Boom Hopes To Reignite Supersonic Travel With XB-1

Since the last Concorde rolled to a stop in 2003, supersonic flight has been limited almost exclusively to military aircraft. Many have argued that it’s an example of our civilization seeming to slip backwards on the technological scale, akin to returning to the Age of Sail. There’s no debating that we have the capability of moving civilian passengers and cargo at speeds above Mach 1 safely, it’s just something that isn’t done anymore.

Concorde on its final flight, November 2003

Of course to be fair, there’s plenty of good reasons why the sky isn’t filled with supersonic aircraft. For one, they’ve historically been more drastically expensive to build and operate than their slower peers. The engineering that goes into an aircraft that can operate for an extended period of time at supersonic speeds doesn’t come cheap, nor do the materials required. But naturally, the same could have been said for commercial jet aircraft at one time. With further development, the cost would eventually come down.

The real problem holding supersonic aircraft back is much more practical: they are just too loud. From the roar of their powerful engines on takeoff to the startling and sometimes even dangerous “sonic boom” they leave in their wake, nobody wants them flying over their homes or communities. In fact, civilian flight above Mach 1 over land has been outlawed in the United States for exactly this reason since 1973 under the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation 91.817.

For any commercial supersonic aircraft to be viable, it needs to not only be much cheaper to build and operate than older designs, but it also needs to be far quieter. Which is exactly what Boom hopes to demonstrate with their XB-1 prototype. The sleek craft will never enter into commercial service itself, but if all goes according to plan during its 2021 test flights, it may prove that the state-of-the-art in aircraft design is ready to usher in a new era of supersonic civilian transport.

On The Shoulders of Giants

When the Concorde was being designed in the early 1960s, commercial jet aircraft were still a relatively new concept. It represented a technological quantum leap, and had more in common with military research aircraft than anything that had ever carried a paying passenger. Many core components, such as the Olympus 593 engines, had to be tailor made for the Concorde. This made it an exceptionally expensive aircraft to develop and manufacture, and while estimates vary considerably, in the end the program is believed to have cost nearly 10 billion dollars.

But that’s not the case for the XB-1. Many of the core technologies that Boom has identified as critical to the success of commercial supersonic aircraft, such as a carbon fiber airframe, are already well understood. Like essentially all modern aircraft, the design of the XB-1 has also benefited tremendously from the advancements in computational fluid dynamics. Physical testing which could have taken years previously can now be simulated on the computer in a fraction of the time.

Another huge benefit is the use of an existing engine, the General Electric J85. Originally designed for the United States Air Force in the 1950s, it’s certainly not a new engine. But it’s gone through several revisions to increase its performance and efficiency, and its expected to remain in service for at least the next few decades.

A Familiar Face

It’s no coincidence that the XB-1 bears more than a passing resemblance to NASA’s X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft. While Boom has been relatively cagey about how quiet their planes will eventually end up being, it’s clear from even a cursory glance that they’ve adopted some of the design elements that NASA and X-59 prime contractor Lockheed Martin believe will help mitigate the sonic booms generated by their experimental aircraft.

Both planes utilize a long and thin fuselage to prevent the front and rear pressure waves from compressing together and generating an energetic shock wave. Instead of hearing the loud crack of these waves slamming into each other, an observer on the ground would hear a series of dull thumps. While this doesn’t solve the problem completely, it should reduce the traditional sonic boom to the point it would simply blend into the normal background noise of life in an urban environment.

That said, the XB-1 clearly isn’t taking the concept quite as far as the X-59. Boom is ultimately looking to create a practical commercial aircraft, whereas NASA is researching the limits of the technology. The almost comically long nose extension on the X-59 will surely provide NASA with a wealth of data about sonic boom abatement, but probably won’t become a standard feature on aircraft of the future.

Open For Business

Boom says construction of the XB-1 will be largely completed by the end of the year, and that flight tests will start in 2021. That just so happens to be when NASA and Lockheed Martin plan on starting flight testing of the X-59. Assuming neither project is significantly delayed by the global COVID-19 pandemic, of course.

