The U.S. Air Force has taken initial steps to begin prototyping a supersonic aircraft that could someday carry the president around the world in half the time.
Last month, the service's Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate awarded a $1 million small business innovation research (SBIR) phase II contract to Exosonic, a start-up aerospace company, to begin the design and development of a low-boom executive airlift concept.
The 24-month contract for the plane called "Air Force One" when the president is on board requires the company to create the future aircraft's specifications, to include "power, weight, dimensions, communication systems, cabin layout" and a virtual reality model of the aircraft cabin space, Air Force Materiel Command told Military.com on Tuesday.
"Low-boom allows travelers to fly at supersonic speeds without generating disruptive booms for those on the ground," said AFMC spokesman Daryl Mayer.
Separately, Exosonic is building a 70-seat passenger aircraft intended to fly at Mach 1.8 speeds "supersonically overland and overwater with a muted sonic boom," according to the company's website. A prototype roll-out for that project is expected in 2025, Mayer said.
The Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate contract, sponsored by the Air Force Research Lab, "will support Exosonic's efforts to develop and modify the company's commercial supersonic airliner to serve as an executive transport vehicle," the company said in its own release. "These modifications will include reconfiguring the aircraft cabin to include the required accommodations, communications equipment, and security measures that allow U.S. leaders and their guests to work and rest onboard the aircraft."
The latest contract follows another awarded to Hermeus Corp, another start-up developing Mach 5 commercial aircraft, traveling more than five times the speed of sound. The Georgia-based company successfully tested a Mach 5 engine prototype earlier this year, according to a company release.
Last month, the Air Force awarded Hermeus a $1.5 million Other Transaction Authority (OTA) Phase II contract for the company to begin research on how it could modify its commercial prototype toward the military's VIP fleet.
Meanwhile, the replacement for the current aging Air Force One platform has yet to be delivered -- or even fully modified.
In 2016, the Air Force awarded Boeing Co. a contract to begin preliminary work on the VC-25 Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program, better known as PAR. Earlier this year, the VC-25B program -- a follow-on from the current VC-25A -- began modification on the first of two Boeing 747-8 aircraft.
The first phase of aircraft modification involves "cutting out large skin and structure areas in both the forward and aft lower lobes of the aircraft and then installing two newly manufactured superpanels," according to a release from Materiel Command. The superpanels contain
structural upgrades "and cutouts for the VC-25B lower lobe doors including internal airstairs for mission requirements," the release said.
The two 747-8s were originally ordered for the Russian airline company Transaero in 2013, DefenseOne reported in 2017. Boeing never delivered the jets to the now-defunct airline and instead put them in storage.
Boeing spent 2019 removing the aircraft's commercial interior, engines, auxiliary power units and "numerous secondary system components," officials said.
Additional updates to the aircraft include "electrical power upgrades, a mission communication system, a medical facility, executive interior, and autonomous ground operations capabilities," Material Command said.
The aircraft passed its critical design review in the spring, according to Defense News.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.