Supersonic flights: back in vogue?

How realistic is supersonic flight?

 Science is notorious for its role as a mediator between the great aspirations and innate limitations of humanity. Being literally translated from the Latin ‘scientia’ as ‘the acquisition of knowledge’, its broad applicability and consequent importance increases alongside our unquenchable thirst for discovery. Through science, we have bridged gaps between ourselves and the inconveniences of nature in multifarious ways. Such innovations however, are almost always tied with serious risks, providing a stark reminder of how we must improve and what we must and mustn’t toy with. The history of supersonic travel offers a perfect illustration of such principles, exemplifying the risks and rewards of innovation and providing a valuable lesson to reflect on moving forward.

 Supersonic aircraft like the Concorde may have only been a short-lived aerodynamic experiment, but the technological and scientific legacy is still apparent today, and supersonic air travel remains highly relevant in scientific circles. When an object is said to be ‘supersonic’, it has exceeded the speed of sound (>1,236 km/h at 20 °C). The high-speed moving object causes pressure waves to propagate faster than the speed of sound, creating a ‘wave’ that treads behind it that is accompanied by the notorious ‘boom’ sound that we are all familiar with. Only two commercial aircrafts have ever exceeded this barrier: the Tupolev Tu-144 (first flown in 1968) and the Concorde (first flown in 1969). The latter however, was the only one to be inaugurated as the world’s first scheduled supersonic passenger service in 1976.

 The Concorde was built as a joint endeavour between four innovative French and British manufacturing companies. It began its first transatlantic flights in 1973, subsequent to which it gradually increased its destination agenda and, consequently, began to shrink the world itself. By the time of its official cessation in 2003, its wheels had touched down in parts of Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania.

“It’s maximum flying speed was 2,179 km/h (Mach 2.04), or by way of comparison, more than twice as fast as your average Aer Lingus plane.”

The high speeds made Concorde an incredibly efficient way of travel, albeit one that was strictly reserved to the select few who could afford the average one-way ticket price of €4,164. Such a price becomes somewhat justifiable however, upon looking at the plane’s construction and usage costs, as well as the number of seats available per flight. Equipped with ogival wings and an intake ramp to achieve optimal speed, a sculpture-milled body for a lower weight, and a complex array of computer settings for enhanced performance, the cost of one flight was so high that the entire venture was never actually financially profitable. Nonetheless, it served as a great mechanism to showcase Europe’s technological superiority and class; though this indeed turned out to be one of the contributing factors to its failure. Other factors include the overall impact of 9/11 on air-travel markets, the reported high noise levels, legal scuffles that severely restricted its flight pattern, and its potential for environmental damage due to the need to fly high to reduce drag, thus closing the gap between its exhaust gas and the ozone layer. The final blow however, was inflicted on the 25th of July 2000, when Air France flight 4590 saw its tire punctured during take-off, consequently causing the death of 113 people from both onboard the flight and on the ground below.

 Assuming these problems had never occurred, or were offset by other mechanisms, what else could the Concorde have done for the travel industry? To answer such an intriguing question, it is first important we understand that the aforementioned cumulative factors heavily restricted its development. For it to have further impacted the aviation industry, multiple changes would have been necessary. From a purely economic standpoint, the Concorde would’ve primarily needed to increase the size of its fuselage, so as to accommodate more passengers and counterbalance the aforementioned lack-of-passenger dilemma. A by-product of such a decision would have been the installation of a more powerful and efficient engine, such as an Adaptive Cycle Engine. Other implemented amendments would have most likely included a change of the hull’s composite materials into lighter carbon-fibre components and changes in overall design to increase flight speed and duration, while consequently decreasing the occurrence of supersonic booms. The addition of a self-sealing fuel tank would also help to prevent disasters akin to what transpired in 2000. In short, the potential for change would’ve been enormous. 

Assuming that the above had occurred, what impact could supersonic transnational flights have had on the travel industry? A first impact would’ve been the new incentive to produce similar aircrafts to the Concorde. Consequently, we would’ve seen a massive decrease in flight-travel time, reduction in costs, as well as the horizontal and vertical development of an entirely new air-travel market. Another potential advantage would’ve been the beneficial effects of such a form of travel on our circadian rhythms, eliminating the need to wake up frightfully early for a transcontinental flight. It currently takes the average commercial airliner approximately eight hours to fly from Heathrow to JFK. Taking into account the fact that the Concorde flew such a distance at a record time of two hours and fifty-two minutes (a 64.2% decrease in time), a wide-spread availability of such flights would’ve allowed us to fulfil early-arrival duties while still getting a (more or less) appropriate amount of sleep.

 All the above begs the following question: will there ever be another supersonic plane in the foreseeable future? Fortunately, the response to such a question seems to be a resounding yes! Multiple research projects are currently underway in the United States and Russia. With regards to the former, the company Boom Technology are currently at the head of the American aviation market. Recently, they have released design proposals for the supersonic Mach 1.7 plane. With an estimated release year of 2029, the company has reportedly already agreed to sell 20 of its planes to American Airlines, with an additional 40 available to them for prospective purchase.

The situation in Russia, meanwhile, is a far more precarious one. Although the Central Aerodynamic Institute unveiled a rather developed set of plans in 2021 of its supersonic commercial jet, designed to reach Mach 2.0 and maximum cruise distances of 8,600 km, no news to date has been released with regards to the status of the project.

 However, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves when it comes to supersonic travel in the near future. One thing is for certain – such a mode of transport will, until the market has truly bloomed, remain extremely costly. The current designs mentioned above are only fit to seat no more than 60 people, and operating costs remain steep. Until such costs can be lowered, it is unlikely that such a mode of transport will profoundly impact the aviation industry. Still, with the groundwork laid by the Concorde and early supersonic aircraft, there is hope yet that we can learn from these experiences to fly even further and faster than ever before in the future.