Supersonic flight was first made available to the public in 1976, changing the Aviation industry overnight. One of just two supersonic commercial planes ever developed, the Concorde was a turbo-jet powered plane that could travel at speeds as high as 1,345 mph, over twice as fast as the speed of sound.
Whilst the plane could halve the time of flights on traditional models, tickets were simply too expensive for the average flier. In 1997, a round-trip from London to New York cost the equivalent of $12,000 in today’s money: more than 30 times the cheapest alternative. The Concorde was officially retired in 2003, and many assumed that was it for supersonic flight.
New commercial supersonic planes could travel at Mach 2.2, faster than Concorde ever flew. Several start ups are looking to break into the nascent market. Boom Supersonic has already received investment and advanced orders from Japan Airlines and Virgin.
Lockheed Martin has developed supersonic technology that doesn’t generate a sonic boom but can only work on small aircraft like fighter jets. The company has partnered with NASA and unveiled a quiet supersonic prototype called QueSST; a thousand times quieter than the Concorde model. If it works, the plane should only emit 75 Perceived Decibel levels, which is about as loud as a car door closing. This might mean it can fly over land without causing any damage or disruption.
Many are assuming that if legislation around supersonic flight changes, it will be because of Lockheed Martin. They won a $247 million contract to build an experimental aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds without triggering a sonic boom. The aircraft is expected to be delivered in 2021, when it will be tested for viable travel over cities.
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The development of carbon fibre means planes can now be made lighter and achieve supersonic natural laminar flow, which can reduce drag on the wings by as much as 20% more than Concorde.
Boeing has unveiled plans for a ‘hypersonic’ Mach 5 plane, which could theoretically get from London to Paris in just four minutes or to New York in an hour. This wouldn’t be possible using old materials: the stresses involved would pull the plane apart. Although this won’t be ready for 20 or 30 years, the potential for flight at this speed is exciting.
Maintaining supersonic speed heats up the plane, so it must be made from heat resistant composites that can withstand up to 3,000 degrees. The higher you fly, the more air the engines need to pull in, and the more fuel you need to power those engines.
Maintaining a supersonic fleet would require a constant team of Aviation Engineers, ensuring the parts were up to the task of such an intense flight.
The shattering of the sound barrier can cause significant damage to nearby buildings, with over 10,000 complaints of broken windows across America during Concorde’s time. Even today it’s illegal to fly at supersonic speeds over land. How can the next generation of supersonic planes be safer and more reliable than before?
Read about other Aviation Trends, or learn How The Aviation Industry Is Expected To Change Over The Next Decade.