better, our communications are better, we're about to have cars that drive themselves and weirdly in the history of technology, in aviation, we had a capability with supersonic travel where we lost it, with no plans of moving forward again”
After ranking all his startup ideas in descending order by how awesome they would be, a supersonic passenger plane was at the top of the list.
“One thing that I realised from my first startup was that all startups are hard. It would be insane to do a startup if you don’t love it” Blake explained.
After two weeks of research into the idea to determine if it was even remotely viable, he concluded that there was no good reason why it would not be possible to make this dream a reality.
One of the first objection most people have to the idea of supersonic passenger planes being viable is the example of the Concorde. Whilst it was commercially operated, it consumed a extraordinary amount of fuel and airlines struggled to fly it profitably.
“If you just say, okay how much better do you have to do at Concorde to make the business case work? On a per seat-mile basis, the mileage on the plane needs to be improved by about 30%. Gaining 30% fuel efficiency on an aircraft that was designed 50 years ago using slide rules and wind tunnels using today’s technology, that sounds doable”
After crunching the the numbers in a simple 3 line spreadsheet using data from wikipedia, Blake was convinced that his vision was possible, and it just required someone to do it.
“Maybe I'm the first person who's actually made the spreadsheet, I don't know”
One of the largest technical challenges in designing a supersonic plane is having one whose aerodynamics work at both at low speeds for takeoff and landing, as well as at supersonic velocities.
“The reason that a supersonic airplane is hard aerodynamically, is that you need a design that is efficient for high speed flight and also works at low speed. It’s like two airplanes in one.” Blake describes.
"It’s the next door neighbor of rocket science”
The way to overcome this problem is to have very small wings that produce the right amount of lift when traveling at supersonic speeds, then also design them to create and harness a “vortex lift”, which generates enough lift when travelling much slower for take-off and landing. This is achieved by keeping the nose really high, having a very high angle of attack, and a wing shape that can trap the vortices created and utilize them to create lift.
“But designing for vortex lift is tricky in various ways, that the vortices can hit the tail, and cause you not to be stable in ways you’d expect. Today, relative to concord time, you can do most of the aerodynamic development in simulation without having to go to wind tunnels. Going into wind tunnels is awful because it takes you 6 months for iterations.”
“It’s not rocket science, but there is some trickery of building an airplane that flies at low speed and high speed. It’s the next door neighbor of rocket science”
The other key advantage that Boom’s aircraft will have over it’s predecessor Concorde is speed. Boom’s plane will travel at Mach 2.2 which is 300 mph faster, which is possible due to new materials.
“Concorde is built out of aluminum, and the faster it flies, the hotter the airplane gets. The effects of ambient temperature increases at the square of speed. So at Mach 2.2 the nose and leading edges of the of the aircraft are gonna be 307° Fahrenheit, so they’re toasty.” Blake explains.
Boom’s aircraft is utilizing carbon fiber composites that maintain their strength at higher temperatures.
"I’ve never been told ‘no’ so many times in my life, you have to be unfazed by that"
When questioned what traits a founder needs to succeed when taking on such an ambitious vision like Boom, he thinks they are independent thinking and perseverance.
“From a perseverance perspective, I’ve never been told ‘no’ so many times in my life, you have to be unfazed by that. There’s was one point earlier in this process where I talk to the other guy who was a founder of an airplane company that I really respected, and he said “my advice is don’t do it, it’s hard, maybe it’s impossible, go work on something else.” Blake answered.
“If my skin was so thin that someone telling me that don’t bother, that would cause me to not do it, this was never gonna work. So you have to be persistent, not hear no, turn some of the no’s into yes’s, and if you can’t, move on.“
Blake believes that the bolder the vision, the easier it is to accomplish when compared to startups that only strive for a smaller incremental improvement in their field.
“My hypothesis is that the big leaps are actually easier than small ones. You can get better people to come help you with it. In terms of employees, advisors, investors, people, you can call up for help. And as a result things are actually easier, the recruiting is easier. Literally 90% of our offers are accepted, and we have got the best people, and they wouldn’t happen with the less audacious mission”
Blake and his team are well on their way to proving his hypothesis right. Boom will have it's first aircraft in the air within 12 months, and they already have secured Virgin Galactic as a customer for their first 10 full scale aircraft produced.