This week, I thought I would take some time to write about a topic that has interested me since I was in elementary school: supersonic commercial flight. This area of aviation has been plagued with failures and hopes that were never realized. Nevertheless, it has a fascinating history.
Let us begin in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy made a speech in which he rallied the United States to develop a supersonic passenger jet by the end of the decade. This challenge took a form that was similar to the President’s call for a moon mission, suggesting that building a supersonic transport may have had similar significance in his perspective. This speech also came amidst the Cold War, where the United States was competing with the Soviet Union for technological supremacy. Indeed, there were reports that the Soviets were working on a supersonic passenger jet, and creating one before the Russians would be a nontrivial boost to American prestige. Moreover, the French and British teamed up to build what would become the Concorde in 1962, so the United States would also be competing with Britain and France.
Following this speech, there was a passionate competition among American aircraft manufacturers to win the contract to build the supersonic transport. The three most prominent competitors were North American Aviation, Lockheed, and Boeing. In 1967, Boeing announced that it had won the competition with its elaborate Boeing 2707 aircraft. This plane would carry upwards of 300 passengers at three times the speed of sound, reducing a trip from New York to London to under three hours. Many airlines, including the renowned Pan American World Airways, placed orders for the Boeing 2707 and hoped to begin operations by 1970.
Unfortunately, this was where the problems began. First, the original design for the plane would have been too heavy. To be cost-effective, it would have had to fly with no passengers! There were also issues with finding materials that could withstand the intense heat of Mach 3 flight and creating the proper infrastructure in airports to accommodate such a groundbreaking jet. Boeing, in turn, went through several design revisions. But as the program dragged on, funding dried up, and the United States government finally terminated the project in 1972.
Ultimately, Concorde would be the only supersonic passenger jet to enter regular service. But even Concorde would have a life filled with troubles. Its loud sonic boom prevented it from flying over land, leading most of its original customers to cancel their orders. While British Airways and Air France did operate it in transoceanic flights, fuel inefficiency led to high ticket prices and a shortage of customers. A deadly crash in 2000 put the final nail in the coffin for the Concorde experiment, and the aircraft was retired completely in 2003.
There have recently been some efforts to revive high-speed commercial flight. Lockheed Martin is currently testing the experimental X-59, which aims to reduce the sonic boom from a loud bang to a quiet thump. The company Boom Technology is also trying to make a small, Mach 1.7 airliner that consumes eco-friendly fuel. This venture looks promising, as United Airlines has ordered 15 Boom Overture jets and hopes to begin operating them in 2029. However, if the past is any indication, there will be a multitude of unforeseen problems in this ambitious plan. While I hope to one day fly on an airliner from Boom, there will undoubtedly be much work to be done before this could become a reality.