Imagine being able fly from London to New York in as little as three hours. This was a reality for those who were able to fly on the Concorde and Tu-144 airliners between the years 1976 and 2003. You would think that such a major innovation in civil aviation would have become the new normal. But as we all know, that wasn’t the case. Why did supersonic airliners live a short life? Is supersonic air travel coming back? Today’s article has everything you need to know.
The History Of Supersonic Air Travel
Although supersonic airliners lived a short life, they left a major impact on the aviation world. There is still a hole left behind by these amazing machines that is yet to be filled today. The Concorde and Tu-144 airliners were the first and only time civilians had access to supersonic flight.
The Need For Faster Flights
As the air travel industry started to become more and more mainstream, the need for faster, more economical flights grew exponentially. The flights that required particular attention were transatlantic flights. Business men and women regularly needed to commute between major European and American cities (London and New York for example). On any normal airliner, transatlantic travel is long and grueling, usually taking about 8 hours. Mind you, this is still how it is today. That being said, transatlantic flights at supersonic speeds would essentially cut flight times in half! This was the primary goal of supersonic airlines; speed.
Creating Innovation In The Aviation Industry
The aviation industry is different than many others in the sense that companies are always striving towards creating safer, faster and more efficient aircraft for the public. Many times the motivation for doing so is simply to create innovation. Of course there is always a business side to things, but the majority of aviation technology has stemmed from a “doing it because we can” attitude. Another great example of this is the Boeing 747. At the time, William Allen wanted to create the largest passenger aircraft to date. All that being said, supersonic airliners made leaps and bounds in the aviation world. To this day there has not been anything to match them.
Like I mentioned before, there was a bit of business involved in the creation of supersonic airliners. The ability to tell market that your aircraft has the ability to cut flight times in half was more than enough to grab the public’s attention. And it worked; for a little while. Supersonic flights were almost always completely booked. If anything, many of the tickets were purchased just to experience going faster than the speed of sound. That being said the supersonic craze wouldn’t always be looked at in a positive light.
How Many Supersonic Airliners Were There?
Just how many supersonic airliners were built? There were only two companies that ever produced functioning supersonic commercial aircraft. These companies were Concorde and Tupolev. Concorde produced 20 supersonic aircraft aptly named “Concorde”, while Tupolev built 17 of there Tu-144 airliners. As you can see, there were not very many of these aircraft built which is one of the reasons that supersonic airliners ultimately failed.
Why Supersonic Air Travel Disappeared
We all know that supersonic planes are no longer screaming overhead. But why is that? What caused them all to disappear so quickly?
The Sound Problem
One of the issues surrounding supersonic aircraft is just how loud they are. The issue is not necessarily in regards to their insanely noisy after burning engines, but with their sonic booms. If you don’t know much about supersonic flight, I’ll try and explain it as simply as I can. Basically, when an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound, it breaks what is known as the ‘sound barrier’. When the sound barrier is broken, massive shockwaves are produced. When these shockwaves reach your ears they are heard as incredibly loud booms known as “sonic booms”. If you’re curious as to what these sound like, I’ll paste a video below this paragraph for you to watch! All that to say, the public did not take very kindly to these booms. Many times, the sonic booms of the Concorde and Tu-144 broke windows, set off car alarms and in general disturbed the peace. This is one of the primary reasons that supersonic airliners were cancelled. Not only did it give the public a negative view of the aircraft but it garnered the attention of the FAA and EASA. In fact, the Concorde is the reason that supersonic flight is now illegal. Thankfully, NASA is working on technology to produce near quiet sonic booms.
Perhaps the biggest reason that supersonic flight was brought to an end was just how expensive it was. The cost of supersonic aircraft is through the moon. The average cost of a Concorde is $200 million dollars! Not only are the upfront costs of these aircraft stupidly expensive, but the operating costs are just as bad. In order to break the sound barrier, supersonic airliners need after burning engines to give them the extra power they need. However, after burning engines do have a major caveat; they are very fuel inefficient. After burning engines use almost double the amount of fuel that normal turbofan engines do. This makes supersonic aircraft very expensive to maintain. Because of this, supersonic air travel was unfortunately reserved for those on the richer end of the financial spectrum. This is primarily why the Concorde (and also the Tu-144), failed. Supersonic flight just wasn’t financially viable and ultimately could not afford to keep itself afloat.
The Crash That Killed Concorde
The final nail in the coffin for supersonic flight was the crash of a Concorde airliner in 2000. The public didn’t have a very positive perspective on the aircraft due to its noise, but this fatal accident only made things worse for the Concorde. Even though the Concorde had an impeccable safety record, ticket sales dropped dramatically after the crash. Within three years, the Concorde was grounded and we have not seen another supersonic flight since. It’s rather disappointing that such a massive leap in aviation technology didn’t get to fly for very long. Will supersonic airliners ever return? I believe they will. In fact, I know they will.
Will Supersonic Flight Come Back?
This is a question that has been asked since the day the Concorde retired. However, almost 20 years later we are finally getting an answer.
Boom Supersonic And United Airlines
A small aerospace startup named “Boom Supersonic” is currently in the development process for a new supersonic airliner known as the “Boom Overture”. Recently, United airlines announced that they have put in an order for 50 Overture aircraft. This is incredibly exciting news. Not only is United making an effort to revive supersonic air travel but this one order contains more supersonic airliners than are currently in existence today. Hopefully, this is an effort to make supersonic air travel more mainstream as time goes on.
When Will Supersonic Air Travel Return?
United Airlines estimates that their supersonic airliners will be in service by the year 2029. Considering the amount of time it takes to produce aircraft, this is a very short period of time. As per usual, some setbacks are to be expected. But either way, the fact that supersonic flight is returning to civil aviation is very exciting. Hopefully this time it will stick around.
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