Posted by Crystal Lewis Brown

How Supersonic Flight Could Innovate Commercial Air Travel

Ask anyone from age 4 to 45 who “Sonic” is and it’s likely they will picture the little blue hedgehog known for his super speed. What they may not know is that the iconic video game character’s name is a nod to his supersonic speed --a real-life quantifiable unit of speed.

Supersonic is the term used for speeds that are faster than the speed of sound, which is about 768 miles per hour. Speeds that fast are referred to by Mach numbers, which is the ratio of the speed of sound to aircraft speed. Supersonic speeds range from Mach 1 to Mach 5, and speeds faster than that are hypersonic. Comparatively, today’s fastest commercial aircraft top out at around 650 miles per hour.

The Boeing Company

In 1687, Isaac Newton publishes the first calculation of the speed of sound, which was later corrected in 1816 by French mathematician Pierre Simon Marquis de Laplace.

While Sonic’s ability to run at such speeds is impossible, actually being able to travel by plane that fast is not. In fact, planes have reached supersonic speeds since the 1940s. In 1947, U.S. Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier. In the 1960s, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union began designing supersonic transports aimed at kicking off the supersonic age. In 1966, the United States began designing the country’s first supersonic transport, but funding was pulled in 1971 before the prototype was finished.

In 1976, a joint treaty between Britain and France produced the Concorde, the first supersonic transport to be introduced into long-term service. A year later, Russia introduced a supersonic transport but it ceased operation in 1978 after accidents. The high cost of operations and limits on where the plane could fly led to Concorde being retired in 2003.

The Boeing Company

In 1976, the Concorde becomes the first commercial supersonic transport on its maiden flight from London to Bahrain.

The advantages of having a plane that can travel at such speeds are immediately obvious to anyone who has been on a long flight. Faster planes can get passengers to their destinations more quickly and would also be able to fly directly into more locations. There are a few reasons why we haven’t been able to fully embrace supersonic commercial travel, however.

Planes that fly that fast use a lot of fuel, which becomes very expensive. A one-way flight on the Concorde from New York to London cost about $7,000 in 2000. With passengers ever-sensitive to the price of airline tickets, the idea of airlines raising prices to accommodate a faster plane seemed out of reach.

The noise created during supersonic travel is another issue. When an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, it creates a sonic boom, which could be as loud as 200 decibels. Comparatively, the sound of a gunshot is 140 decibels, and a rock concert could be up to 129 decibels. Sounds higher than 89 decibels are considered harmful.

Supersonic planes could still be on the horizon for commercial travel, however. Testing is underway to produce more cost-effective aircraft that can reach higher speeds while limiting the intensity of sonic booms. As engineers continue to refine their designs, it is becoming more likely that these super-fast planes could be used for commercial travel much sooner than we think.