1969 was a good year for technological advancements in both aerospace and space. On July 20th 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and promised to open the door to our exploration of not only the moon but also the solar system and just a few months earlier Concorde made its first test flight on the 2nd March 1969.
Now while the moon rush lasted just two and a half years and was all over by Apollo 17 in December 1972, Concorde soldiered on until Oct 24th 2003 when it was finally retired three years after the fatal crash of Air France Flight 4590 and much like the moon missions, supersonic passenger flights were relegated to the history books as we took the slow but maybe not quite so scenic route in air travel.
But as Dylan said, the times they are a-changing, space and the moon are back on the agenda once more and supersonic passenger travel could be making a comeback if Boom Supersonic has anything to do with it, so could a 21st century version of Concorde be back in the skies by the 2030s?
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Imagine bringing back Concorde for the 21st century but with the benefit of hindsight and with access to all the technological advancements that have occurred over the last 50+ years since the original was designed and where environmental concerns play a much greater role than they did in the 1960s. That is the challenge that Boom Supersonic have set themselves and if things go well we could see the return of supersonic transport by the 2030s with their Overture aircraft.
In a recent interview Blake Scholl, Boom’s CEO said that the ultimate goal was to offer anywhere in the world in 4 hours for $100. Now that’s not going to happen anytime soon but in two or three generations of the aircraft, it could be possible and make supersonic travel what subsonic travel is now but in an environmentally sustainable way.
That’s a challenge and it’s a very large one as the US startup Boom Supersonic is not an established player like Boeing or Airbus and they won’t be bankrolled by a government like the Concorde.
Whilst they have the benefit of hindsight and are looking to avoid the problems that beset Concorde, they are having to start a fresh because the tech today is very different to the tech of the 1960s and so are the requirements.
Back then this was a completely new way to transport passengers by air. The only people who had done this at the time were military pilots in fighters or specialised aircraft. High fuel consumption and things like sonic booms were seen were as just part of the territory, whilst pollution of nitrogen oxides into the stratosphere where it could deplete the ozone layer were known about but not seen as a being a major concern because there wouldn’t be a large fleet of Concorde’s flying anyway.
Concorde was 1st class only, and “the” way to fly for the small number of well-heeled travellers, celebs, businessmen and heads of government, basically those that didn’t have to worry about paying for the tickets, the cost of which were up to $20,000 in today’s money
Even before Concorde started in service, when politics got involved, Supersonic transport or SST’s as they were known as, were seen by some as the future of air transport and therefore of vital economic importance. The race to dominate this new supersonic travel would become a matter of national pride amongst the countries developing them which included the United Kingdom, France, United States and the Soviet Union, much like the race for space was been between the US and the Soviets.
When the head of Pan Am, Juan Trippe announced that he’d had placed options to buy Concordes rather than wait for the Boeing 2707, President Kennedy who was about to announce the American SST program the next day, made it very clear that things would become for “difficult” for Pam-Am if he didn’t retract the statement.
That was over 50 years ago and the world today is a very different place, private enterprise has in many ways taken the place of government initiatives in space and aerospace with the likes of Spacex doing what NASA would have done back in the 60s.
Boom Supersonic is a US startup which formed in 2014 with the aim to produce a supersonic airliner capable of carrying at least 65 passengers at up to Mach 1.7. They received an initial investment of $51M including $10 M from JAL the Japanese flag carrier. This has allowed it to develop the 1/3rd scale XB-1 demonstrator which will be starting flight tests in 2021 to test composite materials for the body, engine dynamics and sustainable fuel and ways to mitigate the sonic boom. If all goes well, production of the first full-sized Overture could start as early as 2023.
In the post-pandemic world, smaller, faster planes where you will spend less time on them with built-in social distancing might be better too.
Overture will be business class and have a similar narrow form factor and size as Concorde but with just one seat on either side of the central aisle to Concordes two. The smaller size, comparable to a 757 means that it would fit into crowded airports easily unlike the bigger wide-bodied planes like the Boeing 777 and the Airbus 380 in particular which cost airports a lot of money to adapt their stands too.
Keeping the speed to around Mach 2 like Concorde instead of trying to achieve Mach 3+ speeds also makes it a lot easier to build a new aircraft. The Boeing 2707 was to be the all singing, all dancing SST carrying up to 300 passengers at Mach 3 and to destroy concord but to do that it would have to be built from titanium and employ a massive swing-wing design all of which was costing a fortune in taxpayer funding to develop and almost led to the collapse of Boeing. In the end, it was just too big a risk for the US government to swallow which cut the program in 1971.
