Supersonic Air Travel — A Booming Industry or Pie in the Sky?
Almost two decades after the demise of the Concorde, there is a resurgence of interest in supersonic air travel. Several companies are busy designing planes that could halve current transcontinental travel times.
Naysayers are quick to point out that the Concorde wasn’t exactly a success, financially speaking. It required enormous amounts of fuel, and the shock waves produced by flight presented challenges to the craft’s structure and to anything it flew over — sonic booms meant it had to restrict its throttle overland. It also required excessively long runways. These issues severely limited the Concorde’s choice of routes.
But we should keep in mind that the Concorde was designed in the 1960s before digital simulation and the availability of today’s high-tech materials. So, does the new technology make supersonic travel a viable option in the near future?
Reaction Engine’s Precooler Solves Overheating Issues
Reaction Engines in the UK might have a solution to part of the challenge presented by
supersonic speeds. Its SABRE engine’s precooler can cool air in under a 20th of a second. Moreover, it’s been proven to work effectively at over three times the speed of sound, at 3.3 Mach speed. According to Reaction Engines co-founder Richard Varvill, the engine could revolutionize space and high-speed flight by powering aircraft to five times the speed of sound. The company has received funding from the European Space Agency, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the British government.
Lockheed Martin Reduces Sonic Boom with an Innovative Shape
NASA is working with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division to achieve supersonic speeds with lowered decibel levels — potentially even barely audible. Thanks to the jet’s long, narrow fuselage and two forward canard wings that are designed to disperse shock waves, the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology jet should travel at Mach 1.4 and be no louder than a domestic vacuum cleaner.
Aerion’s Engines Don’t Require Afterburn
The Airbus-backed Aerion Corporation’s AS2 has recently completed wind tunnel testing. This supersonic 12-passenger business jet will cruise at Mach 1.4 and rely on wing shaping and very high altitudes to make it “boomless” up to Mach 1.2. In addition, its engines will not require an afterburn and will use a carbon-neutral synthetic fuel. Construction is scheduled for 2023, with test launches in 2025. Earlier this year, the company contracted to work with NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Spike’s Done Away with Windows
Boston-based Spike Aerospace is also working on a business jet. Its S-512 jet will carry 18 passengers and has screens that line the interior walls and display camera footage instead of windows. The modification increases fuel efficiency and reduces cabin noise.
The S-512 at Mach 1.6 will be slower than the Concorde, which traveled at Mach 2.04, but able to travel overland because it will only produce sounds of 60 decibels. That’s quieter than a conversation between two people, which averages from 65 to 75 decibels. Spike plans to reach Mach 3.2 eventually and fly between London and New York in under 90 minutes.
The self-funded company has delayed the launch of its jet from initial estimates of a 2017 test with certification by 2023. Instead, Spike is reported to be still developing the luxury craft and says the seating area will be capable of being converted into a boardroom, bedroom, or dining room.
A Post-COVID Boom for Boom
The COVID-19 pandemic completely upended air travel, and we’re still understanding what a recovery will look like. But Denver-based start-up Boom recently received an order for 15 of its Overture jets from United Airlines (UA), with the order possibly reaching 50 if all goes well. Boom already has 76 jets on order, including an order from Japan Airlines. But UA’s is the first reported supersonic jet order since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020.
The Overture will seat 88 passengers and cruise at an altitude of 60,000 feet with speeds up to Mach 1.7. It, too, is designed to operate on sustainable fuel with net-zero emissions, and Boom is working with Rolls Royce on the engine. The company also claims fares will be as low as $100 one-way and that each seat will be spacious, business-class style with a window. Overture production is planned for 2023, with commercial flights available in 2029.
Is There Still the Need for Speed?
The full details of the United Boom order haven’t been made public, but it is known that the order is conditional on the finished product meeting specific requirements. As yet, none of the companies working on supersonic jets has a working model ready to fly. And except for Boom’s $100 claim, supersonic passengers will still need to fork out the equivalent of today’s first-class fares.
While there’s undoubtedly a novelty factor to the increased speed, will time savings be enough to create adequate ongoing demand? For instance, with Internet access available on flights, many people can work comfortably while on board. But, again, only time and a lot of money will tell.