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Is supersonic passenger travel set to make a comeback?


June 22, 2014

The Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept (Image: Lockheed Martin/NASA)

The Lockheed Martin future supersonic advanced concept (Image: Lockheed Martin/NASA)

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On October, 24 2003, the last Concorde jet went out of service. What began as a promise of supersonic travel for all, ended as a museum exhibit of a false dawn. However, that may be changing with companies such as Aerion and Spike Aerospace looking to take business jets supersonic. At Aviation 2014, an annual event of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, NASA presented examples of the space agency’s work on new technologies that could lead to a revival of civilian supersonic travel within the next 15 years.

When the realistic prospect of supersonic passenger travel first came up in the 1950s, it seemed like the logical progression in the field of civil aviation, which had already undergone the sort of growth that the digital field enjoys today. The idea of flying routinely from London to New York in three hours was seen as not only a great boost to the economy, but also a way of bringing the world closer together.

In the 1960s, the Americans, British, French, and Soviets were all keen on developing and putting into service passenger planes that could cruise at over Mach 1. It was a technological race that was regarded at the time as being as great a technological accomplishment as the Apollo Moon landings. There were visions of fleets of supersonic Concordes, Tupolevs, Boeings, and Lockheeds flying around the world wearing the liveries of the great airlines.

Unfortunately, the aviation annus horribilis of 1973 put paid to those dreams. The Soviet TU-144 “Concordski” crashed at the Paris Air Show, the first OPEC oil embargo threw the already borderline economics of supersonic flight into a cocked hat, and the US FAA put a ban on supersonic overland flights in US territory. The result was programs cancelled en masse, empty order books, and a sum total of 20 Concordes that flew with Air France and British Airways because their governments made them. They were beautiful, full of prestige and a brilliant accomplishment, but, on balance, a technology that was a couple of generations ahead of its time.

That seemed to be the end of any supersonic flights except for military aircraft, but aviation technology has come a long way in 40 years, and private firms and government agencies are taking a fresh look at civilian supersonic planes. In 1969, they may have been ahead of their time, but perhaps their time is now arriving.

Boeing's future supersonic advanced concept (Image: NASA/Boeing)

Building a Concorde Mark II is a lot more than just dusting off the old blueprints and updating them. If supersonic passenger service is to succeed, there are major hurdles to be overcome. The greatest of these is taming the sonic boom. These days, unless they spend a lot of time in the middle of the ocean or near military air bases, few people hear sonic booms very often, but they’re still a window-rattling problem as the air in front of the supersonic liner tries to get out of the way, only to form a shock wave on the nose of the aircraft.

"Lessening sonic booms – shock waves caused by an aircraft flying faster than the speed of sound – is the most significant hurdle to reintroducing commercial supersonic flight," says Peter Coen, head of the High Speed Project in NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. "Other barriers include high altitude emissions, fuel efficiency and community noise around airports."

How to solve this is partly a matter of engineering, partly public attitudes, and partly updating FAA regulations that were pretty vague when they were written, so NASA and its partners are taking a three-pronged approach towards coming up with a solution.

According to NASA, the aerospace agency is currently developing the technologies that could be used in civilian supersonic craft by 2025. Since not all sonic booms are equal, one of NASA’s projects involves having members of the public at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, listen to a variety of 140 sonic booms and polling their responses.

This study, and similar ones at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base, California, will help NASA with the second objective, which is sitting down with the FAA and the International Civil Aviation Organization to update the regulations on supersonic flight that have stood since the 1970s. NASA says that the loudness of sonic booms isn't defined, so NASA and its partners are working with the regulatory agencies on what an acceptable noise level might be.

On the engineering front, which takes up the lion’s share of the effort, NASA centers scattered across the United States in California, Ohio and Virginia are trying to understand the nature of sonic booms as well as coming up with aircraft designs that can minimize them.

At the Ames Research Center, wind tunnel tests are conducted to study how altering of the fuselage, wings, engines, engine nacelles, and other components can shape the sonic boom in a way that could lengthen it or spread it out, turning a thunderclap into a loud rumble. The best design so far involves a needle-like nose, a sleek fuselage and delta or highly-swept wing.

Examples of these can been seen in designs from major aircraft manufacturers that NASA is helping to test in its supersonic wind tunnel. One from Lockheed Martin looks a bit like a stretched Concorde with a third engine mounted on the wing, while the Boeing version is remarkable for having two engines set on top of the wings. According to NASA, engine mounting can be an important factor in moderating sonic booms. Mounting the engines above the wings, for example, can send the boom upwards, but this can affect performance.

These designs are undergoing wind tunnel tests at NASA with specially constructed models that reproduce the characteristics of the full-size vehicle at supersonic velocities. This allows scientists to measure the boom signatures at various distances while estimating engine performance, with this data then used to validate and tweak computer models.

Other tests focused on wind tunnel tests of air inlets and exhausts to study engine nacelles and flow configurations and rates at various speeds from subsonic to supersonic up to Mach 1.8, to learn more about how to integrate them into supersonic plane design without compromising performance.

"The purpose of our testing was to measure the impact of the nacelle configurations on the boom signatures," says Don Durston, a High Speed Project engineer at Ames Research Center. "Preliminary results showed that as expected, with Boeing's nacelles being on top of the wing, any small changes there had negligible effects on the boom, Lockheed’s model having the two of the nacelles under the wing, did show a measurable impact on boom; however, that effect was predicted, and could be accounted for in the design process Lockheed used."

