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Since the retirement of Concorde, the area of commercial supersonic flight has remained quiet. There have been no new aircraft, and development has only started again in the past few years. There are currently several projects underway, with a possible return to supersonic flight within the next decade.

Concorde had its problems, though, long before its retirement. New technology since then will help with the challenges of efficiency, operating cost and noise pollution, and companies today are embracing this.

Retirement of Concorde in 2003

Concorde was an incredible achievement for its time. The joint British and French sponsored aircraft first flew in 1969, and entered service in 1976. It could carry 100 passengers at Mach 2.04 – with a record flight from New York to London of under three hours.

Other projects at the time show how challenging supersonic development was. The US-backed Boeing 2707 (or SST) was dropped before an operational prototype was built. The Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 offered higher capacity and higher speed than Concorde. However, it had a short range, high fuel burn, and high operating costs. As a result, it was only ever operated by state airline Aeroflot, and only on one route (Moscow to Almaty).

Despite its fame and glamour, Concorde was not the success it could have been. There were initially over 100 orders and options for aircraft, but in the end only British Airways and Air France ever took aircraft (fourteen in total). Its retirement was finally confirmed after its crash in Paris in 2000, but its fate was sealed long before that as a result of high ticket prices, high fuel burn, and improvements in other aircraft and cabins.

Boom Supersonic leading the way

Twenty years after Concorde’s retirement, supersonic is well on the way back. The most talked about, and furthest ahead, new project is with Boom Supersonic. The US-based company is developing the Boom Overture – a 65-80 seat premium cabin aircraft that will fly at Mach 1.7. Boom launched a scale prototype (the XB-1) in 2020, but has since radically changed the aircraft design. This was announced at the Farnborough Airshow in 2022, and most significantly switched to a four engine design.

Despite being a quadjet, it maintains a strong focus on efficiency. The company previously said it hoped to make the Overture the most sustainable aircraft in operation. Whether it can do that remains to be seen, but it will be far from the gas-guzzling design of Concorde or the Tupolev. Four engines may seem like a contradiction to this, but Boom argues it will allow each engine to be smaller, easier to engineer, and still in line with efficiency and noise targets.

There are already airline orders in place. Japan Airlines and Virgin placed early orders for 20 and 10 aircraft respectively. United Airlines followed with an order in June 2021 for up to 50 aircraft, and American Airlines placed an order for up to 60 aircraft in August 2022. There is speculation too about US military involvement. There has already been investment, and this may go further.

Other aircraft being proposed

The Boom Overture is the largest aircraft currently under development, and thus most similar to Concorde. Several others are smaller, and therefore potentially appealing to private and executive operators as well as airlines for premium use.

One of the largest other proposed aircraft is from US-based Exosonic. It is in the early stages of developing a 70 seat jet operating at Mach 1.7. It has a contract with the US Air Force to investigate the use of the aircraft for VIP or Presidential transport.

Spike Aerospace and its S-512 proposal has been around since 2014. This is a 12 to 18 passenger aircraft, operating at Mach 1.6 with low sonic boom features. One of its design differences is a windowless cabin (with screen projections instead), designed to make the engineering simpler. Boston-based Spike originally aimed to have an aircraft flying in 2018, but the deadline continues to move.

Virgin Galactic has proposals for a supersonic jet, carrying up to 19 passengers at Mach 3. This was unveiled in 2020 and has support from Boeing and Rolls-Royce. This is separate from the company’s orbital program.

Other notable supersonic projects

Lockheed Martin and NASA are working together on the X-59 QueSST (Quiet Supersonic Technology) supersonic jet. This will focus on significant reduction of the sonic boom associated with supersonic travel, opening up more possibilities for overland travel (this was a major restriction for Concorde). It is not yet proposed though as a commercial passenger jet, although Lockheed Martin has previously released early plans to develop the quiet technology into a 40-seat supersonic aircraft, called the Quiet Supersonic Technology Airliner (QSTA).

Venus Aerospace has one of the most ambitious proposals. It is looking at the possibility of even faster hypersonic travel (up to Mach 9), with a proposal for a “Stargazer” carrying twelve passengers at the edge of the atmosphere. China is also working on hypersonic transport, with a similar design called Beijing Lingkong Tianxing.

Other promising projects have already been retired. For example, the AS2 was a strong early development from Texas-based company Aerion. It was planned to carry 12 passengers at Mach 1.2, with minimal sonic boom. The project had backing from Airbus, Lockheed Martin and General Electric and acquired a number of orders. The company collapsed in 2021, however, with funding issues.

Final Thoughts

With so much development underway, and interest and orders from operators, supersonic travel seems likely to return after a long gap.

Whatever supersonic aircraft we see in the skies in the near future, they will undoubtedly have a strong focus on efficiency. Sustainability is a key theme in the aviation industry, with an overall aim of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and operating airlines will demand supersonic aircraft to be part of this.

Sources:

Boom sustainability claim: https://simpleflying.com/could-a-supersonic-jet-become-the-worlds-most-sustainable-airliner/

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