What Was The Boeing Sonic Cruiser And Why Was It Never Made?

Boeing was ecstatic when it publicly unveiled the Sonic Cruiser program on March 29th, 2001. The plane was set to stand out from previously launched aircraft from the manufacturer in both design and speed. However, the project was canceled just over a year and a half after its reveal.

Alan Mullaly Presents Boeing'S New Sonic Cruiser At The 44Th Paris Air Show In Le Bourget, France On June 19, 2001.
The aircraft would have been 250 feet long (76 meters) with a sweeping delta wing and would fly at approximately Mach 0.98, saving approximately one hour for every 3,000 miles traveled. Photo: Getty Images

High hopes

Walt Gillette was the vice president and general manager of the Sonic Cruiser program. Following the announcement of the project, he described the plane “as a brand-new class of flying machine.” He noted that every other commercial jet its produced had been an evolution from the veteran 707.

Where Boeing had five decades of experience handling that type of aircraft, Gillette highlighted that his team had only a year of practice in the realm of the Sonic Cruiser. Therefore, they had to make sure that the right steps were taken when diving into the scene.

Boeing Sonic Cruiser Plan
The plane was billed to serve between 200 and 250 passengers and have a range of up to 9,000 NM. Photo: Mliu92 via Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, there had been decent progress made in just a year regarding the understanding of the aircraft’s parts. Boeing was looking at advanced computational fluid dynamics systems to help refine the setup of the Sonic Cruiser for optimum efficiency.

“On a conventional design, you can change the shape of the wings or the length of the fuselage without having to worry much about the rest of the design,” Gillette said, as reported by Boeing Frontiers in July 2002.

“On an airplane that travels just under the speed of sound, the design doesn’t work that way. A small change to the shape of the wing, to the angle of the canard [the control surfaces near the front of the airplane] or the fins [at the back of the airplane] means you have to make changes to the other parts of the airplane as well.”

Gillette emphasized that such a project could not be worked on five years before. However, breakthroughs in technology had brought in new opportunities.

Virgin founder Branson would lose out in a Virgin sale
American Airlines’ Don Carty and Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson initially expressed their optimism for the plane, with the latter expected to make a tentative order of three to six units in the spring of 2001. Photo: Getty Images

Market concerns

Notably, Boeing first proposed the aircraft in the same year of the 9/11 attacks would occur. This event would shakeup the aviation industry across the globe, causing significant operational and financial difficulties for airlines. The company acknowledged the challenging climate. However, it believed that once the market bounced back, there would be a place for the aircraft.

“One thing that Boeing has always been able to do is see through the current crisis. We saw through the era of the late 1960s, when airlines were not ordering airplanes, and we invested in the 747, which continues to be an outstanding airplane,” said Dan Mooney, Boeing’s vice president of product development at the time, as per Boeing Frontiers.

“We saw through the even deeper hole of the early 1970s and prepared to launch the 757 and 767 together by the end of that decade. We saw through downturns in the 1980s and 1990s and developed airplanes that are still considered the best in the world. We believe that when the next upturn begins, the airlines will be ready for the Sonic Cruiser. “If we wait until then to start working on it, we will be too late. It has to be ready to go when they want it.”

Overall, notwithstanding the tricky industry climate, Boeing felt it was the right time to launch a new aircraft due to the advancement of technology, the balanced experience of its workforce, and the potential return of the market.

Boeing Sonic Cruiser Model
The impact of 9/11 contributed to several shifts within aviation for much of the 2000s, including aircraft projects. Photo: Getty Images

Change of plan

Despite the progress made in the year following the public announcement and the outspoken excitement from management, Boeing abandoned the project by the time 2002 was over.

Notably, early enthusiasts soon became skeptics by the summer of 2002. Richard Branson shared that more runways were urgently needed for the aircraft to operate as there were not enough airport slots. Moreover, none of the potential operators prioritized quicker speeds when it came to their services.

Carriers could not justify pricier tickets to shave a few hours off the flight duration. It’s not surprising that this view was in place amid the struggles that Concorde faced in this capacity.

Interestingly, the supersonic model would also disappear from the industry the following year amid the changing conditions of the market. This factor highlights that the Sonic Cruiser would have probably met a similar fate to the legendary Concorde.

The Sonic Cruiser would have been half the speed of Concorde but without the supersonic jet’s distinct noise. Photo: Getty Images

The right call?

Generally, Boeing began to favor Project Yellowstone/7E7, which would become the 787 Dreamliner. This plane wouldn’t be as fast as the Sonic Cruiser but it would be more fuel-efficient. The company began publicizing this alternative project in the first quarter of 2002.

Nevertheless, all was not lost with the Sonic Cruiser. Boeing applied key discoveries from research on the project to the 787 program. For instance, findings regarding carbon fiber reinforced plastic for the fuselage and wings were applied. Advancements in bleedless engines were also adopted, along with cockpit and avionics designs.

Looking back, it seems that Boeing made a good decision to prioritize the 787 over the Sonic Cruiser. The Dreamliner has been a largely successful program for the firm, with many airlines around the world preferring the widebody over other long-haul options. The introduction of a high-speed aircraft would have been a risky approach during a transitioning period in the industry.

What are your thoughts about the Boeing Sonic Cruiser? Were you looking forward to seeing the introduction of the aircraft after the project was announced? Do you think the plane would have been a success if it was introduced? Let us know what you think of the program in the comment section.