Blake Scholl has been a plane geek since he was a baby, when his parents took him to watch turboprop Cessnas taking off near their home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I had a Fisher-Price toy plane, and my parents say I held it up and knew it was like those in the sky,” he says in a video chat from his car in Denver, Colorado. “After that I was always sketching pictures of airplanes and thinking about how to build them.”
While he remained fascinated, he never seriously considered a career in aviation, instead working as a software engineer. But now Scholl, 41, is founder and chief executive of what could be one of the most exciting new aviation companies.
Boom Supersonic, which Scholl founded in 2014, is promising to launch “son of Concorde” supersonic commercial passenger flights as soon as 2026 – some 23 years after Concorde was decommissioned.
Scholl says the fact that he never got the chance to fly on Concorde is part of his motivation for reviving supersonic air travel. “I was waiting but no one was doing it, so eventually I decided to,” he says. “My kids had a grandfather who lived in Hong Kong, an 18-hour flight from here. It was just too far for them as young children and him as an old man. If supersonic flights had been available, they would have seen their grandfather more often.”
He founded Boom in 2014 after selling an e-commerce firm he had founded. But first he wrote a list of possible things he could do next: “I realised that I wanted to work on the most important thing [for society] that’s not impossible.” Scholl rated the ideas according to how happy he would be if they worked out. “At the top was supersonic flight. It was time to figure out why everyone thought it was such a bad idea.”
After a fortnight of intense research he concluded that it was possible, and went about hiring aerospace engineers to help turn his vision into reality. The first six or seven people he hired were paid with money he had made from selling his apps platform Kima Labs to Groupon. “I had put about half of my life savings into the business before I realised I was playing chicken with my bank account, and we launched a funding round.”
Investors, many of whom had backed his previous venture, pumped almost $1m into the fledgling business – while it was still operating from the basement of Scholl’s home. “They [the previous investors] were saying, we think you’re probably crazy but we will always back you.”
Other investors were, he says, driven by their own desire to see a successor to Concorde. “They were saying you’re probably crazy but we really want it to work.”
So far, it appears he has been proved right. The company, which now employs about 250 people, has built a prototype called XB-1, which Scholl says is “the world’s only operational, non-military supersonic jet”.
Later this year, Boom will break ground on a factory producing a commercial version called Overture. The jets, which promise speeds of up to Mach 1.7 over water – twice the speed of today’s fastest commercial aircraft, though below Concorde’s top speed of Mach 2.04 – are expected to roll off the production line from 2025 and carry their first passengers in 2029. The factory is in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state where the Wright brothers made the first flight in 1903.
Earlier this month, American Airlines became the third airline to place an order for Boom jets. United Airlines ordered 15 last year, and Virgin Atlantic reached a partnership deal in 2016. American Airlines agreed to buy up to 20 of the planes – with an option for 40 more.
The Overture will carry fewer passengers than subsonic jets, with 65 seats, initially priced at business-class rates. Concorde had a capacity of between 90 and 128 passengers.
Scholl says the aircraft is designed for a range of 4,250 nautical miles, and could fly about 600 routes around the world. It estimates that flying from London to New York would take three and a half hours, compared with six and a half now.
He reckons Boom can succeed where Concorde failed because his jets will be far lighter, and therefore much more efficient. Eventually, he says, tickets will cost about the same as standard airline tickets cost now.
“Concorde was a technological marvel for the 1960s,” he says. “But they weren’t focused on the economics, and it became too expensive to fly.” A London-New York return flight cost about $12,000, before Air France Flight 4590 crashed in 2000 and Concorde was decommissioned in 2003. “Fast-forward a few decades, and now all the technology is significantly more efficient, and we can get the cost right down.”
Scholl claims that despite the large amount of fuel needed to power supersonic flight, Boom aims to achieve net zero carbon dioxide by 2025, and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. The planes will fly on “up to 100% sustainable” aviation fuel.
He says attracting talented engineers has been easier than he imagined, even when he was interviewing potential recruits in his basement. “There are very few people in aerospace who don’t get excited about either rockets to go to Mars or supersonic flight – and back then Boom was the only one doing this,” he says. “We were able to convince people to leave good careers
Family “I was an only child, but I’m a father of four now.”
Education “I attended Carnegie Mellon University from 1998 until 2001, where I graduated with a BSc in computer science with honours.”
Pay “If pay is the only reason you’re at a job, you’re at the wrong job.”
Last holiday “This summer, I took my kids on a trip across the western US in an airplane I flew myself. I’m a trained pilot, so it’s great to be able to share my passion for flight with my kids.”
Best advice he’s been given “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”
Word he overuses Subsonic. “That’s what I call anything that’s too slow.”
How he relaxes “By spending time with my family, or flying for fun.”
to join us, and of the first 10 people we hired, two shut down successful businesses they had founded.”
Scholl’s success is a relief to his mother and father, who worried when, as a teenager, he dropped out of high school. “My parents really cared about education, and sent me to the best public high school in the state,” he says. “But I just never felt like I fitted in.”
He did, however, fit right in at the science summer camps his parents sent him to. One year he spent six weeks at a theoretical computer sciences camp. “Now this was exciting and fun, and I was around people who cared about what I cared about,” he remembers. “I was learning things from people who were passionate. I had found my place.”
With passion renewed, he went from Blake the high school dropout to Blake the college kid, after finding a programme at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh that allows people who haven’t completed high school a chance to apply.
“You apply as a junior, and write an essay about why you didn’t finish high school,” he says. He wrote that high school had nothing left to teach him. He won an Andrew Carnegie merit scholarship, and graduated with a BSc in computer science.
Scholl knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and set out to work for arguably the world’s most successful entrepreneur: Jeff Bezos. “I got in touch with a recruiter [for Amazon] and said I’m blown away by what you’re doing on personalising retailing, I want to work for you on that.” It worked: Scholl was hired as a software engineer in 2001 at the age of 21. Within a few months he was working on projects directly overseen by Bezos. “I had to update him and his leadership team every three months,” he says. “It was a challenge, but boy was it inspiring.”