The next Noble ambition

Land speed record holder Richard Noble’s next plan is to solve the problem of aircraft congestion. His answer draws on little-used local airstrips and the legacy of the Second World War, reports Jerry Frank

Entrepreneur Richard Noble – the man who broke the land speed record twice – is a past master of pushing technology to its limits.

Two years after his Thrust SSC smashed through the supersonic sound barrier on land at 763.035mph – beating his own 633mph record set in 1983 – Noble has revealed his next grand scheme.

`My aim,’ he told his audience in Farnborough recently, `is no less than to revolutionise the way people travel in the 21st century.’

The task he has set his new company, Farnborough-aircraft.com, is to manufacture a fleet of five-seater, single-engine `air taxis’ by 2003. These will shuttle businessmen to thousands of under-used airstrips scattered across Europe and the US, at faster rates than standard air travel.

A tall order, but Noble is equally vociferous about the impact his master plan will have on the UK aerospace industry. `We’ve got a chance to re-establish mass aircraft manufacturing in Britain, where the only things going on now are Airbus wings and the Eurofighter.’

Grand schemes often begin in the most unexpected situations. Noble says his idea for `distributed’ air travel grew from an after dinner conversation in Barcelona with a group of Dell Computer Corporation executives 18 months ago.

`”What are you doing after Thrust?”, they asked. I said I had a few ideas. So they said: “Let’s talk about aviation. We waste $10m every year on corporate airline travel in Europe – our people are travelling to airlines’ timetables and that is incredibly expensive”,’ he says.

Noble got thinking about how he could speed up corporate air travel and offer millions of pounds worth of savings to business by tackling airborne gridlock. US air travel is expected to grow 50% by 2009 and 38 European airports are expected to reach bursting point by 2010.

The solution, he says, has been staring us in the face since the Second World War. `In the US there are 5,736 small public-use airports and in Europe another 2,071, mostly built during the war. But most business jets can only use about 20% of them because their runways are less than 5,000 feet long.’

His research also found that most people live or work within 20 minutes drive of a local airfield. Noble decided to design an aircraft capable of unlocking these ageing airstrips.

His engineers and designers at Farnborough looked back to the Second World War and saw the potential of the propeller driven aircraft, which was rapidly developed to its limits before being sidelined by the arrival of the jet plane.

Initial trials have been completed on the single-engine turboprop F1 Farnborough. It has a crew of one, space for up to five passengers and the performance of a Spitfire, with a rapid climb rate that will enable it to negotiate small runways. Powered by a Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6 engine, it is quieter at 1,000ft than a lawnmower but is capable of cruising at 345mph.

Designer Gordon Robinson, who previously worked on Airbus wing design, developed advanced high-lift, low-drag wings using computational fluid dynamics software and a wind tunnel programme at Cranfield University.

A long-life composite airframe, using high strength carbon/epoxy materials, has been used to boost corrosion and fatigue resistance, and to cut production costs. `The aircraft comes in large pieces which have to be stuck together like an Airfix model,’ says Robinson.

Team challenge

The Farnborough team includes Ralph Hooper, former chief engineer at British Aerospace in Kingston; Dennis Howe, former professor of aircraft design at Cranfield; and Ron Ayers, Noble’s aerodynamics expert on Thrust SSC. Noble admits he has set a highly optimistic schedule: two prototypes for test flights by 2002 and certification the following year.

`We’ve got to achieve 69 man years of work by 2002 to get our first plane in the air,’ he admits. `But you are dealing with the people who broke the sound barrier on land.’

It remains to be seen whether Noble will be able to raise the £11-13m finance needed to fund the first manufacturing run by 2003. His target is to license production the following year, with a run of 13,000-19,000 aircraft.

He also faces the obstacle of International Flight Regulations in Europe, which still have not followed Canadian and US precedent to allow single-engine aircraft to operate as commercial passenger transport. `The European situation is very confused, but a clear majority wants the regulations to change,’ he claims.

Noble is undeterred by the the task he has set himself. He seems as proud of the fact that the six-year Thrust SCC project had only £2,500 capital as he is of reaching a speed of Mach 1.02.

And he believes the internet will give him the opportunity to achieve his dream in four years. `We’re going to build the plane live on the internet and recreate an inspiring aviation culture,’ he says.

Can he do it? Ivan Shaw, chief designer of the Europa light aircraft, believes he can. `If Richard says he will try to do something it is not just hot air.’