Savannah jetmaker Gulfstream sees supersonic future

At a starting price around $67 million, the Gulfstream G650ER can do many things.

It can fly from Hong Kong to New York without refueling. Lightning fast communications equipment and plush cabins that are the envy of five-star hotels can help a CEO run a company in comfort at up to 51,000 feet.

But there’s one thing the ultra-lux business jet can’t do: break the sound barrier.

For years, Savannah-based Gulfstream has worked on technologies to hush the sound of a sonic boom, while also lobbying regulators to allow business jets to fly faster than sound over land.

If those twin efforts succeed, it could be a huge boon to Georgia, where most of the company’s design and production takes place.

Gulfstream employs more than 10,000 of its 15,000-plus workers along the Georgia coast. By comparison, Lockheed Martin employs about 6,000 people at its Marietta plant.

Gulfstream’s sprawling manufacturing campus near the Savannah airport is humming with activity. The company, a unit of General Dynamics since 1999, has a backlog of jets on order totaling $12.1 billion. The delivery date for a G650 ordered today is the end of 2017.

An expansion of the company’s operations in 2010 was supposed to lead to 1,000 new jobs on the coast over seven years. Instead, Gulfstream nearly tripled that figure — hiring 2,900 people — in about half the time.

That growth came on the popularity of its biggest business jets, including its G650. Two new models the company introduced this year, the G500 and G600, will enter service in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The G650’s speed — it tops out at close to 700 mph — is as much a selling point as its luxurious interiors, Gulfstream executives say.

Speed sells

Supersonic flight is the next logical extension.

“(Buyers) like the speed aspect — we’ve seen that with the (G650) they fly around at nine-tenths of the speed of sound — and they would very much love to have an airplane that could fly faster than that,” company spokesman Steve Cass said during a recent tour of the company’s sound engineering operations.

Gulfstream officials won’t say much about their supersonic plans, but the company has also been working on or has won approval for patents for propulsion systems and other plane designs in case supersonic speeds are approved over U.S. soil and elsewhere.

Competitors also are working on civilian supersonic flight.

Lockheed Martin, builder of the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, is working on an 80-seat commercial passenger airliner called the N+2 that would be significantly quieter and more efficient than the Concorde, the supersonic passenger jet that was retired in 2003. The goal is for the craft to fly over land under any new regulation.

The AS2, by Aerion and European aviation giant Airbus, could be the first supersonic business jet to market. The companies are developing a plane under current regulations that would use its ultra-fast speed only over water. Test flights could begin by 2019.

Cass said buyers of luxury business jets will want supersonic capability where ever they want to fly. That will require not only advancements in technology, but changes in sound regulations.

“Having an airplane that could only go supersonically over water only accomplishes half the mission,” Cass said. “We need to be able to do it all the time.”

Gulfstream has developed a technology the company calls the Quiet Spike. It’s an extension of a plane’s nose cone that resembles a gigantic jousting stick. The device extends from 14 feet to 24 feet during supersonic flight and that added length helps to reduce the cacophony one would hear on the ground from a jet’s supersonic speeds.

The company fitted the spike to a NASA F-15 fighter several years ago to test its noise deadening abilities.

The Quiet Spike, coupled with a more advanced and swept back plane design, could significantly muffle the jarring explosion of a sonic boom.

Traveling sound booth

Gulfstream also has built a specially designed camper trailer that serves as a sophisticated mobile sound booth. Onboard, engineers can simulate to observers the sound of a sonic boom in various environments — such as the ambient noise in a city park — and compare it to the muffled sound of a supersonic jet with the Quiet Spike.

Cass said Gulfstream hopes civilian authorities will eventually set noise and other standards for supersonic flight overland. Those standards would be written by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN aviation regulator over noise, safety and environmental issues, and require approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Then it would be up to aerospace companies to design aircraft that can meet it, Cass said.

The emergence of new supersonic research — for the first civilian aircraft to breech the sound barrier since the retirement of the Concorde — shows manufacturers believe there’s a market.

That’s on top of a business jet sector that’s already on a tear, much of it in emerging international markets.

Virginia-based General Dynamics also makes military equipment such as Abrams tanks and warships. The Aerospace division, which is primarily Gulfstream, was General Dynamics’ largest division by revenue in the third quarter.

The Aerospace division reported revenue of $2.29 billion in third quarter, up from $2.15 billion in the same period a year ago. Sales have been buoyed by Gulfstream’s larger cabin aircraft.

The bulk of Gulfstream’s sales once were to U.S. buyers, but now about half of the company’s backlog of planes on order are to overseas customers.