“Later, I realized that the mission had to end in a let-down because the real barrier wasn't in the sky but in our knowledge and experience of supersonic flight” - Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager.
It’s been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke in the Bell X-1 ‘’Glamorous Glennis’’ what was thought to be the impossible for the human kind; the sound barrier. Although his words after this glorious flight expressed his concerns with our lack of understanding and experience of supersonic flight, it cannot be denied this breakthrough opened a new chapter in the aviation industry and generated numerous expectations for military and commercial operations.
Two decades of development passed and in March 1969, the world celebrated a revelation in the future of commercial air travel; the Concorde, the second supersonic passenger plane ever to fly landed from its first voyage. 7 years later, premium passengers were flown in just three hours and a half across the Atlantic and the 20 aircraft ever manufactured were expected to last for 27 years and fly unthinkable distances such as from South East Asia to South America in record time.
Regrettably, everything came to an end and supersonic operations ceased in 2003 after a range of events. The tragic crash of Air France Flight 4590 on the 25 July in 2000, killing all 113 people on board, the 9/11 attacks, low passenger numbers due to exorbitant tickets fares, high costs in maintenance and the continuous concerns on the potential effects of the sonic boom on the public health.
Challenges and Disadvantages
Numerous concepts for supersonic jets have appeared since the retirement of the Concorde fleet, but none have passed the drawing stage. The challenges that supersonic aviation is currently facing are considerable. According to academic researches, (the Aeronautical Journal, University of Cambridge, 2016) while subsonic services continue improving and breaking operating costs barriers and flying to more centrally located airports, the feasibility and rate of success of Supersonic operations would be highly dependent on very few routes that could be scheduled cost-effectively, leaving most of the operations requiring high subsidies covered by taxpayers in all countries where operations are set to take off. Scholars also depict the main drawbacks as follows (Lundberg, The Aeronautical Journal, 2015):
- Supersonic aviation likely be much less safe than subsonic aviation.
- Seriously counteract, probably make impossible, the urgently needed improvement of flight safety in aviation.
- Negative Environmental Impact.
- Retard the expansion of civil aviation.
- Detrimental to the public health owing to the noise pollution.
A Second Chance
Despite all challenges, recognised organisations including, NASA, Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Virgin Group in partnership with Denver start-up Boom are all eager to make history by building a new generation of supersonic airliners and business jets that shift the way we fly; learning from the Concorde’s failure and implementing measures to bridge the gaps left by the Anglo-French manufacturers Aerospatiale/BAC in 2003.
NASA is one step closer with Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) to facilitate the return of supersonic passenger air travel by designing and developing by 2020 a ‘’Low boom’’ X-plane that ameliorates the issues with sonic boom, reduces fuel consumption and emissions and thus mitigates environmental negative impact. Also, according to Professor Qiqi Wang a ‘boomless’ aircraft could be possible if designed like a bi-plane where the 2 wings are stacked allowing the shockwaves from the wings to cancel each other. However, this design has a major limitation when it comes to the desired speeds, we are now waiting three-dimension prototype outcomes from NASA.
Overall, the aerospace industry is sceptical about the commercial future of supersonic airliners, however, our thirst for fast travel will not be quenched and small supersonic business jets are said to be the first step towards the future, as the latter are subject to less-stringent economics and less-complex technologies. Boom and its XB-1 revealed in Nov 2016 are a clear example, with a unit cost of £160m each, ‘’Baby Boom’’ will fly at an altitude of 59,000 ft and from London to New York in just 3 hours and 24 mins. The first test flight is set to take place in Southern California in 2017 with commercial departures estimated in 2023 and a return seat worth £4,000, which seems a bargain in comparison to a business class seat o