Featured Aircraft

Project Sunrise

Behind the scenes of Bombardier’s historic and top-secret supersonic test flight

History-making test pilots.
Bombardier test pilots Ed Grabman and Jeff Karnes, the fastest men in business aviation. (photo by Kacy Meinecke).

“Ping” came the unmistakable sound of an incoming text message. “Weather’s good, we’re on,” it read. It was about 4:00 a.m. on May 16, 2021, in beautiful Santa Maria, California. Bombardier test pilots Ed Grabman and Jeff Karnes were already up and getting ready to make aviation history. If all went according to plan, they would go supersonic in Bombardier’s Global 8000 test aircraft, becoming the fastest pilots in business aviation.

Since its inaugural flight on November 4, 2016, the Glob­al 7500 business jet has surpassed all expectations. Its range was increased from 7,400 to 7,700 nautical miles (from 13,705 to 14,260 kilometers)—still the farthest for an in-production business aircraft.

Then its takeoff and landing distances were reduced, improving safety and opening access to more and shorter airfields that other similar and even smaller-sized jets can’t reach. But Bombardier want­ed more, and their engineers delivered..The Global 8000 was originally intended as the smaller, three-zone sister of the Global 7500 aircraft, with a proposed range of 7,900 nau­tical miles. However, while in testing and subsequently in service, the Global 7500 aircraft proved to be so well engineered that it soon be­came apparent that it could be capable of offering what the original Global 8000 could without compromising on cabin space and comfort. So, a decision was made to launch the Global 8000 as the successor to the Global 7500 with four living spaces, an industry-leading range of 8,000 nm and something else: a top speed of Mach 0.94 (1,000 km/h), making it the fastest business jet in the world.

To do it, Bombardier would need to fly supersonic.

“When we decided to validate a speed increase to Mach 0.94, I knew it would require a supersonic test flight of at least Mach 1.01 as part of the certification process that requires a manufacturer to demonstrate the aircraft can operate Mach .07 faster than its max operating speed,” explains Stephen McCullough, Bombardier’s senior vice president of engineering. McCullough, a 30-year Bombardier veteran, and his team of engineers, dream up innovations 20 years ahead of their time in the Bombardier equivalent of a “Skunk Works” department (the pseud­onym originating from Lockheed Martin’s legendary advanced devel­opment team). “We had no doubt in the aircraft’s ability to operate above Mach 1, since we had engineered the Global 7500 aircraft with 4th gen­eration transonic wing, which is designed to operate above supersonic speeds by pushing the shockwave aft of the aircraft.” During its certifi­cation testing, the Global 7500 aircraft achieved a speed of Mach 0.997 in a test flight, just a mere Mach .003 shy of supersonic. As such, there was universal agreement that going supersonic would be well within the capability of the aircraft. In fact, McCullough and his team were confi­dent the aircraft would behave normally well beyond the speed of sound.

A second capture of the Global 8000 photographed from NASA F/A-18 chase plane on a test run
Bombardier's Global 8000, the fastest business jet (photo by Kacy Meinecke)

Bombardier’s Flight Test Center (BFTC) is based in Wichita, Kan­sas. When the team there got the request from McCullough to plan a supersonic test flight, it was met, not surprisingly, with little emotion. This is because the men and women of BFTC seemingly have ice water running in their veins. Largely comprised of ex-military pilots and avia­tion technicians (at one time there was even an astronaut on the team), these people are trained to push aircraft to their limits—and they know exactly what the aircraft can handle. From tail-dragging velocity mini­mum takeoff tests and glowing-red-hot brake tests, to water-ingestion and engine flame-out testing, there is little that fazes them.

The top-secret supersonic test campaign was given the codename “Project Sunrise,” since it was planned to take place during the early morning in sunny Santa Maria. The day of the test flight, pilots Jeff Karnes and Ed Grabman and lead flight test engineer Ben Povall met with the rest of the BFTC team at the small Santa Maria airport and made their way to the briefing room. Santa Maria was constructed in the 1940s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and was mainly used as a training facility for crews of B-25 aircraft and later, for P-38 pilots and ground crews. Today, Santa Maria is a public airport and home to  over 200 general aviation aircraft. With its long runway and limited air traffic, it was the perfect launch point for Project Sunrise. Another key reason for the choice of Santa Maria airport was its proximity to Ed­wards Air Force base, where Bombardier contracted the services of a NASA F/A-18 Hornet to serve as both chase plane and official observer for the supersonic test flights that would take place over military air­space off the California coast.

