Thursday, June 18, 2009

Supersonic Air Travel back on the Horizon

The Concorde is well known for its supersonic commercial air travel "across the pond." Air France and British Airways started supersonic service in 1976 and finally stopped service in 2003 after the fatal accident that killed all 113 people on board. If you know any more of the history of the Concorde, you know it only did water routes because the noise from the sonic boom was deemed too loud to expose anyone or anything on land. Of course, limiting flight only to open seas really diminishes the number of routes available to supersonic flight. Yet, many a weary international traveler, combined with some great engineering and business savvy, opens the door to a future business model that includes supersonic commercial air travel. I have been recently made aware of two companies that are pursuing this goal, and they are not Boeing or Airbus.

Of course, we all know that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is going to be one of the fastest commercial jets on the market, reaching Mach .85. Each new generation of airplane from those manufacturers are quieter, sleeker, more economical, and faster than their predecessors. No doubt they will one day reach a Mach limit where they will have to deal with supersonic transport. But a little closer to that projected date from companies like Aerion Corp and Supersonic Aerospace International. Both of these companies are starting their business plan small, with business jets. I mean, who other than business travelers could afford $10,000 for a Concorde flight? Might as well cater to where the demand is. But, if those planes take off (pun intended), there is no reason why larger capacity commercial jets will not be on the horizon.

And those two companies must be on the right track, because other companies are continuing to look into supersonic travel as well, just not as closely. Boeing is always looking at supersonic air travel, even if just for military applications. Gulfstream has been rumored to be conducting continuous supersonic research. NASA has a supersonic fundamental aeronautics program.

Look at how much quieter jet engines have gotten in the past decade. We may never be able to get rid of the sonic boom, but it certainly seems possible that research is driving us in a direction to reduce the amplitude of the boom. Who knows, maybe within the next decade or two we'll all be traveling at supersonic speeds.