But for Boom, the successful testing of the XB-1 is just the beginning. After validating their core technology and design principles on the smaller craft, the company says they will immediately begin construction on a Mach 2.2 capable airliner they call Overture.

The 52 meter (170 ft) long aircraft would be able to carry up to 55 passengers, and is intended for high-speed international business flights. Even though it’s projected to be considerably quieter than the similarly sized Concorde, Boom envisions the Overture primarily flying transoceanic routes where noise won’t be a concern. While the timetable obviously depends on how well the XB-1 performs, Boom hopes to have the Overture ready to enter service by 2027.

69 thoughts on “Boom Hopes To Reignite Supersonic Travel With XB-1

    1. Or one of the international courier companies will buy it, because some physical objects absolutely must be there by 5:00. (no not really)

      Imaging the utility of shipping back-ups to another continent.

      1. Some physical objects absolutely must be there by 5:00. (yes really) I was once a courier. The company I worked for was a ground affiliate of World Courier. World Courier arranges the absolutely fastest delivery times of things anywhere in the world. One early Sunday morning I was “on call” and was called on to pick up a living human heart at the local children’s hospital (so sad) for delivery to a pilot waiting to board his flight, carrying the heart in the cockpit to the other end where another ground courier was to deliver it for a transplant operation.

        Fun fact, the heart was packed in a small commercial cooler, like, for a 6-pack.

        1. Airlines do counter-to-counter or crew to crew to move spare parts when they have an AOG, Aircraft On Ground, and are loosing money. They would use a service this fast. They can’t afford to have aircraft idle. Suborbital Fed-X?

      2. Why would a courier company buy an airplane that can only land or takeoff at about a half dozen airports, and can’t fly over land? The whole point of a courier company is that they can take you wherever you want to go.

        1. Given the time to get from actual-starting-point to the nearest airport, get the plane loaded, get a slot to taxi out… then at the other end get a slot to land, unload the plane, drive by road to actual-destination… VTOL planes might make things faster over sub-continental distaces than supersonic ever could. Because excep on the longest distances most of the time is spent getting from the real start and finish to the airport and getting through the busy centralised airport. Avoiding the need for airports and coming down in the closest large space to the real start and end points in an item’s (or person’s) journey would be a very useful thing.

        2. I recommend going and looking for something along the lines of “How it works: FedEx.” If I remember correctly, they have a few major hubs in or near “important” airports (inter-state/international/whatever). The bigger/more important an airport is, the more likely it will support this new plane. The more likely a given courier is already there. So, fewer airports, not really a limiting factor.

        3. That was the Concorde. Designed in the 60s. Aerospace tech has progressed a lot in those days and it’s conceivable the sonic boom will be much less pronounced now. Military jets fly over land all the time.

          Also, the “no flying over land” thing in the US was mostly based on the “not invented here” principle. If it was a US invention it would be viewed as a thing of pride :)

          1. “Military jets fly over land all the time.” Because like civilian aircraft, they are allowed to.

            “Also, the ‘no flying over land’” Again, “no flying supersonic over the U.S.”

            As for NIH, riddle me this Batman: What country broke the sound barrier first?

          2. Military jets only do it in remote places or over the ocean without special permission. President Obama was visiting Seattle one day and two sonic booms a few seconds apart nearly broke my windows and I’m about 30 miles South. If not for the distinctive double punctuation of supersonic jets I would have hidden to wait for the falling debris from whatever blew up. (A sea plane was coming to land on the lake in North Seattle so they fired off the whole security thing. Sent jets from McChord Air base in Tacoma you say? Nay nay. Something from Fort Lewis just South? Nay. Wasn’t there someone flying CAP? Maybe? But why do that when you can get a pair of Air National Guard F15’s from Portland International (a dual use airport) in Oregon to fly up Southwest Washington and half of Puget Sound (150 miles) supersonic and low altitude? There was a wee bit of damage. It was a very odd reaction to a sea plane with radio on the wrong channel. In fact, pretty odd in general, but entertaining :-)

          3. Rubbish. Military planes only exceed mach over land during exercises in designated airspace. Concorde was also prohibited from mach flight over Europe landmass.

