On The Fly

The author photographed by Ethan Lovell in Hawthorne, California

Why can’t we hop around Planet Earth faster and free of hassle? Tracking the race to create and innovate, Kinvara Balfour longs for the arrival of supersonic PJs, futuristic mini planes and flying cars (get working on it, people!)

While the tech wizards of the world strive to disrupt and update almost every industry, from AI-diagnosed medical treatment and automated driving to smart supermarket shopping and robotic nursing, it seems someone forgot to improve air travel. Like, seriously.

I am no astronaut (lamentably; I am desperate to go to space). And having perused the textbooks of various friends who’ve studied for their pilot’s license and sat in the cockpit while they’ve landed a plane, I can safely say that I have no desire to train for that. But I like to fly. I like to see the world. I like to migrate around the globe for business and (p)leisure alike.

One of my great aviation heroes is my late uncle, Sir David Frost. There was a time when Uncle Frostie was working on a weekly television show on both sides of the Atlantic. He made appearances in the United Kingdom and the United States in the same week. Week after week. He certainly wasn’t flying United, or any other oversubscribed, commercial cattle truck, that’s for sure. He achieved the commute thanks to British Airways’ Concorde—back in the day, when air travel was fast.

I still lament the demise of Concorde and I never even flew on it. I grew up in London and the sound of the bird-beaked turbojet ripping through the air above us never failed to excite. Uncle Frostie was such a valued customer, he was allocated seat 1A on Concorde’s famous last flight in 2003. I watched from the pavement outside Marks & Spencer in Hammersmith; not quite the same experience but an historic one all the same.

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Sir David Frost on Concorde’s last flight, 2003

If anything is ready for modernization in this digital age, it’s aviation. Sure, humans got to the moon long before we invented suitcases with wheels (come on, people), but those of us who need to traverse Planet Earth were forgotten. NASA is well known for its advances in technology; Delta Airways, easyJet and Ryanair are not.

Flying commercial is still one of life’s greatest inconveniences. Or hell, to be precise. The hassle is bearable when one has a five-hour-plus flight ahead to even out the ratio of time spent checking in, queuing at security, allocating every square inch of a sandwich bag to some much-needed cosmetics, removing various layers of clothing in front of multiple, overbearing security staff (I often wonder why I don’t just arrive at the airport in my Morpho + Luna pyjamas), taking one’s shoes off to catch verrucas, unzipping one’s laptop case for the 100th time, waiting, waiting and waiting, before another interminable queue to board the plane. Heaven forbid, via bus. Baggage or no baggage, the rigmarole is nothing short of exhausting. If you want to commute from city to city, it’s torture. Especially if you’re embarking on this commute weekly or daily. On the flip side, private aviation is one of the most appealing options in the world. Period. And also one of the most expensive. (Avoiding security queues and being spared the verrucas of strangers, it seems, comes at a price.)

Much of my time is now spent on the West Coast, commuting between LA and San Francisco (where I endeavour to direct the launch of various tech startups, speak about tech and trends at myriad conferences and make a series of mini films with iPhone), which is enjoyable. Apart from the hopping about.

Which is why I am now addicted to Surf Air. The new California-based airline spares one the traditional public airport experience but is cheaper than retaining (let alone using) one’s own jet. Surf Air members pay a fixed monthly price for access to limitless flights anywhere it flies. I liked the planes so much, I joined the company. I am now on the Surf Air Membership Committee. I’ve never been so happy about anything in my life.

My involvement is simply borne of enthusiasm for a service that has revolutionized not only the way I fly, but the way I work too. I shout about it to everyone I meet, be they tech company founders, media makers, movie moguls, DJs, or families with weekend homes to get to. Some sign up on the spot; others are cautious at first. But take one flight and you come around. It’s not luxury, it’s necessity. I’d put companies like One Fine Stay, Airbnb and Uber in the same category. They have solved a major problem in a big way, with serious scalability. I like them because they are exclusive but, paradoxically, and ultimately, inclusive.

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A Surf Air private jet in flight

The Surf Air concept is like UberPool for private planes—a fleet of Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 turboprops (for short hops) and Embraer Phenom 300 jets (for longer flights). In addition to those in service, the company has orders for 53 more PC-12s over the next five years. Its prescheduled journeys are booked via the Surf Air app on a smartphone. The company—a notably nice and notably impressive team—operates more than 85 flights a day across the West Coast (LA, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Truckee, Napa Valley, Monterey, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Carlsbad to date). The Europe summer destination programme will have flights from London to Ibiza daily from Thursday to Monday from June 23 and from London to Cannes on Tuesdays and Thursdays from July 4. Destinations such as Zurich, Milan, Luxembourg and Munich will follow soon after.

Surf Air’s flights go from private airport terminals; passengers need to arrive 15 minutes beforehand. Thankfully there are no bus transfers here; you walk for approximately two minutes from the lounge to the aircraft, shepherded by a member of Surf Air staff—with no need to undress along the way. There are usually eight seats on each plane; you share with whomever else has booked. This isn’t a dead-leg, find-an-empty-PJ situation; Surf Air planes fly at their scheduled time like trains on a timetable, no matter how many seats have been booked on each. I have flown to/from Burbank, Hawthorne, San Carlos, Oakland and various other airports, and the experience has been nothing short of miraculous. Especially as planes depart throughout the day, every day. The option of leaving one’s car valet-parked at the airport is a bonus.

While Surf Air is an actual thing, there are some other advancements in the world of aviation that—though still potentially little more than ideas—promise further convenience. New technologies, improved engineering methods and composite materials mean that companies can improve on speed like never before. I wish they’d damn well hurry up.

