Here Comes Supersonic Flight: The Rebirth of a Former White Elephant

Boom Technology wants to take you from New York to London in three hours.

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"Really unique in the history of technology is to have a capability and then lose it," says Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of the aviation startup Boom Technology. "We're going to see renewed progress in air travel. My long-term mission at Boom is to make that happen."

When the Concorde made its commercial debut in 1976, it was an engineering marvel that represented the technological promise of the 20th century. But 27 years after its initial flight, the Concorde landed for the final time, ending the era of civilian supersonic travel.

So why did the airliner of the future become a museum artifact?

The Concorde was always a state-funded white elephant so when costs went up and ticket sales dropped, the French and British governments who were backing the venture decided to pull the plug and retire the aircraft.

Another factor that hobbled the evolution of supersonic flight was an overland speed limit imposed in both the U.S. and Europe. The speed ban was pushed by environmental activists—like those in the Anti-Concorde Project and Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom—who claimed that this type of aircraft would generate "the loudest noise" ever heard, or the equivalent to a bomb going off.

"If that was the case there would have been a noise limit, not a speed limit," says Scholl.

Fourteen years after the Concorde was grounded, private companies are on the verge of bringing supersonic air travel back. And this time it'll be built on sound economic principles.

To circumvent the overland travel ban, Boom Technology's aircraft will mainly fly over water. And the company has devised a new form factor for the plane: a three engine jet that can carry up to 55 passengers and flies more than twice the speed of sound.

"My personal favorite feature is a cup holder that is nowhere close to where you put your laptop," says Scholl.

Interior of Boom plane

Boom expects to charge $5,000 round trip from New York to London. A ticket for the Concorde set its passengers back about $15,000 in today's dollars.

Scholl's company isn't alone in its quest to speed up air travel. It has several private competitors, and NASA is working with the engineering firm Lockheed Martin to come up with its own version of a supersonic plane. The difference? Boom's demonstrator jet will cost roughly $30 million compared to NASA's plane, which is expected to cost at least $300 million when completed.

"Private industry is able to do this roughly at an order of magnitude cheaper than government and also without requiring any taxpayer money," states Scholl.

Current regulations will prevent companies like Boom from offering supersonic flights between California and New York. Before they can enter that market, the FAA would need to overturn its ban on overland travel.

"Reverse that and now New York to San Francisco could be 2 hours and 20 minutes," says Scholl.

Boom revealed its design for the XB-1 demonstrator jet last November, and is working with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to build and test the prototype in 2017. They aim to start flying commercial air passengers in the early 2020s.

"We're fans of speed so we're doing this as quickly as possible," states Scholl. Boom's calculates that if supersonic flight can catch on with business travelers market forces will do their work by improving technology and bringing down costs—making supersonic flight accessible to more people.

"Nobody wants a longer flight," says Scholl. "This is a chance for airlines to make it significantly faster."

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Austin Bragg. Additional footage courtesy Boom Technology, Department of Defense, and NASA. Music by Vibe Tracks, Jason Farnham, & Audionautix. Cycles by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

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  1. Another factor that hobbled the evolution of supersonic flight was an overland speed limit imposed in both the U.S. and Europe. The speed ban was pushed by environmental activists?like those in the Anti-Concorde Project and Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom?who claimed that this type of aircraft would generate “the loudest noise” ever heard, or the equivalent to a bomb going off.

    What a load of horseshit. I must have lived in a supersonic corridor when I was a kid because I recall occasionally hearing sonic booms when I was growing up in the ’80s and they weren’t that loud. In fact, I thought it was kind of cool to hear them.

    Further evidence that political activists are full of shit and willing to blatantly lie in order to get their way, and to hell with what anyone else wants. I hope they all get Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    1. It’s just the Sound of Freedom!

    2. Well, having lived at many an Air Force base growing up, I remember sonic booms being powerful enough to make pictures fall off the walls. Granted, this was in West Germany around 1980, and the planes were flying pretty low.

