• Supersonic aircraft: Will they return to commercial flights?

The speed of sound, known as Mach 1, has long been a target for the aviation industry, lending a unique allure to supersonic aircraft capable of breaking this barrier.

Today’s post delves into the subject of supersonic aviation, offering a detailed look at what these aircraft are, the notable models from history, and intriguingly, the potential for their return to commercial service. What are your thoughts? Join us as we explore!

Firstly, what defines a supersonic plane?

A supersonic aircraft surpasses the speed of sound, typically flying at speeds above Mach 1, which is around 767 mph or 1,234 km/h at sea level.

How is this possible? Through the use of powerful engines, aerodynamic designs tailored to minimise drag, and materials durable enough to withstand the extreme forces and temperatures encountered at supersonic speeds.

Interested in more? Extensive information about the speed of aircraft can be found in our linked post.

What occurs when the sound barrier is broken?

Breaking the sound barrier results in a significant boom, reaching up to 110 dB, known as a ‘sonic boom’.

This phenomenon is caused by shock waves created when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. Imagine the ripples spreading out when a stone is thrown into a calm pond—only this time, they are invisible!

Which was the first supersonic aircraft?

The Bell X-1 was the pioneer to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. Developed secretly and experimentally by the U.S. Air Force, the NACA (a precursor to NASA), and Bell Aircraft Corporation, it was distinct from traditional propeller aircraft.

Propelled by a rocket engine with four chambers, using liquid oxygen and ethyl alcohol as fuel, its robust, bullet-shaped fuselage was crafted from high-strength alloys to endure the rigors of supersonic flight.

And the pilot? This groundbreaking feat was accomplished by Chuck Yeager, a legendary test pilot, marking a significant milestone in aviation history. Following this, Yeager emerged as a symbol of bravery and composure under pressure.

Commercial Supersonic Aircraft

Following the Bell X-1, several supersonic aircraft have made significant marks in aviation history, yet only two have served in commercial operations.

The Concorde

Undoubtedly the most iconic, from 1976 to 2003, the Concorde reigned as the star of commercial supersonic travel, ferrying passengers across the Atlantic in half the time of standard aircraft.

Tupolev Tu-144

Alongside the Concorde, it was one of the only commercial supersonic aircraft in service. Despite their technological marvel, high maintenance costs and noise issues eventually curtailed their operational lifespan.

Supersonic Military Aircraft

As you might expect, supersonic flight revolutionised military aviation, offering unparalleled speed advantages. Here are some legendary examples of military supersonic aircraft.

North American F-100 Super Sabre

One of the first widely used supersonic fighters, part of the U.S. ‘Century Series’.

It served notably as a fighter-bomber during the Vietnam War, recognised for its swept-wing design and notorious for its challenging handling.

Convair F-102 Delta Dagger

Designed as a supersonic interceptor to defend against Soviet bombers. Its distinctive delta wing shape provided excellent high-speed performance.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

A high-altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft, designed to be untouchable at speeds over Mach 3 and at altitudes beyond the reach of enemy defenses. Its stealthy design and advanced materials set it apart as the most sophisticated of its era.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

Regarded as a fifth-generation fighter, known for its stealth, extreme manoeuvrability, and sensor fusion, providing unparalleled situational awareness. The F-22 is among the most expensive fighters ever developed, with its production limited by high costs and shifting priorities.

NASA’s New Supersonic Aircraft: The X-59

In January, NASA, in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, unveiled the experimental supersonic aircraft X-59, aimed primarily at mitigating the noise from sonic booms. This has always been a significant barrier for supersonic flights, restricting them to overwater or unpopulated areas.

Well, NASA has set out to reduce the loud boom to a soft “thud”, which could open up the possibility of a return to supersonic flight over land and revolutionise air travel as we know it.

X-59 design

  • The X-59, with its incredibly long, slender fuselage and sharp nose, helps spread shockwaves when breaking the sound barrier.
  • It features small front-mounted wings (canards) for enhanced control, a unique aspect among supersonic aircraft.
  • Its single engine is mounted on top, minimising ground noise and further disrupting shockwave formation.

Project QueSST

The X-59 is part of NASA’s Project QueSST, aiming to gather data to potentially overturn the ban on supersonic flights over land.

This year, NASA plans to begin test flights over the U.S. with the X-59, assessing the noise levels perceived by the population—a crucial factor in gauging public acceptance for potential supersonic routes over land.

The Future of Supersonic Flights

While the success of the X-59 doesn’t imply an imminent influx of supersonic aircraft, the data collected will be pivotal in shaping future legislation regarding supersonic terrestrial flight noise.

Moreover, companies like Boom Supersonic are deeply engaged and hopeful, as their passenger aircraft designs hinge on the acceptance of these quieter sonic booms.

So, would you fly on a supersonic aircraft?

Whether you’re an aviation enthusiast, contemplating studying a Commercial Pilot ATPL course, or both, if you’ve read this far, it’s clear you have a keen interest in supersonic aircraft. And rightly so! Traveling at the speed of sound isn’t just the future; it’s now.

But to answer the question: Yes, we would indeed fly on a supersonic aircraft. Modern supersonic planes are constructed from incredibly durable materials and undergo rigorous testing. Passengers who experienced the Concorde often reported a remarkably smooth ride; the only hints of the immense speed were the views from the airplane windows and the Mach meter in the cabin.

With projects like NASA’s, who knows, in a few years, we might be crossing the Atlantic in just a couple of hours. And if you’re training to become a pilot, perhaps you’ll be commanding a supersonic aircraft within a decade. Not even the sky’s the limit for the imagination!

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