A block of airspace spanning 770 nautical miles over southern Kansas, is pushing aviation imaginations to new heights, and Salina is positioned to support more flight testing and special air missions.
The Kansas Supersonic Transportation Corridor — a project inspired and coordinated by the Kansas Department of Transportation – has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for supersonic flight testing by commercial aircraft manufacturers.
The Kansas SSTC is an area from southwest of Garden City to north of Pittsburg, where ultra-fast aircraft can be tested from Mach 1 up to Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, at altitudes of 39,000 feet or above. The initial target speed is Mach 1.4 (nearly 1,066 mph) for commercial flights, said Bob Brock, KDOT’s aviation director.
“That’s almost three times as fast as current airlines,” he said.
Commercial operators have only been allowed to conduct supersonic flights over the ocean, according to KDOT, but the state has inked a new agreement with the FAA to support aircraft manufacturers with a centrally located corridor “designed as a bi-directional racetrack,” the KDOT release reads.
The Kansas SSTC is the only planned corridor for commercial use over land in the United States, Brock said.
“This is a new capability for the state and a new opportunity for Salina Regional Airport to provide a forward operating location for companies that come to the state to utilize the corridor,” said Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority.
“We are very deliberately building infrastructure to support job creation from these next generation aviation modes of transportation,” said Brock. “This corridor makes new jobs possible in Kansas.”
The corridor will soon be put to use.
“We have already begun coordination for the first flight tests to occur in the first half of 2021,” he said.
A supersonic aircraft moving at Mach 1.4 can cover the 770 nautical-mile oval (886.1 statute miles) in roughly 60 minutes; 20 minutes when Mach 3 speeds are reached.
“The path of the corridor allows you to make a normal turn without reducing airspeed,” Brock said. “Most likely, when it’s time for Mach 3 testing, we will have expanded the flight test corridor to be able to support long-range flights.”
Noise isn’t supposed to be a factor.
“Industry experts report that new ‘low-boom’ technologies allow supersonic flights to be conducted that produce less than 80 decibels of noise (roughly the same as a vacuum cleaner), over 100 times quieter than the Concorde,” he said. “The impact of having these new aircraft fly overhead will be minimal enough that people will likely appreciate how much they mean to Kansas, as their friends and family have steady long-term jobs that they might not have had otherwise.”
So, what’s it in for folks in these parts?
Salina is blessed with the ability to land the long, sleek airplanes, store them in hangars, and also fuel and repair them if needed.
Plus, the Salina Airport has the ability to facilitate testing, Brock said.
“The first milestones we expect to see include supersonic travel becoming available as a commercial option—where you board an aircraft in Kansas and land in London two and half hours later,” he said. “That is not far off.”
The partnership that has developed over the past four years, “provides a sophisticated and cost-effective flight test capability within reach of every major aircraft manufacturer in the country,” according to a KDOT press release.
“Supersonic airline and business jets are being designed today,” Brock said, “Commercial jets such as the 737 and 787 are currently produced in Wichita, and we need to make sure the next generation of aircraft are built in Kansas as well.”
He added that many of the business jets that are built in Wichita today, are already flying at near Mach 1speed.
Kansas visionaries have bigger ideas.
“It doesn’t stop there,” said Lindsey Dreiling, executive director of aviation strategy at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, Salina. She is also leading the school’s Global Aeronautics Initiative.
“This initiative continues to set the pace for the evolution of transportation by providing access to airspace for research and flight testing,” she said. “It not only provides an opportunity to innovate, but also opens the door for future partnerships.”
K-State is one of four Midwestern universities — Nebraska, North Dakota and Purdue — in an alliance to “lure U.S. Space Command to Offutt AFB in Nebraska and expand opportunities for new degree programs and research,” Dreiling said.
She imagines linking what K-State Poly already has to other missions.
“I am proud of the work our teams are doing to improve flight safety for transportation in our National Airspace System,” Dreiling said. “This type of barrier-breaking thought will shape the future of transportation.”
K-State is also connected as a member of both the Kansas and NASA Space Grant consortiums with Emporia State, Fort Hays State, Haskell Indian Nations, Wichita State, Pittsburg State and Kansas universities, along with the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
“The consortium is supporting national and state priorities derived from NASA’s vision and mission,” she said.
“Kansas already enjoys an excellent relationship with NASA,” Brock said. “We hope that this corridor will empower NASA to expand their efforts to make commercial supersonic flight a routine occurrence.”
Commercial Supersonic flight is associated with the Concorde aircraft that recorded the fastest transatlantic crossing Feb. 17, 1996, from New York to London in just under three hours, according to simpliflying.com. A typical commercial flight time today connecting those cities is nearly seven hours, according to an online flight time calculator.
With a main runway longer than two miles — 12,300 feet — Salina served as an alternate landing spot during the Space Shuttle program, KDOT’s Brock said.
Companies such as Boeing, Cessna, Bombardier, Scaled Composite and Honda Jets, have long used Salina’s airport for flight tests.
The Salina Airport was also the home base for the around-the-world flights by Steve Fossett in his Global Flyer.
Through an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, supersonic trials can be performed to measure noise levels and collect all kinds of data, aimed at a “re-birth” of civil supersonic travel, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Utilizing maintenance technicians, aerospace engineers, communications experts and others close by — Salina Regional Airport, for instance — Brock said the airplanes can fly subsonic speeds to the corridor, for supersonic testing.
“Flight test teams can deploy for a day, a week, or sometimes months at a time,” he said, referring to these aircraft as “flight test vehicles.”
While in Salina, Brock said, the aircraft could also have access to 1Vision Aviation for airframe and power plant maintenance.
Supersonic travel is practical for many reasons, Brock said, thanks in large part to improvements.
“With new technologies under development, aircraft design will enable us to fly faster and more efficiently than the Concorde,” he said. “New efficiencies will also make it more cost effective for companies and for passengers than the times of the Concorde.”
Other developments are helping and are “extremely exciting, such as synthetic jet fuel with a zero-carbon footprint that’s much more gentle to the environment,” Brock said, “It will be much more widely accepted, much more quickly.”
The FAA will decide who gets to use the corridor, in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 91.818.
“As quickly as an operator or manufacturer can meet these stringent standards, the FAA can approve a flight,” Brock said. “Then it’s a matter of filing a normal flight plan through Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center.”
There are no fees to use the corridor and air traffic controllers out of Kansas City will control every flight.
“FAA will ultimately set the limit for the number of aircraft on the track,” he said, “but with so few aircraft capable of achieving supersonic flight, that’s not a factor today.”