The Return of Supersonic Flight
Commercial supersonic flights are slated to return to the skies by 2029, promising three hour transatlantic flights. But given the environmental impact and the high prices, is it really worth it?
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Operation Bongo II and the Insane Turkeys of Oklahoma
At 7am on February 3rd, 1964, a thunderous explosion tore through the skies over Oklahoma City. The residents below had become guinea pigs in a US government experiment known as Operation Bongo II. The aim was to test the disruption caused by supersonic flight. Each day, the civilian population was subjected to eight sonic booms overhead, for six months, just to see if they could tolerate the noise. To gather granular data, the military varied just how loud the booms were, bringing them to their maximally disruptive crescendo in the final fourteen weeks of testing.
Some of the residents, who knew that Oklahoma City was economically dependent on nearby military bases, said they could learn to live with the sonic booms. Others even embraced their regularity as a form of timekeeping. One construction company used the crack of the midday boom to signal their lunch break.
But others faced more than mere inconvenience. Buildings cracked. 147 windows in the city’s two tallest skyscrapers broke or shattered. Farmers reported that some of their horses and turkeys had “died or gone insane.” Thousands of chickens died, and many that survived lost their feathers and stopped laying eggs, suggesting the booms could be harmful. Brain surgeons complained the boom would make them jump at a pivotal moment. Thousands of people protested and some sued the government in a class action lawsuit.
It was a public relations disaster. And it spelled the beginning of the end for an American supersonic jetliner that had been in development: the Boeing 2707, which was slated to be able to travel three times the speed of sound.
Operation Bongo II spelled the end of most supersonic flight over land, concluding that it was too harmful to those living below. The FAA banned supersonic flight within American airspace in 1973.
Nonetheless, as the American project folded in 1971, a Soviet plane (the Tupolev Tu-144) and the French-British joint venture that would become the iconic Concorde pushed forward. From 1976 until 2001, there was regular supersonic travel across the Atlantic offered by British Airways and Air France, cutting the flight time from New York to London roughly in half. The planes travelled at an average speed of Mach 2, more than twice as fast as other airplanes. On one flight in 1996, a fast tailwind helped the Concorde set the record for the fastest commercial flight between New York at London, clocking in for landing after a mere two hours and fifty-two minutes.
However, two decades ago, a high profile crash along with an economically nonviable business model meant that Concorde was retired. Supersonic passenger flights haven’t returned since.
A Supersonic Comeback by 2029?
Now, a Denver-based startup called Boom is hoping to change that, with supersonic passenger jets slated to return to the skies in just six years. It has a new sleek, 21st century needle-nosed plane. It’s called the Overture, and it’s a futuristic reincarnation of the recognizable Concorde shape. It will fly at Mach 1.7, so a bit slower than the Concorde, but still at the rather rapid clip of 1,300 miles per hour.
A few months ago, Boom announced that it had settled on an engine design, so everything is on track. The company also announced that it has reached tentative agreement orders for 130 planes, from United Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Japan Airlines. If everything goes according to plan, the Overture will make its first test flight in just three years. Supersonic passenger travel would return by 2029.
Boom isn’t the only company hoping to revive the days of supersonic travel, however. Virgin Galactic is developing a prototype capable of flying at Mach 3, which would be significantly quicker than Boom’s Overture. And NASA has been working on a plane called the X-59 X-Plane, which they hope could pioneer a new “Quiet Supersonic” technology that would reduce the disruption caused by sonic booms. Testing will begin this year.
Boom seems to be closest to realizing its ambition, having signed agreements with manufacturing partners and airlines. And the flight times made possible are tantalizing:
New York to London in 3.5 hours (down from 7 hours)
San Francisco to Tokyo in 6 hours (down from 10.5 hours)
New York to Frankfurt in 4 hours (down from 7.5 hours)
But is it worth it?
There Are Good Reasons for Subsonic Flight
When humans first broke the sound barrier in airplanes in the 1940s, gasoline cost 17 cents per gallon. The world has changed enormously since, with breath-taking advances in technology transforming our daily lives. The advent of long-haul passenger jets opened the world to us, allowing us to discover the joys of jet lag. It was impossible for all prior generations of humans to know such a phenomenon could exist, let alone experience it, because we couldn’t move ourselves fast enough to disrupt our biological clocks in such a profoundly disorienting way.
And yet, since then, the overwhelming majority of us move around the planet in pretty much the same ways as we did fifty years ago. Cars are fancier and smarter; trains are comfier; and airplanes are wider and much safer. But except for high-speed trains, the pace of travel has remained remarkably unchanged. The Boeing 747, which first took off in 1969, flies at roughly the same speed as a brand-new Boeing 787 or Airbus A380, the darlings of modern long-haul flight. Technology has revolutionized the world, but just a tiny number of humans have travelled faster than the speed of sound.
There are three main reasons why subsonic flight continues to dominate the skies—and why supersonic flights have the potential to be harmful.