Japan’s tech may be up to SST task but business prospects adding drag

by Eric Talmadge

The Associated Press

Preparing for a crucial flight test this week, officials with the key contractor developing a Japanese supersonic jet said they are confident they have the technology to make the project fly — but not so sure of its future business prospects.

The prototype is to be launched on a rocket from Australia’s Woomera test range Friday and released at an altitude of about 20 km. It is supposed to reach Mach 2 and collect aerodynamic data. The 11.5-meter-long craft is designed to then parachute back to Earth after the 15-minute flight.

Though a test in July 2002 ended in failure, officials at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which is developing the aircraft for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said they are confident of success this time around.

If the $10 million experiment works, the agency plans to follow up with similar tests of a jet-powered craft.

“We have the technology for supersonic flight now,” said Masakazu Niwa of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. “The question is whether it makes business sense.”

Niwa said MHI is not interested in developing a supersonic transport to replace the Concorde, but instead sees more chance of making money with smaller planes, carrying perhaps only a dozen or so high-paying passengers.

But he said even that would be a challenge.

“We would need to sell maybe 1,000 of them to turn a profit,” he said. “From a business perspective, it will be difficult. We don’t see much of a business opportunity for this right now.”

Still, Japan is pushing forward with efforts to fly faster than sound.

Japanese and French defense contractors and engineering companies, including MHI and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., agreed in the summer to split an annual research budget of about $1.84 million in the next three years to develop a supersonic plane.

Japan could use a supersonic breakthrough to boost its aerospace competitiveness, which lags well behind the U.S., France and Russia.

Supersonic flights offer huge reductions in the time required to travel, but flying faster than sound is costly and causes sonic booms.

Both problems plagued the Concorde, which debuted in 1969 and was a symbol of French and European industrial acumen.

Hower, it was retired from service in 2003 after failing to recoup the billions of tax dollars invested in it.

Shigefumi Tatsumi, a MHI official involved in the supersonic jet project, said fuel costs and the negative impact of sonic booms could be reduced by flying smaller jets, and at higher altitudes.