      1. I grew up in the 60’s in Kansas City. We had sonic booms a couple of days a week. We just thought they were cool. Jet Noise, the Sound of Freedom…as well.

    3. The FFA rules never applied to Military Aircraft.

      1. The only requirement to boom over the US (military), outside a training range, is you need to be above 30000 feet and then fill out a log.

    4. They weren’t that loud *because* of regulation requiring planes to be at a minimum altitude before going supersonic over populated areas.

      At lower altitudes, they *will* knock shit off shelves, wake the baby, and drive the dog batshit insane.

  2. Boom expects to charge $5,000 round trip from New York to London. A ticket for the Concorde set its passengers back about $15,000 in today’s dollars.

    As I recall, BA didn’t start making a go of the Concorde until it raised ticket prices to where only those who didn’t need to ask the price would book a flight. But the thing used an ungodly amount of fuel simply taxiing to the runway.

    1. It also made an ungodly racket taking off. I heard one once–it was about as loud as a contemporary jet fighter (say an F-18 or F-22) and those things are ear-pluggingly loud. But of course most people don’t live too close to air bases, and if you’re hearing a fighter away from an air base you have other things to worry about.

      1. Taking off, and in “slow flight” regimes, the Concorde was tremendously loud. That made it easy for us to spot when it was around town, however! Still, noise is a type of pollution from which most of us suffer greatly (even an office isn’t a quiet place.)

      2. It also required riduculously long runways, limiting it to only certain airports.

  3. Here comes Super Sonic flight! Woo!

    Oh…and there it goes again…

    Because, you know, there isn’t really a way to make it profitable without also making it an economic non-starter. And for the record, constant super sonic booms would in fact be pretty shitty. Although, on the plus side, only all those dumb retards that live between New York and California would be upset so bring it on!

    /sarc

    On a serious note, it’s a neat technology but some things just aren’t economically viable. I’d be willing to bet that Boom (which is a terrible airline name, by the way) is probably rent seeking as we speak.

    1. If they can build an airliner capable of supercruise (supersonic flight without afterburners), they just might make it practical. The Concorde was basically the world’s biggest, prettiest flying gas tank.
      If they can’t do this without subsidies, then the hell with ’em. If they can, then I’ll cheer them all the way.

      1. The thing that BOOM is benefiting from is the wisdom of using smaller planes and the tech/material advancments that make the engines smalle, more efficient and quieter.

        Basically the Concorde, being pushed by public money was probable a failure because it wasn’t its time yet, and it was being forced into existance before it was actual feasible/viable. *cough*wind*cough*solar*cough*

        1. Boom is a shape problem. Not an engine problem.

      2. Concorde supercruised – its the only way to make it *possible* to fly across the Atlantic.

        So its not efficiency that is the stumbling block – its the negative externalities of low-altitude sonic booms that make it unprofitable to fly across the US like that. Concorde leave NYC, is out over the Atlantic well before it goes supersonic, and drops back down well before reaching the UK. Over the US, you’ve got to get a lot higher before you can do this without pissing off the people under your flight path.

        1. What tech they could be using is new knowledge on how to shape the shockwave so that its not a short, sharp bang – more spread out.

          There are trade-offs involved in doing that, but it could allow a lower altitude flight or one where you didn’t have to detour around cities.

    2. Reminds me of when GM made that electric car prototype called the Impact.

    3. Right, it will never work because there haven’t been any improvements in engines since the late 1960s. Also, we don’t have lighter airframe materials like carbon fiber, and the guys putting up tens of millions of dollars to build this prototype certainly haven’t done any due diligence, like asking you whether it will work or not.

      -jcr

      1. Do those engines repeal the drag equation? Does carbon fiber not create a shock when traveling supersonic? Concorde already had ‘supercruise’ in that it only needed afterburners in the transonic transition.