Concorde, on the other hand, used technologies of the day that worked, the aluminium body was cheaper and easier to make but was limited to Mach 2 and the engines were modified versions of those developed for the TSR2 British supersonic bomber.
Boom will be using composite materials to build the body of the Overture similar to those in use today in the latest airliners.
Whilst Concorde was a technological marvel at the time and flew from 1969 to 2003 it wasn’t the technology or the fatal crash that ended Concordes run, it was the economics of Airbus, the company which Aerospacial, the French builders of Concorde became.
After the Paris crash, modifications had been done to make Concorde safer and although the downturn in air travel after 9-11 affected the transatlantic routes, Concorde would still be filled on charter flights for enthusiasts, in fact it was a charter flight that crashed at Paris in 2000.
But Concorde’s biggest enemy was one of its own parents, Airbus. They were about to introduce the A380, their prestigious new super-jumbo which they had spent about $25 Billion and 15 years developing and for the airlines that were buying the A380 the first-class only Concorde posed the only real competition for those high paying flyers on the transatlantic routes.
So when in 2003 Airbus announced they would cease making crucial Concorde spares, that really was the end of the line for Concorde and with it out of the way, the A380 would rule the roost.
Although Concorde suffered the death of a thousand cuts, the first cut was the deepest and that was the sonic boom it created.
Even before Concorde launched it had a lot of interest, sales were estimated to be for 350 by 1980 and there were over 100 non-binding options from most of the major airlines of the day which can be seen in the list here.
But after the environmental protests in the US, supersonic flights were banned over populated areas leaving a much smaller number of suitable routes mostly across the Atlantic between London, Paris and JFK, Dulles on the east coast of the US and over some unpopulated areas.
Concorde burned a lot of fuel so there would be no long-distance flights across the pacific for example and it attracted almost as many protestors as it did supporters where ever it went.
In 1973 the oil crisis dramatically pushed up the price of oil making an already expensive to operate aircraft even more so. Smokey prototype engines, environmental protests, the sonic boom and the cost of fuel meant that Concorde returned home from a worldwide sales drive with zero sales.
Not even British Airways or Air France wanted it, so the British government effectively gave five Concordes worth about £100 million to British Airways on a profit-sharing deal so no money would go to the government until Concorde turned a profit, just to get the sale.
British airways and air France lost millions on Concorde during the 1970s, so in the 80s they put the prices up to double that of 1st class on normal routes and also allowed anyone with the money to charter a Concorde to go anywhere they wanted.
The charter business boomed and opened up many of the previously closed places so long as they didn’t go supersonic over populated areas. Concorde became as much an experience as a way to travel and something that could be done again.
If any new SST is fly to more routes than Concorde they have to find a way to mitigate the sonic boom. NASA has been developing the X-59 a low boom, extra-long nose demonstration aircraft with Lockheed Martin. Using supercomputer simulations they believe that they can reduce the loud bang of a sonic boom to a thump about the same as a car door slam.
This would be achieved by making edges like the nose and engine inlets longer and as such making the boom softer. Positioning the engines above the wings also could shield the shock wave from those below the aircraft.
The next big issue is sustainability and zero-carbon travel. This is achievable now with special fuels and engines modifications but they are still very expensive. Capturing carbon from the air and then placing it back into synthetic aviation fuel is seen as one way, effectively creating a carbon circle of capture, use and recapture. Biofuels are another but that plant-based material would be better used to feed people rather than fly them around in a luxury aircraft.
The engines will also be of key importance, they must be capable of Mach 2.2 without an afterburner to reduce fuel consumption, noise and pollution. Boom have teamed up with Rolls-Royce who supplied the Olympus 593 engines for Concorde to work on the engines for Overture and has said that the engines would use about 75% less fuel than used by Concorde.
Some have pointed out that using the most expensive fuel in an aircraft that will be much less economical compared to the latest subsonic aircraft could be the worst of all worlds and be one of the biggest challenges to keep the ticket prices realistic.
For Overture to work big investments by the engine builders and the fuel companies will need to take place, even though the initial returns will be small because there will few of these aircraft flying around.
In recent weeks, United Airlines has said it will purchase 15 overtures with an option for a further 35. The USAF has also awarded a contract to Boom to explore the use of SST’s for airforce executive transport and enable the rapid movement of US diplomats, business leaders and key staff around the world faster than any existing methods.
So just as we saw the growth of SpaceX over the last 15 years based on a more sustainable operation model, maybe Boom can do the same for supersonic travel, and of course if they are seen to do well, other companies and aircraft will follow and maybe we will be flying not only faster but in a greener cleaner way too at some point in the not too distant future.
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