          4. When I was a child sonic booms from nearby were common, as was the damage they caused. We lived near the flight path of an Air Force base where F106’s scrambled to intercept Russian Bear bombers. We were abouyt 6 miles from the runway. The F106 was a Mach2 aircraft and it could be supersonic not long after take-off. I think by the mid 1960’s supersonic flight over populations was banned outside of emergencies.

        4. “can’t fly over land?” Can’t fly supersonic over the U.S. is more like it. You’re basically asking why a courier company would buy a fleet of Maybach taxis. Answer: they wouldn’t.

          One of my bosses used to fly [on] the Concorde occasionally from U.S. to Europe, round trip. It was no biggie.

  1. True, but cost savings measures at most large companies generally only extend to non-executives.

    Large salaries and expense accounts tend to lead to executives feeling that these expenses are justified. I expect, this will become somewhat of a bragging right to those at that level.

    Of course, since this is all a generalization, and I know it is not true of all companies or executives.

    1. Economists refer to this kind of product as a Veblen Good (good meaning product not beneficial) where value rises with price because the value is in the social status acquired, not the good itself.

    2. When schedules are burning $millions a day and you needed a meeting on another continent to fix a problem, the cost of the flight was trivial and every hour saved is literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. You know, like the fat cat evil capitalists and their superhero movie shooting budget.

  2. I’d love to see a new take on Concorde, it was always mysterious and “space age” during my childhood (80s/90s). I finally saw one in person – two, actually – on a vacation to France where they have an engineering prototype and a decommissioned final revision on display. There’s also a 747 at the same museum, among a pile of other fascinating stuff.

    The overwhelming impression I got was that it was a spectacular piece of engineering and a terrible airplane for people to actually be on. I’m 185 cm tall (6′ 1″) and walking down the dead centre of the aisle I still had to tilt my head to stand upright. The seats are hilariously tiny. I guess the plus side is the trip is fast so you don’t have to be crammed in there for long.

    On the other hand, the 747, which kicked its ass in the international flights business, was comfortable and “airy”. I know which one I’d choose if I had to fly from London to New York.

    Of course airlines have gone the “sardines” route in the 747, effectively providing the worst of both worlds.

    1. I worked at a place in central NY and an exec flew into NYC on the concord. He said he spent more time getting from NYC to Ithaca than he spent crossing the ocean.

      It would be cool to see another supersonic jet. Right now with air travel in the state it is in, they can not support regular activity. I hope this does not fall into the wrong time wrong place thing.

    2. You said it well : “747 kicked the ass”. Absolutely. Benefits of technological advancements ideally should gradually trickle down to the lower levels of society. If like the Concorde in the past and the Boom XB-1 in the coming future, technological boons are priced exclusively for the benefit of only the upper rungs of society, it runs the risk of inviting not just Divine but also economic curse upon its practitioners over the longer haul ! The essence of this classist stupidity should have registered in Western thinking minds long ago if they had given it a chance. The Chinese cheaply mass-produced many essential items to send quality but highly priced similar Western products into economically cursed dust-bins and the businesses and industries that produced them to bankrupcies. Will the West never learn the right lessons ?

  3. One interesting thing about this airplane is that it uses carbon fiber/bis-maleimide composite for the high temperature parts of the aircraft. Almost the entire airframe is composite.

  4. The negativity towards this aircraft concept appears to be rooted in “class warfare”. Most of you haters seem to think such technology is only the domain of the wealthy. Using that logic, early transatlantic flights would never have pioneered the inexpensive fares you see nowadays (pre-covid19). For that matter, the “rich” pay a huge percentage of taxes (despite the ‘fake news’ of tax shelters, offshore accounts, etc).