        The fact the Scholl thinks speed is decoupled from sound (hint: supersonic = shock 100% of the time) puts him in the Musk camp of bluster. Yes, there are tricks to play with redirecting said shock and minimizing the generation but it’s still goong to be there. And the fuel burn is still going to be significantly higher and more expensive.

  4. They might be overtaken by planes/spacecraft that can go high and fast enough to avoid a sonic boom in the thin upper atmosphere. New York to Tokyo in four hours?

    1. My idea was a passenger ICBM, but yours might be more practical.

      1. SpaceX has hinted at this with their ITS, designed to take 100 people to Mars and back. It could be used to rocket people from continent to continent. I’m not sure what the market is for travel via ICBM though.

  5. Is it just me or am I the only person who refuses to fly on any plane named BOOM or airline named BOOM?

    1. I don’t know, maybe they could attract people with the slogan “Go Boom!” (Or maybe not…)

      1. I was on a commuter flight when the plane lost one engine. When the pilot told us about the problem the fella sitting next to me asked, “How far do you think this plane can fly on one engine?

        “All the way to the crash site, ” I answered.

  6. “Really unique in the history of technology is to have a capability and then lose it,”
    It was never lost; it has been there, waiting.

    1. Unique? Like flying cars, incandescent light bulbs, landing people on the moon, and Microsoft Windows that worked?

  7. It’s easy to make a computer rendering; much harder to bend metal. As always with these things, I’ll believe it when I see it and until then I have pessimistic expectations. But I wish them all the luck in the world.

    I’ve been around jets and the space shuttle for a lot of my life. I find loud jet noise and sonic booms thrilling. I guess most people don’t.

    1. I share your skepticism. These things are regularly hyped in the likes of Popular Science and USA Today. They rarely see the light of day.

      The current batch is probably the 3rd or 4th group I’ve experienced. Maybe this time is different, but I always think of Moller’s air car….. something that he’s been pitching since the 70’s and regularly gets featured on 60 minutes, 20/20, Popular Science, etc. Always with excitement about the future, never with any grounding in reality. The thing has never actually existed, but the spec sheet looks nice.

      The same thing happens with batteries, hard drives, space planes, new miracle drugs, etc. The press breathlessly covers 50 of the next 3 greatest things.

  8. Speaking of stupid names, Verizon bought Yahoo and they are going to change the name to “Oath”.

    1. Fuck! I have to migrate all my Oath emails to Gmail.

  9. The more quickly you travel six thousand miles, the more severe your jet lag will be.

  10. Really unique in the history of technology is to have a capability and then lose it
    Okay, first, “unique” is an absolute, it doesn’t take a comparative.

    Second, no, it isn’t unique, or even particularly rare. Hell, if you’re dealing with just aerospace, it’s been forty years since anyone’s had the capability to send a human beyond LEO.

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  12. “And this time it’ll be built on sound economic principles.”

    I’ll pass. Let me know when they build the jet on sound engineering principles.

    1. Sound engineering *is* sound economics. Its simply obeying the laws of physics.

      1. Economics is studying exchanges between people. There’s nothing there for a physicist to get hold of. I would much rather fly in a plane made by an engineer than an economist.

        1. And you somehow think that exchanges between people don’t follow the laws of physics?

          That would explain a lot.

          1. A debt or an obligation doesn’t follow the laws of physics. You haven’t put much thought into this, have you.

  13. Liam Neeson will have a lot less time to figure out who the hijacker is.

  14. More than enough time to re-accommodate some Asian dude midflight

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  17. “Really unique in the history of technology is to have a capability and then lose it”

    What? It’s happened many, many times, throughout history. Anyone build a pyramid lately?

  18. So I guess the old space shuttles, with their distinctive double sonic boom are not coming back?

  19. So what are they going to do about the hours it takes to go through customs and TSA lines? We spend about 2 hours just doing that.

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