Commercial supersonic flight is getting runway ready again

Since the last Concorde flight in 2003, the travelling public has had to survive at subsonic speeds.
Since the last Concorde flight in 2003, the travelling public has had to survive at subsonic speeds.

It was chief of the US Air Force's flight test engineering lab, Jack Ridley, that said: "there was a demon that lived in the air. Whoever challenged him would die. His controls would freeze up, his plane would buffet wildly, and he would disintegrate.

"The demon lived at Mach 1. He lived behind the sound barrier through which no man would ever pass."

On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier.

It took a long time from the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound before the option was open to the general public. The joint project between Air France and British Airways resulted in the Concorde.

On January 21, 1976 the Concorde made its first commercial flight, and although it was beaten to supersonic travel by the Soviet built Tupolev Tu-144, it was much more successful than the Tupolev, logging some 244,000 hours of flight time across the total of 20 planes built.

Unfortunately, when Air France Flight 4590 took off on July 25, 2000 it ran over debris on the runway, blew a tyre and ruptured a fuel tank that resulted in the only crash of a Concorde.

Although the airlines blamed rising maintenance costs for its demise, loss of passenger confidence resulted in the last commercial flight for the Concorde on October 24, 2003.

Since then, the travelling public has had to survive at subsonic speeds. Until now.

United Airlines is the first airline to sign an aircraft purchase agreement with Boom Supersonic.

The Overture, made by Boom (nice tip of the hat to a sonic boom) has announced they will be producing an aircraft capable of flying at Mach 1.7 - or just over 1,800 km/h. This isn't quite as fast as the 2,180km/h (Mach 2.04) the Concorde was capable of, but still much faster than a typical passenger jet which cruises around Mach 0.92.

What is the attraction? Apart from telling your mates at the pub that you flew faster than the sound of your talking (a particular feat for some people I know) it reduces travel times.

The Concorde was primarily used between London and New York. This flight, normally seven hours, is reduced to three and a half. Flying Sydney to Los Angeles would drop to eight and a half hours.

More lifestyle:

The major problem - now we know there is no demon behind the sound barrier - is air resistance.

Double your speed and you quadruple your resistance. I see this just when riding my bicycle, but the Overture has one major advantage that I don't have on my two-wheeled human powered machine. Height. By moving to higher altitudes, the air is thinner and hence wind resistance decreases.

Most commercial planes fly at an altitude of 11km. The air is thin enough to reduce drag without wasting too much fuel in climbing to that height. The Overture will be above 18km.

That presents two engineering challenges. The outward pressure on the plane is greater as the cabin is pressurised to allow humans to breathe and the outside air is a chilly 57 degrees Celsius below zero. On the plus side, as the temperature decreases the speed of sound also decreases so, on a technicality, you are flying at a greater Mach multiple!

With all of the complications and heavy fuel load, Boom believes airlines can operate the Overture as a net-zero carbon aircraft. I hope they are right.

For now, start counting down the days until you can board a supersonic plane again.

Tell me if you if you want to fly supersonic at

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and now a podcaster with James Eddy on 'Tech Talk'.
This story Challenges to get supersonic flight runway ready again | Tech Talk first appeared on The Canberra Times.