In 1962, the world of aviation was shaken by the news that rivals France and England would work together (At the newly founded Royal Aeronautical Establishment) to build a plane that could deliver passengers around the world faster than a speeding bullet. This, of course, would become what is known as the Concorde.
But America was not going to take this news sitting down. US president John F Kennedy proposed that they would build a rival jet to the Concorde, that could carry even more passengers and go even faster!
The government did this by offering 75% of the development costs to two of America’s greatest airline manufacturers of the time, Boeing who was developing cutting-edge jetliners, and Lockheed (who had not yet merged with Martin Marietta) who had created a fighter jet that could go twice the speed of sound.
Boeing had a different design, to make it look much like a fighter jet using state-of-the-art “swing wings”
This development was further spurred by the reveal of a Russian supersonic jet, the Tu-144, was built and beginning service. To, not only have rivals in Europe working on what seemed at the time to be the future of airlines but also cold war enemies the Russians well ahead of them, for the United States was almost unthinkable.
“You look back to that time and there really was a lot of technological advancements in aeronautics, Whether it was a consideration of the market and what type of aircraft might be needed, or whether it was a case of one-upping Russia and Europe.”
Peter Coen, Nasa’s supersonic project manager at Langley Research Center in Virginia.
The race was on!
What were the two competing designs?
Lockheed had chosen a delta wing design (where the entire plane is a wing rather than a cylinder with two wings attached) for their supersonic jet. It could carry 270 passengers and fly at 2000 mph (3200 km/h).
Boeing had a different design, to make it look much like a fighter jet using state-of-the-art “swing wings”. These were wings that could swing back as the plane went faster and faster speeds but gave it stability as it came into land. It could only fly 1800 mph (2900 km/h) but would be on to carry around 300 passengers and have a range of 4000 miles (7000 km).
Being the more flexible and impressive design Boeing won the contract from US government.
And thus, the American Concorde killer was born, the Boeing 2707.
The Boeing 2707
“When we were building Concorde, we were pushing technology as far as it could possibly go at the time. They were pushing for something that was just too difficult.”
Kit Mitchell, the principal scientific officer of the Concorde, Royal Aeronautical Establishment (RAE)
The Boeing 2707 was going to be ‘the Concorde killer’. It could carry far more passengers and travel at a much faster speed. To understand how ambitious this project was, at the time Boeing was not only helping NASA to get to the moon and designing and building a 747, but the priority for the company was the new supersonic passenger jet.
“Joe Sutter, who was in charge of building the 747, said how difficult it was to get engineers to design that airplane because they were all committed to supersonic transport.”
Mike Lombardi, Boeing’s resident historian
As the project developed, the engineering team at Boeing really struggled with scaling up the swing-wing design. What had worked for small jets carrying two passengers simply could not be increased to carry 300. It was simply too much weight and the plane would never physically get off the ground.
They eventually relented and returned back to the delta wing shape and continue to grapple with fuel issues such a too heavy plane to make across the Atlantic. They had looked at creating entire craft out of titanium, which at that time was an astonishingly expensive material.
Eventually, this would be the undoing of the Boeing 2707, with the rising fuel costs and the oil crisis of 1973, resulting in fuel that was simply too expensive for such a hungry craft.
The final nail on the Concorde killer coffin was the problem with sonic booms. Sonic booms can be so powerful that they can shatter windows directly underneath the plane’s path as it moves through the air breaking the sound barrier. As such, the supersonic planes could only fly across the empty ocean (so from Europe to America), and for an airline having your proposed planes only available to fly a few select routes was not cost effective.
Who would have bought it?
If we imagine for a moment a world in which the Boeing 2707 had overcome its fuel, weight and sonic boom challenges, what would’ve our world looked like?
We know that the following airlines managed to put together an order for the Boeing 2707:
- 6 for Air Canada, Air France, Qantas, United, KLM, American Airlines each
- 12 for TWA
- 15 for Pan America
- 3 for Lufthansa
- 5 for Japan Airlines
- And many smaller orders from other airlines
In terms of routes, we would see it dominating the transatlantic airspace, flying between North America and Europe in under two hours (allowing for multiple flights a day from the same plane).
Domestically in America, we would see flights from the east to west coast in under three hours, especially between two northern cities (like New York and Seattle) in which the plane would be able to go supersonic over the desolate Canadian wilderness.
This would’ve completely negated the rise of the Middle Eastern Airlines, and perhaps even to Dubai itself never becoming the economic powerhouse of the world
And it wouldn’t just be in the northern hemisphere. In February 1985, the Concorde managed to fly from London, United Kingdom, to Sydney, Australia, in 17 hours (stopping for fuel). With modern fuelling techniques, the Concorde killer could do this trip in just over 10 hours.
This would’ve completely negated the rise of the Middle Eastern Airlines, and perhaps even to Dubai itself never becoming the economic powerhouse of the world. After all, if it did not need to be a stop off halfway around the world, why would anyone go there at all?
A closing interesting piece of trivia on this story is it the Boeing 747 was originally designed to be just a cargo plane. Boeing originally thought that with the 2707 transporting people faster than a bullet, why would anybody want to fly subsonic. The cancellation of the project meant they had to return to the drawing board and somehow figure a way to turn their secondary new plane into their new flagship passenger plane.
What about the future of supersonic travel?
However, that dream of supersonic travel is not dead, with the researchers and developers constantly working on new ideas and concepts, many of which were featured recently at the latest air show in the UK.
The new ideas seem to focus on smaller and quicker jets, and with material technology slowly starting to develop (such as graphene or carbon nanotubes) we may see bigger and faster supersonic planes someday in the future.
Until then we will just have to go the slow way around the world!