The little airport in Lynn Lake is hoping to play a small role in Canadian aviation history with a test flight of a hypersonic aircraft that, with Transport Canada’s blessing, will happen before the end of the year.
The so-called Ramjet technology is the brainchild of Pradeep Dass, the founder of an Edmonton company called Space Engine Systems (SES), who has ran an oil and gas equipment company called Can-K for many years.
The aircraft that SES is designing would reach speeds of Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound. By comparison the Concorde flew at speeds of Mach 2.
SES is part of a growing number of aviation companies around the world – from startups to brand name global players – trying to develop hypersonic aircraft.
If successful, for instance, it could fly emergency medical flights, say an organ for transplant, from Toronto to Edmonton in 30 minutes.
In addition to point to point travel – Dass already has four spaceports lined up in the U.S. – he is also already selling tickets for space tourism flights by 2023 like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
As well, Dass says there are many potential military applications.
The unmanned test flight planned for Lynn Lake involves dropping the vehicle, that weighs about 820 kilograms and is about four metres long, called Sexbomb – it will travel so fast it would obliterate anything in its path like a bomb… and it’s sexy – from a stratospheric balloon that lifts it to 110,000 feet. As it falls it will accelerate to about Mach 1.8 when the engine will be triggered, at about 57,000 feet, and then will fly at hypersonic speed for about four minutes when it will run out of fuel.
It will then glide back down and land at the Lynn Lake airstrip. Its flight will all be pre-programmed.
Fred Petrie, a long time aviation industry consultant took over ownership and operation of the Lynn Lake airport in 2013 with a couple of partners. He has played an instrumental role in connecting SES with Lynn Lake, which is about 1,000 km north of Winnipeg.
"I spent a good part of my career consulting, trying to help small airports pay for themselves," Petrie said. "I tell the joke that when we took over the Lynn Lake airport from the town I asked myself what does Lynn Lake have going for it? What can be our competitive advantage?
Dass’s engine uses a multi–fuel combustion of non–toxic liquid and solid propellants in a combination that is unique at this point in the development of this type of technology.
"The short answer is nothing," he said. "Most would give up at this point but I asked, what is nothing good for?"
It turns out, it is useful for just this type of aviation testing.
The aircraft will travel about 500 kilometres along a route that has no habitable communities below it. (Lac Brochet and Tadoule Lake are about 50 kilometres on either side of the planned flight path.)
"If anything happens on this flight… if it were to come to earth in an unplanned way, at most, and it is highly doubtful, it might injure a caribou," Petrie said.
The vehicle would land on skids on a snow-packed runway. Dass said that if all goes well with Transport Canada and it received a certificate to do the test, SES would consider testing the next iteration of its vehicle, called Hello-1 which would include a turbojet engine to allow for a horizontal takeoff to take the craft into higher altitudes before the hypersonic Ramjet kicks in.
The next iteration, Hello-2 would add a small rocket engine to reach space.
Dass’s engine uses a multi-fuel combustion of non-toxic liquid and solid propellants in a combination that is unique at this point in the development of this type of technology.
The opportunity to test the technology at Lynn Lake is not a sure thing. As they wait for Transport Canada approval the company has already lined up alternative test sites in the U.S.
"If Transport Canada does not approve us for some reason in our time frame or delays it (Dass said the test needs to happen before the end of the year), we can easily test it in the U.S. They have already rolled out red carpet," he said. "We thought we would wait to give Canada the chance to have the pride in being part of this."
Dass said the goal of SES is to design an aircraft that will operate at a lower cost than Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture.
SES currently has about 22 engineers on staff and by next year it will be up to about 120 internationally. (In addition to some U.S. facilities it also has a base in the U.K.)
After raising some money before the pandemic, the company had a valuation of just less than $100 million.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.