Future of civil aviation sector: The supersonic flying

July 20, 2021 5:12 PM

The Concorde commercial airliner took its first flight in 1969, and was in service from 1976 to 2003.

For more than 25 years, Concorde commercial flights were helping people to save the travel-time. (Representational image)

By Dr Ajey Lele

On 25 July 2000, Air France Flight 4590, crashed in Gonesse, France, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew members on board as well as four people on the ground. This was the flight of a famous supersonic Concorde aircraft, of a British–French turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner. In the 27 years history of Concorde flying, this was the only fatal accident. This accident is known to have taken place not because of any issues with this aircraft per say, but it happened owing to a metallic strip which had fallen from a flight which had taken off just before the take-off of this ill-fated aircraft. This strip punctured a tyre on Concorde aircraft leading to further complications and finally resulting in a crash. The Concorde commercial airliner took its first flight in 1969, and was in service from 1976 to 2003.

The normal flying time for a civilian airliner from New York City to London is around seven hours, however the supersonic aircraft Concorde, which used to fly with a speed of around two times the speed of sound (Mach 2) used to take less than three hours to cover the same distance. Apart from financial and environmental/health considerations (sonic boom), this accident also damaged Concorde’s reputation and finally all this led to permanently grounding this aircraft.

Now, after this unfortunate accident of Concorde aircraft there is a talk about the resumption of commercial supersonic flying. The United Airlines, a major U.S. carrier is planning to revive supersonic jet travel. During Jun 2021, United Airlines announced plans to buy 15 planes from airline start-up Boom Supersonic. The airliner has an ambitious plan to start passenger travel in 2029. The deal involves United Airlines purchasing 15 planes called ‘Overture’ from Boom Supersonic. The purchase would happen only after United Airlines is fully satisfied with the safety and other technical standards of this flying platform.

Boom Supersonic was established during 2014 and has attracted the attention of various investors. This American company is working towards designing and developing an aircraft which can fly at a speed of Mach 1.7.The United Airlines envisages the business of supersonic flying to increase manifold in coming few decades and probably that is why they have signed an agreement which provides them an option to buy additional 35 aircraft, if required.

The most critical area of interest for restarting supersonic commercial flying involves addressing the challenge of suppressing the sonic boom. Actually, as per the US law,it is illegal to break the sound barrier. The sonic boom is a result of planes exceeding the speed of sound (more than Mach 1). It is not clear how the company Boom Supersonic is going to address this issue. However, in this regard some major work is found happening at NASA. In fact, Lockheed Martin and Skunk Works are working for NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator programme. Currently, NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) supersonic aircraft (Mach 1.42) is being developed. It is introducing a technology that can reduce loud sonic booms. NASA is targeting 2022 for the first flight of the X-59.At present, much of research work is found happening towards developing technologies capable of taking the ‘boom’ out of the sonic boom. For this purpose NASA is working on quiet supersonic technologies and design features. Various design approaches have been worked on to re-shape the shock wave pattern, which could help to substantially reduce the sonic boom to more of a sonic ‘thump’ when it reaches the ground.

For more than 25 years, Concorde commercial flights were helping people to save the travel-time. However, Concorde travel was perceived as a luxury travel meant for the rich and famous. For all these years, supersonic flying has not taken root in the aviation business for various reasons. Concorde travel was known to impact the first and business class travel market of the airline industry significantly, and possibly that was the reason why aviation companies themselves were not very keen to have these aircrafts flying during the beginning of 21st century. Also, it was observed that humans are generally interested in flying cheaper and not faster. All this indicates that for modern-day supersonic commercial platforms, the business model should be different from the yesteryear Concorde model. It is likely to take more than a decade’s time for supersonic commercial travel to become a reality. Let us hope that in the post Concorde era, supersonic air travel would emerge as an economically viable travel option.

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. He can be reached at: ajey.lele@gmail(dot)com)

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