Post the 2003 Concorde tragedy, supersonic passenger travel has been lying low for quite some time. Now, NASA, and companies like Boom, Virgin Galactic, Lockheed Martin and others are working on bringing back supersonic jets to the skies; and US airlines like American Airlines (and earlier United Airlines) are placing orders. Find out all about supersonic travel, its past and about-to-Boom future.
American Airlines will buy up to 20 supersonic Overture planes from aircraft maker Boom Supersonic. With this, American Airlines becomes the second major US airline to bet on supersonic passenger travel after United Airlines made a similar commitment to buy 15 Overture jets in 2021.
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As part of the deal, American Airlines has put down a non-refundable deposit on the planes and also retained options for 40 more Boom Overture flights.
The revival of interest in supersonic commercial jet travel comes nearly two decades since the world last witnessed commercial supersonic flight Concorde, flown by Air France and British Airways. The Concorde was retired after 27 years of service in 2003 following a deadly crash and high costs of fuel and maintenance.
The Overture, which is still on the drawing board and years away from flying, is a supersonic jet which promises to take passengers from London to New York in about three and a half hours.
What is a supersonic jet?
A supersonic jet is an aircraft that travels faster than the speed of sound. This means that the jet will move faster than 660mph (1,060km/h) at an altitude of 60,000ft (18,300m). Typically, a passenger jet flies at a speed of 560mph (900km/h).
The Overture is a supersonic jet which is said to fly at twice the speed of subsonic commercial jets that are used now. The supersonic jet will come with an extra engine, contoured fuselage and gull wings.
According to Boom, the Overture will fly as fast as Mach 1.7, or 1,304 mph. This will dramatically decrease the time of trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights. Over land, these planes will fly 20 percent faster than subsonic flights.
With the Overture, a flight from Seattle to Tokyo, which usually takes around 10 hours, would be done in six hours.
The supersonic planes will be able to carry 65-80 passengers and also fly on sustainable aviation fuel, bringing down emissions, Boom said.
Supersonic in the recent past
The Concorde, which flew at a speed of Mach 2.04, was even faster than the Boom jets. The Concorde flew its first supersonic flight in 1976 from New York City to London in three hours. The last commercial flight touched the skies in 2003. There were a number of reasons why the Concorde was discontinued, including the high operational and fuel expense.
Although the Concorde earned a place in history, the Soviet Union’s Tupolev Tu-144 made its maiden flight two months before it in 1968. However, production of the plane was quietly halted before the programme was finally grounded in 1984.
Pros and cons of supersonic jets
One of the biggest benefits is that supersonic jets bring down travel time. However, two of its primary concerns are noise and pollution. The Boom got its name from the sonic boom caused by the plane travelling faster than the speed of sound. The sonic boom can be heard on the ground like a loud explosion or thunderclap. To check the boom, planes have to be flown at a lower speed till they are out over the ocean and away from the populated areas. As a result, the noise limits the areas where these planes can fly.
Another big concern is the high fuel consumption of such jets.
"In order to fly supersonic, you will need more power, you will need more fuel," BBC quoted Kathy Savitt, Chief Commercial Officer of Boom, as saying. However, the Overture is expected to be operated as a "net-zero carbon aircraft," Savitt said.
The supersonic jet builders
While Boom plans to roll out its supersonic jets in 2025 and carry its first passengers by 2029, a number of other companies are also working on supersonic airliner projects. US space agency NASA is developing a "quiet" supersonic jet, called the X-59. The agency plans to pass on the tech to the commercial sector. However, its first prototype is yet to take flight and the first test is not expected until later this year.
Lockheed Martin has been collaborating with NASA on the project X-59 QueSST in the past decade. The company plans to test the X-59 and begin designing the QSTA by 2023.
Exosonic plans to make a 70-seat Mach 1.8 passenger plane. In September 2020, the company won a contract from the US Air Force Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, which runs the United States’ presidential and executive airlift fleet.
Spike Aerospace, founded by Indian-origin American Vik Kachoria, had earlier promised to operate the supersonic jet by 2018. It plans to bring in a low-boom, Mach 1.6 capable aircraft that can carry 12-18 passengers.
Virgin Galactic is partnering Rolls-Royce to develop a supersonic jet.
When can these flights become a reality?
As yet, Boom does not have an engine manufacturer lined up and is in talks with Rolls Royce and others.
For the supersonic jets to become a reality, these need to be approved by foreign regulators and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates commercial airlines. However, it is still unclear when these flights will get approval.
With the US government keen on reviving supersonic jets, the FAA is working to establish new rules of the road for such aircraft, said the regulator’s website.