Global 8000 - photo courtesy of NASA
The Bombardier Global 8000 during the test flight (photo courtesy of NASA).

The pre-flight briefing lasted about an hour, and once it was com­pleted, Grabman, Karnes and Povall stepped aboard the aircraft. Given the high altitude for the test, they all needed to don flight suits, hel­mets and oxygen masks per Bombardier flight test safety protocol. The aircraft took off at 7 a.m. and climbed to 40,000 feet, where it rendez­voused with a NASA F/A-18 chase plane that happened to be familiar to copilot Jeff Karnes. “I looked out the window at the chase plane and recognized that it was the exact same F/A-18B Hornet that I flew when I was with the Strike Aircraft Test Squadron (now VX-23) at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. NASA hadn’t even repainted it, so it still had the same VX-23 Salty Dogs paint job from my days flying it as a Marine test pilot.”

Flying in formation, the two aircraft climbed to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the F/A-18 pilot had to engage its afterburner just to keep up with the climbing Global 8000 test aircraft. At the chosen altitude, the aircraft began its acceleration descent to the target Mach to com­mence the first of several tests. These started with roll, yaw and pitch controllability evaluations, followed by 1.5 to 2.0 G pull-ups with spoil­ers extended, each time getting closer and closer to the speed of sound.

After a final ascent to 50,000 feet, the chase plane in position and with the team in the telemetry room back at Santa Maria confirming monitoring equipment was functioning correctly, the only thing left to do was make history. All those months of planning, preparation and training came down to this moment. Jeff gently nosed the aircraft down slightly, pushed the throttles forward and observed the Mach numbers increasing, Mach 0.95, Mach 0.96, Mach 0.97, Mach 0.98, Mach 0.99. Then came Jim Less, the NASA chase plane pilot, over the headset, “There’s the Mach, I can feel it. We definitely went Mach 1 there.” On the primary flight display the Mach indicator rolled above 1.0, easily achiev­ing supersonic flight as predicted and with no control issues whatsoever.

The Global 8000 placed Bombardier in the history books. It is the first business jet to fly supersonic.

With that, Ed, Jeff and Ben made aviation history, becoming the fast­est men in business aviation and placing Bombardier forever in the an­nals of aviation as the manufacturer of the first purpose-built business jet to officially fly supersonic and to do so on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Over the next few hours, they continued to repeat the supersonic tests, gradually going faster and faster, repeatedly breaking the sound barrier until finally attaining a top speed of Mach 1.015.

Upon landing, the fastest men in business aviation were given a ce­lebrity’s welcome by the team at Santa Maria, but without any media fanfare. Project Sunrise was being conducted under a veil of secrecy with everyone, including the video crew there to document it, signing a non-disclosure agreement. It was imperative that no one find out about this flight—especially Bombardier’s competitors—until the Global 8000 was officially launched to the world. That day came almost ex­actly a year later, on May 23, 2022, at the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in Geneva where Project Sunrise was made public for the first time. The worldwide response was sensational, gar­nering press from around the globe and from virtually every major news outlet, and an outpouring of excitement from Bombardier’s customers. Bombardier’s Global 8000 aircraft had gone faster than any other civil­ian aircraft since Concorde, ushering in a new era in business aviation.

History-making test pilots.
Bombardier test pilots Ed Grabman and Jeff Karnes (photo by Kacy Meinecke).

That morning back at BFTC headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, Ed, Jeff and Ben were back in the briefing room planning their next mis­sion. These silent heroes of the day, with their accomplishment being celebrated thousands of miles away, were going about their business as usual. While the sun may have set on Project Sunrise, you can be cer­tain Stephen McCullough and his team of engineers are hard at work finding new ways to keep pushing the envelope of what’s possible so Bombardier can continue blazing new contrails in business aviation.

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