    I drive a Citation X (fastest commercial passenger , Part-25, jet – since Concorde was decommissioned). Mach .92, although it was rumored during flight testing, the aircraft briefly hit Mach 1.01 The owner of the aircraft is a humble hard working businessman who employs thousands of people. By no means is he a ‘fat cat’ (quit school to look after his siblings after they became orphans, when they were old enough, joined the Army, served in ‘Nam, went to college under the GI Bill, etc -point being, many “rich” people worked hard, damn hard for what they have !). I find this class warfare hating on business people who created jobs to be disgusting.

    If Dr Zefram Cochrane created a warp drive, I’ll bet some haters would come out of the wood work claiming, oh, it’s only for the well off !! we’ll never afford it … oh wait… shades of the here and now, “space tourism”….. hmmm ….

    Here’s an apt quote from Peter Cushing – (“it is fools like you, who have blocked progress throught the ages….”)

    1. You’ve shown your hand, and now we know you might not exactly be arguing in good faith. Obviously supersonic aircraft tech isn’t going to trickle down to say, ultralights, which is closest to being actually attainable by the masses. Just like yacht tech won’t transform the canoe industry. And that’s “fine”, but please don’t suggest otherwise. But lets be honest here; Boom isn’t revolutionizing air transport. There will always be edge cases where the speed proved to be indispensable, but those are few and far between. Which might explain why the Cessna 750 was discontinued, while the slower but more comfortable 680A sells like hotcakes. In reality, the customers of the Boom will buy it for one or both of the following reasons:
      1) Bragging rights, or marketing BS if you’re a charter operator
      2) You’re so wealthy that you can afford the premium price associated with its operation, just to shave off a little bit of time flying between limited locations you could actually operate the thing out of.

      And please spare us the “every wealthy person works really super hard” nonsense. Many do, but also, many don’t.

      1. Even if it costs the same, a lot of people just won’t buy a ticket. Braniff International Airways rented Concordes for a domestic US route, flying them at just below Mach 1. The planes had American crews. Despite offering tickets at the exact same price, for the same route, on their 7xx series Boeings, BIA didn’t sell out a single Concorde flight over the one year they offered the service.

        Perhaps it was “But it won’t go supersonic, so why bother getting there just a little faster?”. Not enough airplane nerds back then with a desire to take a ride on a Concorde just because it was a ride on a Concorde.

        Had BIA’s Concorde flights been a sellout success they had planned to buy one or more of the planes outright to operate both domestically and internationally. But with not enough takers when they were next thing to giving away the tickets, they gave up on it.

      1. How do you measure it? Egyptian Pharaohs and some North African Kings were able to destroy nearby countries by simply paying a visit and throwing so much gold to the crowds and as gifts to leaders that the economy failed. The difference between wealthy and poor was incredible. The poor literally had nothing but mud and a stick – if they had enough water to make mud. The same was true of China for thousands of years. The difference between “I have a pointy stick and you have a dirt clod” is as broad as the difference between Bill Gates and the homeless meth addict who lives at an intersection near his house.

        There must be a metric used by egalitarian enthusiasts?

  5. Most people including high-powered executives simply don’t need to move that fast. As someone else said teleconferencing does work. Baring the odd bit of technology or human heart there’s really no need for it.

    1. Even when its urgent you save more time by cutting out the road parts of the journey, and the airport parts, than by making the flight faster. VTOL looks more useful than supersonic for all except trans-continental journeys.

    2. Right, teleconferencing works… Unless you are talking, secret (government or corporate) or confidential. Then teleconferencing might just get you arrested. Most of the C Band employees that would warrant this type of transport are going to be working with secret/confidential subjects when they travel.

      1. A good point. Easy example: Zoom has already been shown to be non-secure. As for “classified” in general, that includes confidential stuff like trade negotiations and international institutions.

  6. It’s very neat, and I hope this works okay. Although it’s probably going to be a lot more expensive than non-supersonic planes for a long time, and so not that widely deployed – obviously it’s nice to be able to travel faster, but how often is it actually important enough that you can pay several times as much for it?

