For 27 years, until its retirement in 2003, the Concorde was a flying symbol of glamour and speed, a sleek embodiment of technological prowess and supersonic power that ferried the wealthy from New York to London in 3½ hours while they dined on veal medallions and crème caramel.
Its excess, though, led to its demise. The plane was too expensive and carried too few passengers to be sustainable. After a fatal crash, the fleet ceased operation with one last flight from Charles de Gaulle to Dulles International Airport, as the pilot raised a glass of champagne and toasted his passengers: "To your first Mach 2 — and the last."
On Friday, however, leaders of Lockheed Martin and the Aerion Corp. announced a deal to build a speedy business jet that they vowed would "engineer a renaissance in supersonic travel." Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, the companies said they would build a civil jet, capable of flying as fast as Mach 1.4, or about 60 percent faster than a typical commercial airliner.
With operations projected to start in 2025, the AS2, as the jet would be called, would be able to fly as many as 12 passengers, and shave as much as three hours off the seven- to eight-hour trips between New York and London, so business executives could make a daily commute back and forth across the Atlantic.
The memorandum of understanding between the two companies represents a departure for Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin. The company is the largest defense firm in the world, known primarily as a maker of weapons and military aircraft, including the F-16, F-22 and F-35.
That legacy in building supersonic fighter jets, as well as the SR-71 surveillance jet — capable of traveling three times the speed of sound — is what made Lockheed such a good partner, the companies said.
Although Lockheed is focused on defense, it did build the first operational business jet, the Lockheed JetStar, which flew in the 1960s and '70s.
"We do believe new material and new technologies are making civil supersonic flight a realistic near-term possibility," said Orlando Carvalho, the executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.
Despite the struggles of the Concorde — a commercial airliner capable of flying about 100 people — Brian Barents, the executive chairman of Aerion, said he believes the demand would be there for a comfortable, fast-
flying jet designed for corporations and the ultrawealthy.
"We strongly believe that speed is the next frontier in civil aviation, and we will begin that journey with a supersonic business jet," he said.
Reno, Nev.-based Aerion forecasts building 300 jets in the first 10 years of production, and the comfort of the jets would rival other business jets on the market.
One of the problems with supersonic travel is the sonic booms they create. The United States bans commercial airliners from flying at supersonic speeds over land. Such speeds are permitted over water, however. NASA and several companies are working on ways to lessen the impact of sonic booms, reducing the bone-rattling cacophony to mere rumbles.
But the even bigger hurdle may be persuading people to pay a premium for the extra speed and convenience.
"Some very wealthy people are going to have to say, 'I want the speed. I want my own Concorde,' " said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, a consulting firm. The fact that it doesn't fly as fast as the Concorde, which could hit Mach 2, "might also put a crimp in the ego factor."
He predicted governments could also be a customer, making Lockheed Martin's involvement essential. "There are absolutely no options for rapid delivery of essential personnel — soldiers or diplomats or doctors," he said. "There's nothing faster than the fastest civil jet."
Since Lockheed Martin has traditionally shied away from civil markets, Aboulafia said the question is, will it "actually come through with the large pile of cash needed to bring [the jet] to market?"
Aerion and Lockheed, however, were optimistic.
"This really is the dawn of a new era," said Aerion Chairman Robert Bass. "As our motto says, 'It's about time.' "