Supersonic jetliners

Supersonic jetliners seemed to represent a major advance in commercial air travel, but their costs–financial and environmental–proved to outweigh their benefits, and they never replaced slower airplanes, even for transatlantic flights.

On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager piloted an experimental plane, the Bell XS-1, which had been dropped from a Boeing B-29, to a speed that surpassed Mach 1 (the speed of sound). His flight proved that it was possible to “break” the sound barrier. Traveling at such high velocity was a milestone, but before reliable supersonic aircraft could be designed, a great deal of further research and development remained to be done, particularly in the areas of aerodynamics and control. Physics required different model development at such speeds, and more research was needed to provide for land takeoffs. Early supersonic research and development was generally conducted for military applications, but during the late 1950’s and 1960’s researchers began investigating the technology for long-distance commercial travel.Jetliners, supersonic

The United States government selected Boeing and General Electric to participate in a federally funded program for commercial supersonic transport (SST). Meanwhile, British Aerospace and French Aerospatiale joined forces to produce the Concorde, and the Soviet Union began developing the Tupolev, TU-144. The TU-144 flew its maiden voyage on December 31, 1968, and a few months later, in March, 1969, the ConcordeConcorde prototype took to the skies. In July, the TU-144 hit Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. Nearly two years later, on March 24, 1971, amid concerns regarding supersonic jetliners’ effects on the environment, high noise level, and extreme cost, the U.S. Congress rejected further funding for the Boeing supersonic model. Strong public opposition to the SST and a faltering economy effectively canceled the American program.

The Concorde in 1977.

(Department of Defense)

Two years later, at the 1973 Paris Air Show, the Concorde showed its capabilities. Tragically, at the show, the TU-144 crashed, killing everyone on board and eight people on the ground. In December, 1975, the TU-144 began limited commercial service, but the Soviet transport did not sell outside the country. Poor economic returns and a fatal accident on October 27, 1979, helped seal the TU-144’s fate. The Concorde became a technical success, providing flawless international service across the Atlantic Ocean until July 25, 2000, when debris on a Paris runway caused a crash on takeoff. While the technology of the Concorde cut long-distance travel times in half, its costs in comparison to everyday flights were extravagant. In November, 2003, Concorde services were discontinued.

Once thought to be the answer to commercial travel, the supersonic jetliner proved to have economic, environmental, and political problems that limited the market for SSTs. Laws that limited supersonic commercial flight to overseas flights restricted the routes SSTs could fly. Concerns for the ozone layer and high ticket prices also limited demand for supersonic travel. Supersonic transport continues to be researched, but until the technology becomes both economically and environmentally feasible, new production is improbable.

Further Reading

  • Hallion, Richard. Supersonic Flight: Breaking the Sound Barrier and Beyond–the Story of the Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1997.
  • Hansen, James R. The Bird Is on the Wing: Aerodynamics and the Progress of the American Airplane. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.
  • Marchman, James F., III, ed. Encyclopedia of Flight. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2002.

Air transportation industry

Aircraft industry