These companies are pushing to put supersonic passenger planes back in the sky
It has been 16 years since the last commercial supersonic flight, operated by Concorde, flew the Atlantic. Concorde carried travelers from London and Paris to places like New York, Dakar, Senegal, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City in 50% the time of traditional aircraft and was the preferred way to fly of the elite jet set. And it was once said supersonic air travel would never come back.
It operated for nearly 30 yrs with a small fleet of 14 aircraft; 7 planes flown by British Airways and 7 by Air France.
The aircraft was grounded for good in Y 2003 due to rising maintenance costs, marking the end of supersonic airline service. But aside from its high cost to maintain, Concorde had another complication with its operation: the supersonic aircraft could only reach its top speed of Mach 2.04 while flying over water due to noise regulations enacted in response to its loud sonic boom, the atmospheric roar that erupts when the sound barrier is broken.
While the idea of supersonic flight has captivated travelers ever since Concorde’s swan song, the problem of a loud sonic boom has persisted and prevented potential successors from ferrying passengers at supersonic speeds.
But over the past year or so, several companies, and NASA have made significant strides in finding a way to become the next go-to supersonic aircraft for paying passengers.
It’s a feat that will require a delicate balance.
“To be commercially viable, the aircraft has to be capable of long range, efficient supersonic cruise that produces an acceptable sonic boom,” says the senior editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology.
At least 3 companies are competing to be the 1st to meet that objective, some with plans to fly faster and farther than the Concorde ever did, and soon.
A “quiet boom” as soon as Y 2021
Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) and NASA are working together on a new experimental supersonic aircraft dubbed X-59. Under construction in the storied Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, California, the X-59’s radical design is intended to mute the aircraft’s noise by “shaping” its sonic boom.
“The Key thing there is that currently [you’re] not allowed to fly supersonic over land even if you’re very quiet,” says Lockheed Martin’s X-59 program lead. “That’s why the work that we are doing with NASA on X-59 is so important.“
Instead of house-shaking shockwaves, people on the ground may barely hear the X-59 zipping overhead. “The closest analogy I can make to what it would sound like is your neighbor closing their car door,” he says. The X-59’s needle nose makes up over 33% of the test plane’s 97-ft length. The unique aerodynamics and characteristics of the design combined with a high-mounted engine that masks its noise will limit the plane’s sound levels.
But the actual use of the new technology is still years away.
The 1st flight of the X-59 is planned for Y 2021, followed by several years of NASA test campaigns over the United States to collect noise data. Using the same technologies that will fly in the X-59, Lockheed Martin has also unveiled another design concept for a Quiet Supersonic Technology Airliner (QSTA). Seating 40 passengers, the aircraft would cruise at Mach 1.8, more than 2X the speed of today’s average wide-body passenger jets, like the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A350.
Transatlantic flights in just 3 hours by the mid-2020s
While NASA and Lockheed Martin are working on a quiet sonic boom, Denver-based Boom Supersonic is moving forward with the design phase of Overture, a commercial supersonic aircraft that will seat 55 to 75 passengers. According to Boom, Overture will produce a sonic boom “at least 30X quieter than Concorde,” and fly at Mach 2.2 speeds. At that speed, Boom says it will fly passengers from San Francisco to Tokyo in 5.5 hours, while a New-York-to-London route would last just over 3 hours.
Like Concorde, Boom’s aircraft will only fly at supersonic speeds on transoceanic routes, while cruising at subsonic speeds over land. That is because Overture still lacks an efficient engine that both pushes the aircraft to supersonic speeds and is a good airport neighbor with law-abiding noise levels over land even if its noise levels are much quieter than Concorde’s.
Boom has announced $6-B in preorders for 20 Overture airliners from Japan Airlines, a strategic partner that invested $10-M in the company in Y 2017 and 10 aircraft from Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
Targeting a mid-2020s entry into commercial service, Boom’s Overture cabin will be about the size of a regional jet and entirely business class. Seats will be laid out in a 1-1 configuration, meaning every passenger will have a window and access to the aisle. Boom says that it is “spending a lot of time optimizing the feel and comfort of Overture’s interior,” by eliminating things like overhead bins, instead installing under-seat storage “to make the cabin feel more open and airy.” The company’s smaller, 2-seat prototype of the plane, called XB-1 and nicknamed “Baby Boom” is now being built in Denver.
Baby Boom will begin test flights next year, the company says.
A private, supersonic jet for business travelers in 2023
Boom might be marketing to business class fliers, but another company, Aerion Supersonic, is targeting businesses themselves with a concept for a supersonic luxury corporate jet named AS2.
With cruising speeds at Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000 mph, the plane has “the ability to fly up to 70% faster than today’s business jets,” says Boeing, which invested in the company in February and is providing engineering, manufacturing, and flight test resources to get the jet up and running. AS2 will pare about 3 hours off of transatlantic flights.
With a first flight planned for 2023, AS2’s will fly up to 11 passengers who will be pampered in the plane’s luxuruous, custom-outfitted cabin.
“Aerion’s project,” he says, “could potentially open the floodgates to a wider industry return to high-speed commercial flight.”
This will be Super!