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Supersonic aircraft… is there a substitute for the Concorde?

Picture of José Luis Periañez

José Luis Periañez

AERTEC / Aerospace engineering

Remember the Concorde? Perhaps the youngest have a vague recollection of the plane that fascinated children (and the not so young also) the world over at the end of the 20th century. Personally, I still remember that February of 1999, when I had the opportunity to see it while it was undergoing testing at SVQ (Seville airport).

If the name doesn’t tell you anything, the Concorde was an aircraft capable of providing passenger flights at supersonic speeds.

The Concorde was an innovative aircraft in many aspects and had momentous times in aeronautics; but many of the arguments that led to its creation are no longer on the aviation scene.  

But, you may wonder, what are supersonic speeds? I’m sure that at some point this concept has rung a bell, but wasn’t fully clear to you. It means exceeding the speed of sound, that is, 1,235.52 km/h. It would be like traveling back and forth from Seville to Malaga almost 3 times in just one hour. Or completing the journey between Paris and London in about twenty minutes. In short, flabbergasting!

In order for you to know a little about the history of this type of travel, we would have to go back to 1947, with the first manned flight that broke the speed of sound aboard the Bell X-1 model. Since then, mankind has been able to build several aircraft that have surpassed this milestone, with the Lockheed SR-71 (better known as “Blackbird”) taking home the grand prize. It reached almost a speed of Mach 3, that is, three times the speed of sound. However, it is believed that the aircraft was able to exceed said speed by far, as classified information about this military project is still preserved.

In the late 1950s, a global race began to develop a supersonic passenger aeroplane, a race that even turned into a fight for national prestige. Not surprisingly, these projects were heavily subsidised by states. In the United States, they pinned their hopes on the developments of Lockheed Martin (with its L2000 model) and Boeing (the 2707). In Europe, France bet on the Caravelle model of the state company Sud Aviation, while in the United Kingdom, the focus was on the Bristol Aeroplane Company model 233. Finally, the Soviet Union opted for the Tupolev TU144.

In the case of France and the United Kingdom, a strategic agreement was reached to combine their efforts and develop the Concorde (harmony), which resulted in a series of mergers in both countries due to pressure from the states. In the United Kingdom it was British Aircraft Corporation (merger of English Electric, Vickers-Armstrong, Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft), and in France it was Aerospatiale (merger of Sud Aviation, Nord Aviation and Société d’études et de réalisation d’engins balistiques, SÉREB).

In the US, the idea was written off and the project abandoned, while the Soviet Union forged ahead and the TU144 made its maiden flight on 31 December 1968, a couple of months before the Concorde. However, it failed commercially and its flights were very irregular due to its low range and high maintenance costs.

Focusing on passenger transport flights and going back to our yearned Concorde, it really was the only commercial airplane with the ability to exceed the speed of sound that was really capable of fulfilling its mission. It stopped operating in 2003 after a tragic accident during takeoff three years earlier. But this event alone was what resulted in the end of its operational life, as other reasons that led to the cessation of this aircraft’s operations exist.

The most relevant were the deafening noise produced by its engines, pollution and its high maintenance costs. Such was the case, that it was banned in part of the United States, alleging that the noise it produced during takeoff was unbearable. Gossips have it that this harassment and continuous toppling attempts from the American giant were fueled only by its clear objective of blowing up the project, since the U.S. lacked an aircraft with similar characteristics.

From a commercial point of view, one of the most obvious drawbacks was that only a small part of society could afford to pay for a return ticket worth ten thousand dollars at the time. Quite a bargain. However, and in its favor, the main advantage to fly the Concorde was the speed at which it was able to reach its destination. Flying from London to New York in just over three hours was a blink of an eye compared to just over eight hours for a conventional flight. A luxury that only the wealthiest of the time could afford.

Would it make sense to see a supersonic passenger plane at an airport again?

Honestly no, it’s that simple. If we look at the evolution of air transport and the expectations of the aviation industry, we can clearly see that one of the most important determining factors is the imposition of increasingly strict environmental restrictions. In this context, it is easily understandable that the use of these aircraft would be very limited.

On the other hand, a more conservative global economic policy collides today head-on with the waste generated during the first boom of supersonic aircraft. It was a time when everyone wanted to make significant technological leaps at almost any cost. Consequently, greater optimization of air transportation aimed at obtaining the highest profitability with the least possible environmental and economic impact makes its operation almost unfeasible.

Despite what has already been said, this type of aircraft continues to be proposed and developed by some companies around the world. Unfortunately for them, for now their endeavors join but a long list of aircraft that did not make it beyond the prototype of the sixties.

That is the case of the model that gives the title to this article, the AS2. Unlike at the turn of the last century, this range of aircraft has focused on an even smaller niche market after the bitter fall of the Concorde. In other words, companies are focusing on creating a private aircraft rather than a passenger plane for commercial flights.

Aerion, the company involved in the development of AS2, announced in mid-2021 the cancellation of the project due to lack of financial resources. It seems that not even its direct collaboration with NASA, which has a strong interest in relaunching supersonic flights, has been able to save the ambitious project.

The current priorities of the aeronautical industry are to improve the efficiency of aircraft, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, ultimately, promote a more sustainable aviation. Speed is not currently a challenge in itself, especially if unaccompanied by adequate commercial expectations.

Indeed, if we talk about supersonic passenger flight, it seems its heyday has long passed.



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