"We've convinced ourselves that we have the design tools and we've validated the level we need to design to," added Coen. "We've reached a point where quiet, low-boom overland supersonic passenger service is achievable."

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

A new SST would be a great thing, but the tickets will be beyond the range of the great majority of us. We'd just like flights where we don't feel like we've been folded for storage.


@ watersworm The problem is in takeoffs and landings I once worked out that Concord got better than 15mpg in supersonic cruise.


The problem isn't the sonic boom...its the jihadist boom. Get serious with enemy identification, eliminate the TSA and fly anywhere faster.


Air travel for the rich and super-rich. I suggest something for the common folk. So that air travel can be for the not so rich. I guess the poor eventually own a horse, not just the rich knights.

S Michael

There is air travel for the common folk S Michael, it's called budget airlines! (and I don't know about your part of the world, but where I live - Australia - air travel is actually the cheapest form of transportation between cities by far!)


The blanket ban of supersonice commerical flights over land was the equivalent of banning flights of jet engined aircraft over land because jets were so much noisier than the piston-prop and turbo-prop aircraft they progressively replaced.

Research into reducing the noise from sonic booms, and having official regulation of the noise, is akin to the development of the jet-engined aircraft over the past 50 years, and is long overdue.

In 20 years from now, supersonic commerical flights over land could be no more objectionable than jet flights are today.

D Francis

David F., I read about some of the 'problems' that were supposedly caused by the sonic boom and they rediculous and unfounded. I am glad they are doing research into solving the sonic boom. It would be nice to get from from one coast to the other without having to spend the whole day in the air. Perhaps it will lead to commercially viable super sonic air lines. I believe Boing had one being developed in the past.


Another hurdle, not the least, is operational costs, specially fuel consumption !!!


My favorite Concorde moment was Phil Collins playing on the London stage for Live Aid, then hopping a Concorde across the ocean and playing on the Philadelphia stage as well.

The most likely replacement for the SSTs of the 1970s will be supersonic business jets. Something the size of a G5 or a regional jetliner, that will be cost-effective for those who want to cut transoceanic flight times in half.

Jon A.

Why is it that the regulations change only when it would benefit the US corporations ? Originally FAA banned supersonic passenger flight when ALL the US aircraft manufacturers fell flat on their faces in designing one ! I must say US is is a very poor loser regardless of the field!


What happened to the biplane idea?

John Riley

..im sorry to say sonic boom is NOT the most challenging problem in supersonic flight.. on an engineering point of view, that can be solved thru engineering.. its just getting the right design mix to dissipate the sound, instead of a thundering clap.. the most challenging problem is fuel economy and fuel itself... we all know that according to recent studies, world oil reserves will only last 53.1 years, & if we dont change our consumption patterns.. and will be less if we have a yearly increasing appetite for it.. we also know that thrust is a major issue to overcome.. and to increase thrust, we would need an engine that will be able to sustain the thrust traveling at the speed of sound.. this will most definitely consume large volumes of fuel.. we are now at a point that there is no way except to increase prices of fuel.. expensive fuels was also the turning point of the commercial supersonic flights of the 1960s.. it was just more expensive to fly the plane than what they can charge for the ride.. perhaps we shud consider another option..


..in my opinion, the space-x program is a better solution.. traveling in sub-space altitude can overcome most of the problems of a supersonic flight .. which includes sonic booms and fuel economy...


I live near O'hare and the jet noise is HIGHLY objectionable. I can only imagine the noise from an SST. God forbid!


I'm skeptical that a practical SST will appear in our lifetimes due to cost, noise and practical issues. R. E. G. Davies explains this in his book Supersonic (Airliner) Non-Sense : A Case Study in Applied Market Research. I agree with him.

Here's the book listing. http://www.amazon.com/Supersonic-Airliner-Non-Sense-Applied-Research/dp/1888962097

Bill Hough

It only needs to be fast, because sitting in planes suck. If they fixed the "suck" part better, people wouldn't hate slow planes as much. Imagine space more like a fast sea ferry or something - room to move around, things to do, or even rooms and cabins.

We're only crammed in like sardines because some idiot beancounter hasn't figured out yet that giving us more room isn't going to cost any more (that is to say - the idiot plane designers are making things designed to carry crammed sardines - the weight-to-room ratio is all wrong and stupid.) eg: Why is a rowing skull for one bigger than a rowboat for 4...


Am I the only one that thinks those great enormous needle noses are TOTALLY impractical for taxiing?


@ christopher The more plane you have for passenger the greater the percentage of the fuel being burned is used to move the plane making the price point per passenger to break even higher. If you half the number of passengers you have to double the price of tickets

A rowing skull for one is longer than a rowboat for four it is also far shallower draft as it is built for speed whereas the row boat for four is wider and sticks far deeper into the water it is also much more stable and can take a greater pounding than the skull but is much much slower.

@ MisterH The real problem is for landing when you can't see the runway. This is why the Concord and other such planes have the drooping nose. Today it is much more practical to use video systems because the cameras and screens have become so much more reliable and lighter.


I don't see how the issue with "high altitude emissions" could be overcome. Injecting more climate gases into the edge of the stratosphere and the ionosphere is the last thing we need now.


rbhebron, Are you sure about that point one date? It's ridiculous to think we could even guess how long our oil will hold out with new discoveries almost daily. Also it must be these "recent studies" you're referring to don't include fracking because with that technology the date is a couple hundred years in the future not fifty.

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