The Sonic Cruiser

An aerospace company is full of secrets and it is good at keeping them.  Often, it is so good at this, that it manages to hide things from its own people, which if more widely known, at least internally, would actually be good for such a company.  Boeing was and probably still is a bit too good for its own well being at keeping its secrets.

The business of keeping secrets and the skill with which aerospace companies excel at it, probably stems from all of the classified work they do for the military.  There are are several methods for keeping people from learning about things.  One is to keep very close track of who knows something, and make sure they understand that there are severe penalties for disclosing it, even to their spouses.  Things like key details of weapon systems, or where a submarine might be going fall into this category.  


Another approach is to have a secret facility where the few people entrusted to work on something go to do whatever it is they do there.  One particularly humorous example demonstrates the futility of trying to hide stuff from a former auditor turned network systems and communications architect working inside your company.  People that do the kind of work I did for Boeing are a lot like the White House butler.  People never seem to notice that you are there, and "there" is pretty much everywhere.  The 6.8 Nisqually earthquake hit the Seattle area on Wednesday, February 28, 2001.  Several Boeing buildings were damaged on the Renton campus, and since there was a plan to get rid of them anyway, that plan was accelerated.  One building that was not that badly damaged, but which was on the plan to be replaced was the old cafeteria building.  So it was fenced off and signs were posted as though it was condemned - except it wasn't, or at least not completely.  Inside it a planning room was setup for Project Lloyd, which was the divestiture of Boeing's Wichita Division.  Boeing Wichita had originally been the Stearman Aircraft Company before Bill Boeing and Lloyd Stearman did their merger deal in 1929. 

Another kind of secret keeping method that aerospace companies have developed into a fine art is for big things like airplanes for "shy customers."   We just "hide" them in plain sight.  If you want to hide a 747, just paint it like a very ordinary one, so everyone thinks they know exactly what it is, except of course, what they think they know by looking at it is just plain wrong.  Boeing even assigns temporary misdirecting customer codes to some planes when they are being built.  There is an easy way to look behind that curtain; but sorry, my lips are sealed.


Finally, we come to the the generation of a cover story that misdirects.  The idea is to then coach everyone on enough details such that everyone believes the cover story, and thus never goes looking for whatever it is that's real.  The so-called Sonic Cruiser Program was just such a cover story.  It's purpose was to hide the 20xx Program.  The thing that amazed me was how incredibly successful it was.  Here is what happened.

As work proceeded on the development of a number of approaches for airplane #1 of the 20xx Program, several studies were kicked off to come up with broad outlines of what might be possible.  Fantastic advances had already been made in a number of areas, including materials, manufacturing automation, and the ability to use computers to fine tune the trim of a plane in flight.  NASA's X-plane programs had already pointed to a number of intriguing possibilities.  Also, the cost of using several exotic solutions that had been developed for military applications was constantly coming down.  Ever more accurate measurement techniques combined with the ever more powerful control systems in manufacturing tooling were working wonders.  Some advances could even be accurately forecast based on predictable advances in computer hardware and software.  The big question was how best to apply these many advances to the commercial airplane business.

Everything comes down to figuring out what things are sufficiently scarce and highly valued by the airlines and flying public that it will cause them to vote with their money and buy airplanes and tickets.  There are some obvious things to probe in this regard.  What if the average airplane could fly faster?  Would the time savings be worth whatever might have to be done to make it so?  What if an airline's operating costs per seat/mile could be significantly reduced?  Is that what would lure them to place the most orders?  What if the range of a plane could be dramatically extended?  Would the advantage of direct flights as opposed to multiple leg journeys be worth the implied increase in the number of planes in the air at any given time?  One can shave a lot more time off of most trips if a direct flight can be substituted for two or more connecting flights.  Load factors and ticket costs also need to be considered.  Most airplane configuration options have implications for more than one variable. What configuration provides the optimum balance of the many factors to be considered?  Depending on how one tweaks the targets for all of these factors, the resulting airplanes being considered for production could end up looking quite different from one another.

Another huge factor is the existing infrastructure of the air transportation system.  Will existing runways be long enough, or support the expected loading per square inch of tires?  Will a plane fit up to existing terminal buildings and their gates?  Will it fit into existing maintenance and paint hangars?  Can existing production facilities be used to produce it?  There are many more such things to be considered. 

Optimizing for fuel might end up with what is called a blended wing-body that looks like this.  Assuming an 80% average load factor, it wins the per seat/mile cost comparisons hands down.  But as for its fit into existing facilities?  Not so much.  Plus, its unit costs would preclude its use for anything but high density city pair routes.  This is not a plane for anything but the larger airports.

Another option is to design for speed with no real gains in per seat/mile costs.  One advantage this type of plane has is that most facilities could be adapted to supporting it, at least initially.  That said, over time almost everything except the runways would need to be replaced.  A go fast plane might look like this one.

Yet another option is try and leverage all existing facilities, while making big gains in potential range, and maintenance costs, along with more modest gains in per seat mile costs compared to the blended wing body plane.  But with unit costs sufficiently low, a plane like this could be used profitably on many more city pairs, which actually cuts down many total trip travel times, thus getting travelers where they are going faster than a go fast plane that is only on one leg of their trip.  Such a plane might look like this one.

The 20xx airplane #1 team explored each of these concepts very thoroughly, including wind tunnel testing, and extensive computer modelling.  It is my belief that Walt Gillette, the chief engineer on the program, really wanted to build the fast plane, but it was really up to the customers.  Once the three concepts were well enough along, it was time to go get some input from the customers. 


A model of one of the proposals was taken and shown to a "friendly" airline CEO whom I will not name here, but many people know who we are talking about.  This unnamed person then blabbed about what he had seen to a reporter from Aviation Week, which ran a story saying that Boeing was up to something.  Boeing desperately wanted Airbus to stay the course with their A380 program so that their resources would be tied up, and they would not be able to respond to our 20xx Program planes.  Keeping the real nature of our plan a secret as long as possible was seen as critical.  So a decision was made to pretend that we had committed to the "go-fast" option, and make a splash with that.  The Sonic Cruiser Program was 100% a smokescreen dog and pony show, and as such, it was a huge success, too successful in my book.  It is my belief that it would have been oh so much better if most Boeing people had understood what the plan was we were really working on.

At the time we went public with the Sonic Cruiser cover story, the down-select from the three proposals had not yet been made.  The Sonic Cruiser was a fair representation of the fast plane, whose study was code named Yellowstone.  Another proposal was called Glacier, and obviously both were named after National Parks.  The third plane was just the baseline or reference model.  A customer down-select conference was held at the Port of Seattle's Bell Street Terminal Conference Center in late 2002, and they voted nearly unanimously for the baseline plane.  That plane was then given the code name 7E7, and went on to become the 787.