Look closely and tucked away behind most of the eVTOL and other futuristic concepts at NBAA-BACE, Boeing is quietly making a statement about where its future ambitions lie in high-speed flight.

On display at the company’s HorizonX stand, and for the first time at NBAA, are showing both supersonic and hypersonic transports that the company believes will soon be on the wish list for high-net-worth individuals, corporations and governments all over the world. The biggest model, and also realistically perhaps the nearest-term project in the high-speed arena, is the AS2 – the Aerion supersonic business jet program in which Boeing became a significant investor earlier this year.

The small size of the exhibit belies the importance of the Boeing stake in Aerion, which hopes that its new link with the manufacturer will be third time lucky after seeing former partnerships come and go with both Airbus and Lockheed Martin. News of the status of AS2 is, however, in short supply at this year’s NBAA compared to 2018, when the supersonic revival grabbed headlines.

At that show, in Orlando, General Electric announced that it was primed to develop the Affinity, a new engine based on the high-pressure core of the CFM56/F101. At this year’s NBAA-BACE, Brad Mottier, vice president and general manager of GE Aviation’s business and general aviation and integrated systems group, says, “Boeing is now teamed with Aerion and we are working with them. They are finalizing the airframe and we are finalizing the engine requirements for that airframe.”

And how close is that to achieving preliminary design? “I keep asking for no more changes,” jokes Mottier. “I don’t know, but I think it’s pretty close.”

Boeing’s hypersonic concept, also depicted as a model, was first unveiled in 2018 and could also be “closer than you think,” says the company’s chief scientist for hypersonics, Kevin Bowcutt. Flying at Mach 4 or 5, and with a projected cruise altitude of up to 95,000 ft., the vehicle would travel at more than two and a half times the speed and 30,000 ft. higher than the supersonic Anglo-French Concorde, which was retired in 2003. According to Boeing, the additional speed would enable same-day return flights even across the Pacific and would provide airlines with increased asset utilization. 

Bowcutt explains that the basic technology already exists to develop a subscale demonstrator or prototype. “There’s a lot of development to do, but I believe we could do a functionally relevant demonstration in five years or so. It’s technologically feasible. There are no miracles we have to invent.”

Boeing is “actively pursuing partnerships” to develop this technology, and in early October the company announced it will work with Virgin Galactic to develop commercial space access and high-speed exo-atmospheric transport systems under a strategic alliance. Under the deal, Boeing’s HorizonX capital investment arm will inject $20 million in exchange for new shares in Virgin Galactic. The move comes as the UK-based space line readies for final flight tests of its Mach 3 suborbital commercial space plane prior to making its long-anticipated expected service debut in 2020. 

In a closely related move, Boeing HorizonX Ventures has also become involved with the UK-based Reaction Engines company, which is developing air-breathing propulsion for high-speed flight. Boeing formed part of a $37.3 million funding round in Reaction Engines alongside Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems in April 2018, while the company’s stake in Aerion’s Mach 1.4 AS2 project was announced in February 2019.