Every nation has icons of national pride: a sports star, a space mission, or a piece of architecture. Usually they encapsulate a country’s spirit, so citizens can look up from their dreary lives and say “Now there‘s something I can take pride in!” Concorde, the supersonic airliner beloved by the late 20th century elite for their Atlantic crossings, was a genuine bona-fide British engineering icon.
But this icon is unique as symbols of national pride go, because we share it with the French. For every British Airways Concorde that plied the Atlantic from London, there was another doing the same from Paris, and for every British designed or built Concorde component there was another with a French pedigree. This unexpected international collaboration gave us the world’s most successful supersonic airliner, and given the political manoeuverings that surrounded its gestation, the fact that it made it to the skies at all is something of a minor miracle. Continue reading “The Politics Of Supersonic Flight: The Concord(e)”→
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.
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.
If you are a certain age, you probably remember the promise of supersonic transports. The Concorde took less than 4 hours to go across the Atlantic, but it stopped flying in 2003 and ended commercial supersonic passenger flights But back in the 1970s, we thought the Concorde would give way not to older technology, but to newer. After all, man had just walked on the moon and suborbital transports could make the same trip in 30 minutes and — according to Elon Musk — go between any two points on the Earth in an hour or less. A key component to making suborbital flights as common as normal jet travel is a reasonable engine that can carry a plane to the edge of space. That’s where the UK’s Sabre engine comes into play. Part jet and part rocket, the engine uses novel new technology and two different operating modes to power the next generation of spaceplane. The BBC reports that parts of the new engine will undergo a new phase of testing next month.
The company behind the technology, Reaction Engines, Ltd, uses the engine in an air-breathing jet mode until it hits 5.5 times the speed of sound. Then the same engine becomes a rocket and can propel the vehicle at up to 25 times the speed of sound.
The history of aviation is full of notable X-Planes, a number of which heralded in new generations of flight. The Bell X-1 became the first aircraft to break the speed of sound during level flight in 1947 with the legendary Charles “Chuck” Yeager at the controls. A few years later the X-2 would push man up to Mach 3, refining our understanding of supersonic flight. In the 1960’s, the North American built X-15 would not only take us to the edge of space, but set a world speed record which remains unbroken.
Compared to the heady post-war days when it seemed the sky was quite literally the limit, X-Planes in the modern era have become more utilitarian in nature. They are often proposed but never built, and if they do get built, the trend has been towards unmanned subscale vehicles due to their lower cost and risk. The few full-scale piloted X-Planes of the 21st century have largely been prototypes for new military fighter jets rather than scientific research aircraft.
But thanks to a commitment from NASA, the Lockheed Martin X-59 might finally break that trend and become another historic vehicle worthy of the X-Plane lineage. Construction has already begun on the X-59, and the program has recently passed a rigorous design and timeline overview by NASA officials which confirmed the agency’s intent to financially and logistically support the development of the aircraft through their Low Boom Flight Demonstrator initiative. If successful, the X-59 will not only help refine the technology for the next generation of commercial supersonic aircraft, but potentially help change the laws which have prevented such aircraft from operating over land in the United States since 1973.
On October 24th, 2003 the last Concorde touched down at Filton Airport in England, and since then commercial air travel has been stuck moving slower than the speed of sound. There were a number of reasons for retiring the Concorde, from the rising cost of fuel to bad publicity following a crash in 2000 which claimed the lives of all passengers and crew aboard. Flying on Concorde was also exceptionally expensive and only practical on certain routes, as concerns about sonic booms over land meant it had to remain subsonic unless it was flying over the ocean.
The failure of the Concorde has kept manufacturers and the civil aviation industry from investing in a new supersonic aircraft for fifteen years now. It’s a rare example of commercial technology going “backwards”; the latest and greatest airliners built today can’t achieve even half the Concorde’s top speed of 1,354 MPH (2,179 km/h). In an era where speed and performance is an obsession, commercial air travel simply hasn’t kept up with the pace of the world around it. There’s a fortune to be made for anyone who can figure out a way to offer supersonic flight for passengers and cargo without falling into the same traps that ended the Concorde program.
With the announcement that they’ve completed the initial design of their new Affinity engine, General Electric is looking to answer that call. Combining GE’s experience developing high performance fighter jet engines with the latest efficiency improvements from their civilian engines, Affinity is the first new supersonic engine designed for the civil aviation market in fifty five years. It’s not slated to fly before 2023, and likely won’t see commercial use for a few years after that, but this is an important first step in getting air travel to catch up with the rest of our modern lives.
In the early days of PBS member station WGBH-Boston, they in conjunction with MIT produced a program called Science Reporter. The program’s aim was explaining modern technological advances to a wide audience through the use of interviews and demonstrations. This week, we have a 1966 episode called “Ticket Through the Sound Barrier”, which outlines the then-current state of supersonic transport (SST) initiatives being undertaken by NASA.
MIT reporter and basso profondo [John Fitch] opens the program at NASA’s Ames research center. Here, he outlines the three major considerations of the SST initiative. First, the aluminium typically used in subsonic aircraft fuselage cannot withstand the extreme temperatures caused by air friction at supersonic speeds. Although the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde was skinned in aluminium, it was limited to Mach 2.02 because of heating issues. In place of aluminium, a titanium alloy with a melting point of 3,000°F is being developed and tested.