    1. So, it might technically be faster to cross the ocean, but you will have to wait two days to actually be able to board the plane, because they don’t fly that often. And then you will probably sit at the airport for hours to get a connecting flight to your actual destination, because only a select few airports will have the fitting docks and allow this plane to start and land… I really don’t see a bright future for this service…

  7. ” flying transoceanic routes where noise won’t be a concern” –
    Just because there is no *person* there to hear it doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Who would have thought the Navy’s deep water acoustic sonar systems would harm whales?

  8. Unless you can stuff fat tourists into it like cattle and haul them on the cheap it won’t “take off”. Air passengers today are just another form of cargo, just not treated as well.

    1. Agreed. The impact of the pollution generated by this industry is well understood now. Air travel should be reduced, not made even more polluting by using smaller (in terms of passengers) planes that emit a ridiculous amount of CO2 and other stuff in the upper atmosphere just so that a small elite can have yet another way of feeling more important than the rest of us. I admire the technical challenges and the research on the subject, but it’s just like space flight : a widespread commercial exploitation sounds like a “just because you could, doesn’t mean you should” situation.

  9. Put piezoelectric material on the leading edges of the nose and wings. When you get close the the sound barrier you make them resonant the air in the bow wave. No more sonic boom.

  10. One of the benefits that Concorde brought, was, I thought, transferring isotopes with short half-lifes across the pond at sufficient speed, so there was enough to perform certain experiments. I don’t know if this was one-way or two-way traffic…

  11. > to the startling and sometimes even dangerous “sonic boom” they leave in their wake, nobody wants them flying over their homes or communities.

    That’s hardly a real reason. Yes. sonic boom could blast off your windows, but only if a plane pass 100 meters over your head with supersonic speed. However, from usual 10km it’s not louder than a distant thunder. In my childhood I lived near military airbase, they often flew over town on supersonic speeds and that double booms was absolutely usual thing for the people. Nobody took in mind. As schoolchildren we even solved a practical problem in physics class – to calculate supersonic plane speed from angle you see a flying away plane when you hear a sonic boom, taking it’s flight height is known (Mach cone and all that, you know). That was not something auwful and outstanding even for a whit. Thunderstorms was much louder, comparing to supersonic planes passing by on high altiludes.

    So, why nobody complains about thunderstorms, but sonic boom is a reason to forbid supersonic flights? Looks completely absurd for anybody who reaaly heard real sonic booms.

    1. The ban was primarily to block Concorde from American skies as a protectionist measure for our homegrown SSTs… which completely failed to be produced.

      At the altitudes the planes would have to climb to have best efficiency for supersonic flight, sonic booms would barely be heard on the ground, if they could be heard at all.

      Having the US coast to coast routes open to SST would have expanded the Concorde’s money earning ability.

      1. Don’t forget the space shuttles huge sonic boom when returning. If you were out in the open and right under the glide path you could hear that boom rolling through the night for miles. It wasn’t crazy loud, but deep and reverberating. I miss hearing that and would try to figure where they were going to reenter from and watch for the pre flight plane to get in the right spot and watch it fly over!

    2. I lived under the Concorde flight path in the U.K. let me tell you, old chap, it doesn’t need a sonic boom to be noisy. Made the windows rattle, and you couldn’t hear yourself think, let alone hold a conversation. Varied a bit with weather.

  12. Lets be real for a moment, Boeing and other ‘classical’ plane builders did some hardcore lobbying when that Concorde crashed, because they couldn’t compete otherwise, and with Continental Airlines being directly responsible (and this being clear from the get-go even tho it eventually took like 10 years for a court to decide this) the US pushed extra hard on blaming Concorde and forcing companies to fly American planes if they wanted to fly to America.

