Sonic Thump: The History and Future of Commercial Supersonic Aviation

Recent news reports have given attention to NASA’s low-boom flight demonstration (LBFD) project. Per the NASA website, the mission “has two goals: 1) design and build a piloted, large-scale supersonic X-plane with technology that reduces the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump; and 2) fly the X-plane over select U.S. communities to gather data on human responses to the low-boom flights and deliver that dataset to U.S. and international regulators. Using this data, new sound-based rules regarding supersonic flight over land can be written and adopted, which would open the doors to new commercial cargo and passenger markets to provide faster-than-sound air travel.” If successful, the project could make possible three-hour flights from New York to Los Angeles, a flight path that currently takes six hours.

Presently, all supersonic aircraft suffer from the same annoying problem; they cause loud “sonic booms” as they accelerate past the speed of sound (approximately 343 meters per second). Sonic booms are so loud that they’ve been known to shatter windows on the ground in areas near supersonic flight paths, and are generally considered to be a nuisance. For this reason, supersonic flight over land has been banned in the U.S. since 1973.

Over the past 15 years, there’s been a complete absence of supersonic options in the commercial aviation industry. The last (and only) plane to offer such service was the fabled Concorde, operated primarily by British Airways and Air France from 1976 to 2003. In its day, the Concorde was the Rolls Royce of commercial aircraft, with roundtrip ticket prices averaging $12,000. Despite its cramped cabin, wealthy flyers could indulge by drinking champagne and eating French pastries off bone china, all while viewing the curvature of the earth outside their windows on the three-and-a-half hour flight from New York to Paris. Unfortunately, the Concorde was abruptly retired in 2003, owing to high operating costs, low flight demand following the 9/11 terror attacks, and public concern regarding the aircraft’s safety after a lethal crash in 2000 claimed the lives of all 100 passengers and nine flight crew on board.

Should NASA be successful in its testing of the LBFD, and if engineers can figure out how to make this technology financially attainable to the general populace, it could mark a return to (and, simultaneously, expansion of) commercial supersonic aviation. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin has been awarded the nearly $250 million contract to build a prototype, and the two organizations hope to begin testing in 2021. Just hope they plan on serving champagne!

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