Supersonic’s birthday will push developers who need speed | To analyse
Humanity’s obsession with speed will be a hot topic when the 75th anniversary of the first supersonic flight arrives on October 14.
Chuck Yeager’s historic flight in the Bell X-1 not only broke the sound barrier by reaching Mach 1.04, but propelled him to become an aviation icon – a status he has earned until ‘on his death at the age of 97 in December 2020.
Of course, making a military aircraft travel at supersonic speed has not been a major engineering challenge since shortly after its historic achievement in the experimental rocket-propelled aircraft in 1947. Barely 15 years later, Lockheed flew the M3-plus A-12; a precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Today’s best fighter jets offer super cruising performance: the ability to maintain M1-plus flight without prolonged use of afterburner.
With the industry’s only supersonic airliner, Concorde, having been retired in 2003, will the current push for faster-than-sound commercial air travel be able to sustain – or even gain even more – over its momentum in 2022?
The multiple private companies currently pursuing designs for supersonic airliners or business jets are in a race to take off, but 2021 has seen one of the most prominent players – Aerion – go out of business. The company halted work on its 10-passenger AS2 model after an 18-year development effort, after failing to raise the capital needed to move from design to production.
Only time will tell if its developer peers, including Boom, Exosonic, Spike, and Virgin Galactic, will be more successful at converting the paper commitments into the hard cash they need to turn their dreams into reality.
While major carriers including Japan Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have all expressed interest in bringing these supersonic products into service, will their shareholders be on board once the real money has to be spent on such expensive projects? And perhaps just as important, will the traveling public be willing to pay a higher fare to travel faster, at a time when environmental considerations are becoming increasingly important?
Another milestone planned over the next 12 months will involve NASA’s Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology demonstrator flying for the first time. The results of its subsequent community flyover missions – intended to prove the “low-boom” acoustic qualities of the needle-nose design – are expected to emerge by the middle of the decade.
Yeager’s revolutionary X-1 rocket bears the famous name Glamor Glennis – maybe 2022 will shed some light on whether current proponents of supersonic air travel will be able to successfully tout the luxury time-saving credentials of their products as the aviation industry takes the leap in a much bigger race: toward achieving net zero emission flight.
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