  13. Back in the 90s, I was presenting an essay which included future possibilities in SSTs, and saying boom intensity and footprint reductions would be possible with advanced computational techniques…. and the panel has a white haired aeronautics professor who was alternatively smirking, grimacing and shaking his head as I stumbled my way through it…. I don’t suppose he’s still around for me to rub his nose in it though :-D

    Though really, I only knew when I wrote it, that I may present it to a multidisciplinary panel, if I had forewarning that there was an honest to goodness, top of the aerodynamics field in Europe, academic there, I would have upped my game a bit, it was supposed to be pitched for smart but general audiences, so it was all a bit hand wavy and gloss over the details in tone. So there I was, crapping bricks, teaching grandma to suck eggs, LOL

  14. These planes all make the same mistake. There is no reason to have windows, and they reduce the strength of the aircraft. Instead of passenger windows, insert video cameras. Same with cockpit. The cockpit doesn’t even need to be at the front of the plane.

  15. Six spar wing with a bolt-on beam-type carry through structure. Probably a constant-load torsion box. No ‘faux spar’ with the control surfaces hanging directly on the rear spar Fuselage bulkheads are single flange, so the design is a reinforced stressed-skin monocoque instead of faired structure. Which is impressive. Thermal loading on the LE at Vmax on CF? Hopefully they are using basalt, ceramic, or an open-cycle – else she is going to melt when the LE’s hit Tglass.

    With that wing-loading, low speed handling is going to be pretty poor. High nose landing profile with thin wings, so it will basically handle like an F-104 without the benefit of good visibility. Might be viable with a CCTV system. I see one set of moveable surfaces on the wings (flaperons), no leading edge slat/motion systems, no spoilers, no speed brakes (unless it is inboard of the flaperons), etc. If there is any TV/VT system, there’s no evidence of feathers. There is enough vert tail/stabs, and it looks like those lowers are all-moving. Rudder is small in relation to the wetted surface area and will likely not have desired authority in the low Reynolds number regime. 3Red-FBW might be able to keep it stable, but we’re talking a nasty TO run with a scary Vrot and a coffin-corner of just a couple of degrees.

    Central engine air-intake will be “shadowed” at AOAs below landing flare. Side engines won’t have that issue. Unstarts will be “interesting” to say the least. I can’t tell from the render, but the cell in front of the wings looks to be a fuel tank.

    Nose landing gear door might hold at approach speed. A side hinge similar to the MLG would have been a better choice. Could they be using the NLG door as a low-speed brake?

    All in all, nice render and impressive composites work. It might actually fly. Landing it will be a different matter.

    1. If they’ve got any sense, the center intake gets ram charged off the top of the delta swirl. I might agree with you about the rudder though. The axis of yaw is gonna be way far back, maybe about under that intake, if it was not far behind the cockpit as it might be in a straight winged plane of conventional layout, then it would have enough leverage, but yeah, looks too small. Unless that’s the trim tab and it’s a flying tail.

  16. Concorde certainly was loud — and I am talking about the engine noise. Several times I was in a Tristar at Heathrow waiting for Concorde to take off when we were next for the runway. In my experience it was the only aircraft that could be heard inside another jet.

    Nevertheless a beautiful aircraft. A few years earlier, on a training course near the airport, things would stop for a few minutes to look out of the classroom windows when she took off in the afternoon.

    1. Part of that was because Concorde had to use reheat (afterburners) to take off from a normal sized runway.
      It also used them again to get above Mach 1, but after that it could supercruise all the way to M2.0 on dry thrust alone. At which point, basically nothing else could keep up for more than a few minutes.

    2. Yeah, quite loud, SR-71 was about 30% louder IMO… Concorde about equal to a Vulcan in loudth…. Though in most instances I observed them, pilots knew they had spectators so dunno if they tried to rattle windows/shake the ground more than necessary.

  17. Boom can’t change the laws of physics which will make their plane much less efficient than slower planes, Just like your car gets better gas mileage the closer to 50 you drive. So between polluting the air more than airlines already does, generating sonic booms, and a limited amount of airports, what we will have is an airplane built for plutocrats. This might indeed be the whole raisone d’etre, and marketing scheme for the aircraft. Mach 1.5 while the planet burns, what’s not to love!

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