For me, spending much of my time in California has reinforced the idea that anything is possible. You just have to work hard to make it so. This isn’t a cheesy Apple slogan; everyone really believes this. Companies have serious amounts of money to invest in moonshot ideas (including ones that actually go to the moon) and the risk-taking confidence to go with it. What they don’t have, however, is time. Because the race to create and innovate is on. Which is why they are all now turning their attention to infinity and beyond.

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The Aerion AS2

Aerion, a corporation based in Reno, Nevada, aims to have its AS2 supersonic private business jets—the cabin of which is designed to accommodate up to 12 passengers—in the air and ready for use by 2023. Aerion is fast, with a top speed of Mach 1.5 thanks to its relatively short, thin, carbon-fibre wings which vastly reduce friction drag, and long fuselage. It looks like a skinny jumbo jet with a beak like a hummingbird. The wings provide supersonic natural laminar flow (SNLF), “an exciting disruptive concept in aviation technology”. You’re telling me. HondaJet is also one to watch: visit your local HondaJet dealer (kind of) for more information about the mini PJ that promises to be lighter, faster and more affordable than your average Gulfstream.

On the smaller, but no less thrilling, side of things is ICON Aircraft’s A5 personal mini-plane. The machine is akin to a flying car and one which anyone can learn to fly, provided they have a sport pilot’s license which requires a minimum of 20 hours of flight time. Consider it a jet ski for the air. It runs on high-octane automotive gas or aviation fuel, a full tank taking you 300 miles. Its wings fold back so it can be hitched to a trailer or parked in a (large) garage. It obviously comes with restrictions. You need to stay out of high air traffic areas (and those where Harrison Ford likes to fly). You can only fly during the day and in good weather conditions with at least three miles of visibility, and up to 10,000ft above mean sea level or 2,000ft above ground level. And when you do, you’re in for a serious ride.

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The Icon A5 above Central Park

ICON plans to deliver all preorders in early 2018 and there’s already a queue. AeroMobil has had its fair share of press, and might be one of the first aero-autos to hit the market. The aircraft is also a four-wheeled car, powered by hybrid propulsion. Pal-V, a company based in the Netherlands, has got the auto-moto thing covered too. Also affordable(ish): flying cars by Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero, two projects funded by Alphabet CEO Larry Page.

Training is required in order to fly-drive these vehicles—I am coining this action “to flive” and I predict we will be using it a lot in the future—which are available for pre-order. Not today, but at some point in the future. It’s not known how the concept will take off (literally), but we know the Americans are okay with little car planes hovering about above their heads. They created The Jetsons, after all. Let’s hope the rest of the world follows suit. What are a few flying cars when you’ve already got Jeff Bezos’s drones, Amsat’s satellites and a huddle of X’s Project Loon balloons above your head?

Also at X, the American semi-secret research and development facility funded by Google and now Alphabet, they are developing Project Wing, an automated, driverless aircraft—not for humans (darn it), but for consumer goods, emergency medicine and food supplies, for example. The aircraft will fly on pre-planned routes using sensors to avoid other air traffic, and one another.

Alphabet co-founder Sergey Brin is rumoured to be developing a massive airship at the NASA Ames Research Centre in California (Ames was home to the USS Macon, a huge airship built by the US Navy in the 1930s.) Is it a blimp? Is it a zeppelin? If it looks anything like the airships Aeros is making, I’m in. What will be housed inside it remains a mystery, but I am thinking beds, a comfy living room, a Chromecast cinema and an operations room filled with a plethora of bleeping satellite screens from which he can escape any natural/Trump-born disasters and control the world. I’m so in.

And let us not forget SpaceX and the endeavours of Elon Musk to greatly improve space travel with his state-of-the-art rockets and spaceships. Built on Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California, Musk’s ground-breaking, Earth-departing vehicles may soon be the stuff of history. (I hope to write a similar story from Mars in 2020.)

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NASA and Lockheed Martin are working on a “new Concorde” with the Quiet Supersonic Technology project

While Musk looks to space, NASA is directing its attention to Earth. Happily, NASA has decided to get involved and in association with American global aerospace and advanced technologies company Lockheed Martin, it has just announced that it has wind tunnel-tested a futuristic aircraft dubbed “the new Concorde” with its Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) project. It aims to create a jet that can break the 767mph sound barrier and halve transatlantic flight times.

I am super psyched about Boom Supersonic. The Denver-based startup is hard at work creating a 40-passenger civilian supersonic transport aircraft which it says will be faster than Concorde. It doesn’t expect to have one in the air for commercial flight until 2023 but it sounds—and looks—like it’s worth waiting for. Its XB-1 is rumoured to be the fastest aircraft ever. Sir Richard Branson has optioned the first 10 planes that Boom makes; once they are in production, he will get the first batch. In the meantime, Branson’s Spaceship Company, which is attached to Virgin Galactic, supports the company in kind. One suspects the military will also be onto it. Boom’s first private test flight is planned for late 2017. Subsonic flight tests will be conducted east of Denver, with supersonic flight proven near Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California further down the line.

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The Boom XB-1, planned for 2023

Boom’s supersonic aircraft has a cruising speed of Mach 2.2, 10 per cent faster than Concorde’s speed of Mach 2. That’s around 2.6 times faster than your average airliner. This is the idea: you leave London in the morning, get to New York in three hours and 15 minutes, and get back to London in time for dinner. The journey costs you around £2,000 each way.

Some would say that’s a bargain. If only to avoid the jet lag.

And, perhaps, the verrucas.

From Vanity Fair En Route, published with the Summer 2017 issue of Vanity Fair, and on sale June 2

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