Mankind has always strived to improve the way it travels across the surface of the earth. In trying to make travel faster and more efficient, supersonic travel was inevitable. Travelling faster than the speed of sound is very appealing, with speeds of over 1234.8 km/h, journey times would be slashed. Although commercial supersonic travel may seem in the distant future, it is important to remember that it has happened several times before, with the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144. These two aircraft have been retired, but recently, there has been a lot of development in supersonic flight, and it may well be making a comeback sooner than you think.
What is Supersonic Travel?
Supersonic travel occurs when an aircraft travels faster than the speed of sound (around 1234.8 km/h, otherwise known as Mach 1). At that speed, journey times on transatlantic routes such as London to New York can be cut in half.
To date, the only commercial supersonic aircraft have been the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144.
The Rise and Fall of Supersonic Travel
On October 14th, 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier, achieving Mach 1 in the Bell X-1 rocket-powered aircraft. This aircraft was a collaborative project between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA), and the U.S. Air Force.
The X-1 proved we had the right tools to fly at supersonic speeds, however, the economic viability of such a project along with other issues such as the capability to cruise above Mach 1 for the duration of a relatively long flight still needed to be resolved. This led multiple countries, including the U.S., to start research in the 1950s, but in the end, just three nations went on to build and fly such aircrafts: the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union.
The Tu-144, designed by Tupolev, the Russian aerospace and defence company, was the world’s first commercial supersonic transport aircraft. It went supersonic on 5 June 1969, four months before Concorde, and on 26 May 1970 became the world’s first commercial transport to exceed Mach 2. However, due to reliability and developmental issues, and the 1973 Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash, it became less viable for regular use. The Tu-144 eventually retired from commercial use on 1 June 1978.
On the other hand, the Concorde was much more successful, first flown in 1969, Concorde entered service in 1976 and operated for 27 years. The Concorde was jointly developed and manufactured by Sud-Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC).
It reached speeds of over twice the speed of sound, at Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph or 2,180 km/h at cruise altitude), making flights from London to New York, in around 3 hours 30 minutes.
Despite multiple problems over the course of its development, it was regarded as one of the most beautiful and safest aircraft in the world. Only 14 aircraft, seven each for British Airways and Air France, ever entered commercial service, and due to its limited number of seat, it quickly became one of the most exclusive, and costly flying experiences (upwards of $20,000 in today’s dollars, compared to the $6,000 to $10,000 for first-class on a subsonic Air France jet in 2018).
Not only was it one of the most exclusive experiences, but also one of the most luxurious, similar to standards you’d expect from first-class nowadays, with 3-course meals and champagne.
Sadly, the Concorde was hit with several problems. From the very beginning, jet fuel was now more expensive than when it was originally conceived and designed, due to the Oil Crisis of 1973-1974. Furthermore, because of its incredible sonic boom, the aircraft was banned from flying over land, limiting it to transatlantic routes. With the cost of fuel and maintenance, the Concorde was now making less sense economically.
Then, on July 25, 2000, the Air France Flight 4590 bound for New York from Paris crashed just minutes after it took off – this was the last blow for the Concorde. It was then allowed to fly again a year later, but with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people became more scared of flying. The Concorde would sometimes fly at less than half capacity, so in the end, it was phased out of service in 2003.
A Comeback for Supersonic Flight
There is no doubt the since the Concorde has retired, it definitely feels like we have taken a step back. Normally, when something new in technology has been invented, it’s here to stay and gets improved upon over time. However, this was not the case for the Concorde, which was very much an invention ahead of its time.
Since the Concorde was first flown in 1969, there has been nothing new in the world of commercial supersonic aviation, but this may be about to change, with a new supersonic revolution seemingly on the horizon.
Since 2003, when the Concorde was flown for the last time, several other companies have taken up the challenge of reviving supersonic flight. However, there is one company, in particular, that has been receiving a lot of hype, and appears to have the best chance of bringing back supersonic travel: Boom Technology (aka Boom Supersonic)
Boom Supersonic, and the Overture
Founded in 2014 by Blake Scholl (CEO), Joe Wilding (Chief Engineer) and Josh Krall (CTO), Boom Supersonic is an American company, designing a Mach 1.7, 55-passenger supersonic airliner, named the Boom Overture.
If Boom’s Overture aircraft passes inspection, the plan is for building to start in 2022, then rollout will be in 2025, and finally, they plan for passengers to fly on it in 2029!
At a speed of Mach 1.7, journeys times are supposed to be cut in half, with a flight form London to New York lasting 3:30 Hours (instead of 6:30)!
The company also takes sustainability incredibly seriously. The Overture’s design will be maximised for sustainable performance, and with the aim of reducing noise from the sonic boom, with lessons being learnt from their 1/3 scale prototype the XB-1, which has a test flight planned for late 2021, early 2022. Boom also claims that the fleet will be able to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuels.
“Our vision is to make the world more accessible. It’s fundamental that we take great care of it, too.”Blake Scholl,
FOUNDER & CEO, BOOM SUPERSONIC
Boom has raised $240 million in funding and had preorders from Virgin Group, Japan Airlines and most recently United Airlines. Indeed it was announced on June the 3rd that United Airlines has agreed to purchase 15 supersonic aircraft from Boom Supersonic, with an option to increase that order to 50 jets.
What About Supersonic Travel, on the Ground?
Supersonic travel on the ground, is that even possible? It’s true that so-far, mankind has only ever breached the sound barrier thousands of feet in the air, but could we one day experience Mach 1, or maybe even faster speeds on the ground?
The mode of transport I am referring to is the Hyperloop. Indeed this futuristic 5th mode of transport is touted as the fastest way to cross the surface of the Earth. Pods would travel in a low-pressure environment within a tube, along with also using magnetic levitation to reduce resistance.
It was originally conceived by Elon Musk. In his white paper, he explained that these pods could eventually go faster than the speed of sound.
This, however, would be quite a long way off, as the first passenger test, conducted by Virgin Hyperloop, only just took place in November of 2020, and when they do roll out a full-scale hyperloop route, the plan is for it to reach speeds of 1080 km/h. This is already incredible, but over time, this number may well reach beyond 1234.8 km/h, otherwise known as the speed of sound.
Although when the Concorde was retired, it definitely felt like taking a step back, it looks like supersonic travel’s comeback might be imminent, with commercial flights taking place as soon as 2029! However, this date can’t be taken too seriously, as it was originally intended for 2020, so it would not come as a big surprise if it gets pushed back again. Who knows, one day we may well be travelling at the speed of sound in the air, and on the ground!
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