The Past, Present and Future of Supersonic Flight

Supersonic flight has played an important role in the history and development of the aviation industry – one of triumph, excitement and political significance. This sector definitely has a vibrant past, though presently is an area in which commercial travel has no presence at all. The future can’t be certain – but we’ll explore the story of supersonic air travel and the pages yet to be written.

British Airways Concorde in 1991 (Credit: TSGT Charles W. Diggs Jr.)

The first aircraft to break the sound barrier was, quite famously, the Bell X-1 rocket powered plane flown by Major Charles E. Yeager of the U.S. Air Force in 1947. It is quite astounding that this development came 10 years before jet aircraft became a mainstay in the industry. This historic flight laid the path for the innovations that were to come.

Whilst unknown to some, the first supersonic transport plane was the Soviet Tupolev TU-144 – flying its first supersonic flight in 1969, four months before Concorde would hit the headlines. The Concorde was and still is undoubtedly the most famous aircraft of its type – though were it not for the fatal flaws of the Soviet plane the British-French project may well have been forced to share the limelight. Due to a deadly crash at the 1973 Paris airshow, the Tupolev project was held back by several years. Allowing the Concorde a major head start in the race practically killed off the project – it didn’t see its first passengers until 1977, several years after the Concorde had already entered service and proved its magnificence to the world. Both aircraft would in the end fade out and lose public and airline faith. The now symbolic crash of the Concorde in Paris was the beginning of the end for commercial supersonic flight at that time.

In the current day, there are a variety of aircraft flying above the speed of sound for a range of different purposes. Whether that be the Lockheed Blackbird for reconnaissance missions, the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet or the many aircraft currently being tested globally for research and military purposes. The commercial market, however, remains vacant for several reasons. In a world where sustainability and the environment are of paramount importance, the excessively high fuel consumption of supersonic jets is just not viable. It is estimated that these jets burn 5-7 times more fuel per passenger compared to subsonic modern aircraft. This leads to very high fuel costs and therefore a much higher price thrown at the passenger – in an age where prices are becoming lower and lower. Another of the many issues arising from these aircraft is the increased noise pollution they bring – with much louder take-offs as well as sonic booms which restricted their operations drastically. All of these issues must be tackled if we are to see the return of same day returns from New York to London and similar routes – but the future is promising.

There are three main companies vying to bring back supersonic travel first. All taking their own approach to try and solve the problems and revitalise the sector. The Aerion AS-2 is proposed to be in service by 2026 – targeted at the biz-jet market with a low capacity of just 12 seats. The craft has been developed to limit the effects of the sonic boom – flying at higher altitudes than similar aircraft at a speed of Mach 1.5. Whilst the noise problem has been tackled the low passenger capacity could lead to astronomically high costs per seat – even for a business jet.

The Spike S-512 is taking a similar approach – with a windowless jet allowing a more fuel efficient design and reduction in noise (including a similar method to decrease the sonic boom). However, while the capacity is expected to be slightly higher at 18 it still leaves the potential that it cannot properly tackle the high prices brought about by the higher fuel burn.

Taking a different approach, the Boom Overture is taking a fuel efficient and modern design, utilising software, technology and materials to allow for a 55 seater aircraft with speeds of over Mach 2. Boom are putting emphasis on sustainability and carbon offsetting throughout their program and designing the craft to accommodate alternative fuels – with projected fight testing in the mid-2020s.

Overall the future of supersonic flight can be bright. The Boom aircraft appears to tackle most of the key problems that held back the Concorde – but the project still remains an ambitious one and its commercial success is dependent on the mood of the industry and the direction it is going in – especially in the current Covid-19 climate. Will supersonic flight return? Almost certainly. But whether it will be within the next decade is unpredictable in an industry as dynamic as the one we are surrounded by.

I'm an avid writer and airport fanatic. I'm currently studying Airline and Airport Management at Bucks New University and hope to work in airport operations in the future.

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