CHARLOTTE, NC: Commercial aviation took a bold step into the future in 1976 when it introduced Concorde, the first supersonic passenger airliner in history. For the next 27 years, Great Britain and France offered flights that cruised at 1,354 mph and had a maximum speed of more than twice the speed of sound. Flying at about 60,000 feet, Concorde soared at the edge of space, connecting New York with London in slightly over 3 hours. Now Boeing hypersonic aircraft are in development. Will they be the planes of the future?
The Concord – supersonic flight
The name “Concorde” was chosen because it meant “harmony” or “union” thus reflecting the co-operation between the United Kingdom and France to make the project a reality.
Service stopped in the latter part of 2003 due to a low number of passengers, a slump in air travel resulting from the 9/11/2001 attacks and rising maintenance costs. There had also been a crash three years earlier, which had nothing to do with a plane malfunction but served as an impetus to cease operations.
Flying Concorde was an expensive proposition with limited routes which, for the most part, put ticket prices out of reach except for the wealthiest clientele or for travelers who wished to fly it once in a lifetime as a novelty.
Commercially however, Concorde was not economically feasible for either British Airways or Air France.
Another factor that played a major role in the downfall was the lack of competition which would have produced new technologies that might have evolved into more efficient service and the number of routes. Capacity of Concorde planes was approximately 100 or slightly more, which also meant that fewer passengers were dividing the costs of bigger, slower more commercially viable jets.
Boeing reveals plans for the first commercial hypersonic airline
Now, just 15 years since the demise of Concorde, Boeing has unveiled plans for what could become the world’s first commercial hypersonic airliner. In case you are wondering about the difference between supersonic and hypersonic, a hypersonic plane will fly at five times the speed of sound, or about 3,800 mile per hour while cruising at altitudes of 90,000 to 95,000 feet.
At that height, passengers will see the curvature of the earth below their windows and the blackness of space above.
In addition, because there is no atmospheric turbulence at those altitudes, flights will be extremely smooth without the bumps that often infringe upon jets flying between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.
Hypersonic Flight – New York to Shanghai, China in a little over two hours.
If true, a businessman could literally commute between the two destinations in a single day.
The obvious question then becomes if supersonic aviation was economically prohibitive before, then how could hypersonic service alter the parameters to make it more palatable to the flying public in the future?
Part of the reason for Boeing’s optimism has arisen from the fact that it recently won a military contract to build a hypersonic spaceplane. Apparently, company officials have determined that if they are already in the process of developing technologies for a military venture, then why not create ideas for a plane that will accommodate commercial passengers while they are at it?
Can Hypersonic air travel be convenient, comfortable and affordable?
The critical factor, of course, is figuring out how to make hypersonic air travel convenient and affordable. Without multiple routes, relatively workable pricing and competition, hypersonic flights could simply be nothing more than an aviation pipedream for the masses.
Estimates for when a hypersonic aircraft might be a reality are all over the time and space spectrum. Some say they could be ready by 2022. Others think they are still a decade. More cautious opinions say the service is still 20 or 30 years in the future.
Given that Boeing is already working on the project, combined with the acceleration of global technology, a decade seems to be the most accurate estimate, at least for the introduction of the spaceplane.
Can hypersonic flight overcome “spaceflight” issues
Other considerations that must be dealt with are passenger comforts. The force of takeoff pushes passengers back into their seats on takeoff. Then forward on landing. On typical flights today, such feelings are minimal and only last a minute or so. However, on a hypersonic flight, that sensation may be more than ten minutes and the question is whether passengers will accept the temporary discomfort.
Concordes would expand during flight, so aircraft design must focus upon reducing or eliminating stress on the skin of the plane. At Mach-5 such factors need to be worked out and overcome well in advance.
Noise abatement is another problem. Not so much for people on the plane but for those on the ground, especially in the flight path.
Something called the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) has been designed to produce significantly lower sonic booms. Meaning that in this case “lowering the boom” is a good thing.
Presently, Aviation Week says NASA hopes to see first flight testing as soon as 2021.
Who knows, perhaps Jules Verne should have written about hypersonic planes that are designed to look like gigantic hypodermic needles. The sequel to his novel could be titled Around the World in 80 Minutes.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is also the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime
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