Ahh supersonic travel! There is nothing like the idea of being in bullet flying to anywhere in the world in just two hours. Imagine enjoying the beautiful sunrise over the Alps, lunch on the Savannah and then dinner cruising through a Pacific archipelago.
The most famous example was the Concord, which could fly from New York to London in under three hours, and when given enough fuel stops could make it all the way to Sydney in under eight.
With only ever two supersonic passenger aircraft being constructed in the history of the world, being the famous Concord and the suspiciously similar Tu-144 (it has long been theorised that during the height of the Cold War Russia stole plans of Concord and created the Tu-144), does this mean that the age of supersonic flight is over?
The challenges with supersonic flight
As wondrous as a supersonic flight is, there are several problems with the concept that needs to be overcome in order for it to be more viable.
The first is the design restrictions of the aircraft, they require special engines (called ramjets), and structural technologies that can be rigid and soft depending on the speed of the plane.
These structural restrictions now mean that the plane needs to be incredibly narrow therefore not having a lot of room for passengers or cargo.
Having few passengers or cargo and very high fuel costs now means that the plane itself is not very cost-effective for airlines (compare to an A380 the can seat over 400 passengers).
These powerful engines for the supersonic plane cause another two problems. The first is the sonic boom that the plane would generate when breaking the sound barrier (It is a very loud noise which can shatter windows, thus the plane can only reach a top speed in rural or completely empty areas such as open ocean).
The second problem is the amount of fuel that these planes require. We mentioned previously that there is not a lot of space already on the plane, thus the plane doesn’t have a very large range.
However, with enough research, development and investment all these problems can be overcome…
There are several supersonic aircraft that are currently under development by various different firms ranging from start-ups and current plane manufactures.
Aerion and Lockheed Martin are working on a supersonic business jet, called the AerionAS2, designed for CEOs and other business managers who urgently need to cross the surface of the planet at speed. This will be based on the technology that Lockheed Martin uses for its fighter jets, such as the F-22 Raptor. It would be able to accommodate 12 passengers, and by flying a little bit slower than a Concord (Mach 1.2) it’s sonic boom will not be able to reach the ground. They have already taken 20 orders for this plane, with them to start being delivered in 2023.
Spike Aerospace, a small start-up from Boston, USA, is designing a subsonic plane much like the AerionAS2. It will solve the structural problems of the Concord by not having any weak areas such as windows but instead project the outside view onto screens from tiny cameras in the hull. They are planning on creating a 50 seat version of the plane by 2025
Boeing has revealed that they are working on a “hypersonic” aircraft that could cross the Atlantic Ocean in two hours (one hour faster than a Concord), and the Pacific in only three. This would mean that the plane could return the same day, essentially doubling its capacity. By using space-age titanium materials, it would seat slightly fewer passengers the Boeing 737 (around 200 passengers). They believe they can have a prototype flying by 2025 with a potential entry into service by mid-2035.