Reigniting the Development of Supersonic Flight
In 2015, a Concorde fan group comprising former pilots and frequent fliers, called Club Concorde, raised USD 186 million to restore two of the legendary commercial supersonic aircraft just over a decade after it was discontinued. Today, the group is even constructing an exhibition platform over the River Thames, next to the London Eye, where visitors can access bars, a memorabilia shop, plus an aircrew presentation area.
While Concorde nostalgia persists, technological developments within the field of supersonic air travel have dwindled significantly over the past few decades as concerns about such aircraft’s environmental impact have increased, specifically regarding the loud noise of their sonic boom. However, developments have quickly picked up steam within the past year few years, especially with the US’ National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently awarding a related contract to American aerospace company Lockheed Martin. Together, these longtime enthusiasts and aeronautic heavyweights will develop and demonstrate a piloted, large-scale supersonic X-plane while crucially reducing the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a “gentle thump”, as NASA likes to call it.
NASA’s supersonic ambitions were first revealed when it made headlines in 1947 with its Chuck Yeager-toting Bell X-1 aircraft becoming the first recorded manned plane to exceed the speed of sound (or Mach 1). This speed means that such an aircraft can travel from London to New York in three hours. Popular commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 747, in comparison, reach a top speed of 907 km an hour and take eight hours to travel between the two cities.
However innovative these tests were, US government support for supersonic transport ultimately faded mainly due to concerns about its commercial viability at the time. Though supersonic transport first attracted national attention because of its adverse environmental impact (the noise of the sonic boom and stratospheric pollution), in the end, congressional support was withdrawn mainly on the grounds of government priorities.
The first commercial supersonic aircraft — Concorde, the British–French supersonic passenger airliner — operated from 1976 until 2003. The Concorde had maximum speeds of Mach 2.04, with seating for 92 to 128 passengers. Initially, one-way tickets from JFK to Heathrow were roughly USD 1,500. In the early 2000s this went up to USD 7,000. Again, advancements in this area subsided when British and French officials announced the retirement of the Concorde in April 2003, citing a drop in air travel following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and rising maintenance costs overall, ending 27 years of service.
The Race for Commercial Supersonic Travel Today
Fast forward to 2018, and the conversation about commercializing supersonic air travel is back on the table. A big interest has developed after US President Donald Trump’s administration decided to commit funds to NASA earlier this year, with NASA now officially continuing the development of the supersonic X-plane. Lockheed’s experimental aircraft is expected to be operational by 2021 and will have a top velocity of 1.5 times the speed of sound, or about 1,600 km per hour. Although Lockheed Martin won the NASA contract to build a quieter supersonic jet, it is not the only enthusiast vying for potential future market share.
Lockheed is also in partnership with Aerion Corporation, a business jet startup backed by Texas billionaire Robert Bass. The company is working on a jet design, called the Aerion AS2, that would fly over land at just under the speed of sound and then speed up to Mach 1.4 over the ocean, where it can afford to be loud. The company is currently taking orders, banking on deposits from high net worth individuals to help finance the project. Boom Technology Inc. is also developing a supersonic passenger jet. The Colorado startup has attracted investment from Japan Airlines Co. and support from the multinational conglomerate General Electric. Boom’s XB-1, which aims to carry between 45 and 55 passengers, estimates that its aircraft’s fares would be 75% lower than the original Concorde’s and comparable to current business class tickets, due to its better fuel efficiency.
Putting the planes in a hypothetical race, Boom takes the lead. The company notes that a flight from New York to London will be possible in only 3 hours 15 minutes; Aerion’s plane will take 4.5 hours. However, it’s not only speed that matters, as many companies are differentiating themselves by incorporating ultra-luxury and high-tech comforts.
Headquartered in Boston, the startup Spike Aerospace’s S-512 offers potential flight times between New York and London of 3.3 hours. It can accommodate 12 to 18 passengers and, due to its windowless design, offers a cabin with a panoramic digital display of the outside world. This so-called Multiplex Display is one of the jet’s distinguishing features. The company website notes that passengers can control these displays using a smartphone or tablet as well as intuitive touchpads at every seat. The screens can also show anything from real-time 360-degree views outside the jet to screencasts from a laptop to movies on demand, ensuring a completely immersive experience.
Although next-generation supersonic travel is set to usher in a new era of air travel in the next decade, other technologies may hit the skies sooner. In December 2017, aerospace manufacturer SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk presented, at the International Astronautical Congress, his rocket system for long-distance travel on Earth. The system promises that passengers could travel from Hong Kong to Singapore in 22 minutes and from London to Dubai or New York in only 29 minutes. The company plans to have its city-to-city travel up and running within the next decade. At the same time, NASA is dedicating more research funding to hypersonic travel, which refers to airspeeds that exceed Mach 5 — more than twice as fast as Boom’s XB-1.