What's The Deal With Supersonic Flight

supersonic

A few decades ago, between 1976 and 2003, a group of 14 planes, collectively known as the Concorde, ruled the skies. Faster than the speed of light (also known as Mach 1 = 660-760 mph), these aircraft were the talk of the industry, and for a good reason. Some flew three times as fast as the standard commercial passenger jet, reaching up to 1,500 mph, thus allowing business and leisure travelers to roam the globe like it was a small town.

Unfortunately, multiple challenges combined to kill the Concorde’s dreams. The big news is - those supersonic, Concorde-style flights could be back! Or, could they?

Aviation Startups Working to Bring Back Supersonic Flights

Riding on innovative technology, several aviation startups appear to be burning the midnight oil to bring back the exhilarating supersonic jets.

One such startup is Nevada-based aircraft manufacturer Aerion. Recently, head of Boeing NeXT, Steve Nordland, revealed that they’re working with Aerion to build more environmentally-friendly supersonic aircraft. In a press release, Nordland said;

“This partnership combines Aerion’s supersonic experience with Boeing’s global industrial scale and commercial aviation experience, giving us the right team to build the future of sustainable supersonic flights.”

According to Nordland, the supersonic plane they’re building with Aerion is a 12-seater business-class jet with a top speed of Mach 1.4. Known as the Aerion AS2, the jet should be ready by 2025.

Another startup, the Denver-based BOOM, is also said to be working on the BOOM XB-1, a plane that flies faster than its rivals – and the Concorde – at Mach 2.2, and utilizes a carbon-composite airframe that allows for a curvier shape than standard aluminum, thus reducing sonic boom.

Aside from Aerion and BOOM, there’s also SPIKE that’s currently working on a supersonic plane with a top speed of Mach 1.8 and a maximum capacity of 18. The SPIKE team also hopes to deliver their first aircraft, the Spike-512, by 2023.

Challenges Galore

The big question, however, is whether these startups can get to the finish line. There are three major stumbling blocks to commercial supersonic flight; sonic boom, cost of fuel, and regulatory standards.

Sonic boom, perhaps the biggest of the three, is a problem engineers have tried to solve for decades with little success. Naturally, as an aircraft approaches the speed of sound, pressure waves form in front and behind it. As the speed increases, these two pressure waves end up in each other’s way and begin to pile up. When the plane reaches the sound barrier, the waves merge into one large shock wave, producing a deafening “boom” sound.

The worst part is – sonic booms aren’t just very loud – they are also extremely destructive. They can cause extensive physical damage, including; cracking plaster, breaking glass, and shaking objects off shelves. In one instance, sonic boom dislodged tons of rock, crushing archeological sites in the Canyon de Chelly National Museum. And in another, it caused a roof to collapse, killing three French workers. And, that was a small fighter jet. Now, image what a supersonic jumbo jet would do!

As for fuel and flight costs, flying airplanes at supersonic speed requires tons of power and larger engines. This, combined with the higher costs of building and operating supersonic jets (it cost an estimated $3.6 to $5.1 billion (equivalent to over $20 billion today) to manufacturer 20 supersonic jets in the 70s), results in much higher flight costs. The Concorde, for instance, charged $5,000 for a one-way ticket between London and New York.

Can the new supersonic flight technologies address all these technologies? Yes, Congress is considering removing the ban on overland supersonic flights, and there’s word NASA is working on new supersonic plane designs that significantly reduce sonic boom. But, is that enough?

Sadly, it’s not. For one, since the Concorde stopped flying, the FAA has been able to reduce the noise airplanes are allowed to make by half. It’s going to be almost impossible for supersonic flights to meet the new standards. Secondly, supersonic flight fuel-efficiency issues persist. And, lastly, aviation rules haven’t changed much since the Concorde-era. Granted, the FAA has indicated its willingness to review regulations for supersonic flights. But, that has not happened yet, has it? Until it happens, the laws remain as they were in the 80s – largely against supersonic flights.

In Short, It Could be a While

This doesn’t mean that we’ll never witness supersonic flight again. Of course, we will. It just means that the recent excitement about an imminent return of such flights could be premature. What we foresee in the immediate future is the development of low-noise, personal business jets, flying around, but mostly under, Mach 1. Jumbo jets cruising at Concorde-speed (Mach 2+), though? That may wait a little longer.

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