I tend to imagine progress as a straight line of development that always proceeds in an upward direction. But then, occasionally, I confront evidence in the real world that reminds me that progress, such as it is, takes place at best in fits and starts with a lot of lateral motion, if not outright regression.
I’ve seen more evidence than I would have wished that supports the theory of the rock and roll band Devo… that the human species is not progressing at all, but is actually “devolving.” Hopefully not, but one example of an area that seems to have regressed is supersonic passenger jet travel.
The Concorde, history’s only supersonic passenger jet, flew from 1976 until it was grounded in 2003 after 27 years of service. Both Air France and British Airways, the only two airlines that operated flights with the Concorde, cited low passenger numbers and high maintenance costs as their reasons for retiring the aircraft. And that was the end of supersonic passenger aircraft.
But now there is evidence that a new era of supersonic passenger jet travel will become a reality over the next decade.
Boom Supersonic, the developer of the Overture, a supersonic passenger jet, came a substantial step closer to reaching critical mass this month when American Express became a strategic investor in the company. The Amex investment is a high-prestige endorsement from one of the most mainstream, blue chip companies and it raises the credibility of the project instantly to another level.
The Amex move comes soon after Boom greatly strengthened its own credibility with its October 2020 rollout of the XB-1, a one-third scale prototype of the Overture. The XB-1 is slated for flight testing over the Mojave Desert later this year.
If XB-1’s flights are successful, it will prove that the technologies are working as designed, and it will be safe to go ahead and build the full-size supersonic passenger jets.
Overture will take the technology of the Concorde, with its delta wing design and its downward sloping nose, as its starting point and build on it using all of the relevant advances in technology since the time of the Concorde.
Relevant technological advances include advanced aerodynamics, powered by computer aided design (CAD) tools that accelerate the design process by orders of magnitude; plus, new lighter and stronger materials for building the body of the aircraft; and significantly more efficient engines.
When the Concorde was developed in the 1970s, every iteration of the design as it progressed had to be physically tested in a wind tunnel. Today that kind of testing can be simulated in a virtual wind tunnel, and repeated over and over at little cost.
According to Blake Scholl, the founder and CEO of Boom, the Concorde went through about a dozen iterations of physically realized wind tunnel testing. The developers of the Overture have had the luxury of thousands of tests done virtually.
The Overture will be 71 feet in length. It will carry 65-88 people in an all-business class interior, with no middle seats. Its body will be constructed of carbon composite materials that are lighter and more reliable at high speed than aluminum, which is the main material used to build today’s aircraft.
The Overture will be powered by three J85 engines designed by General Electric and built by Rolls Royce, the company that built the Olympus engines that powered the Concorde.
Given the history and track record of the Concorde, Boom’s plans are not far-fetched. Most of what the company is promising to do has been done before. Most of the foundational technologies are already in use today carrying passengers.
The claim of the company that most invites skepticism is its assertion that the jets will be carbon neutral.
Blake Scholl says the Overture can achieve sustainability because it’s the first aircraft designed from its inception to run on 100 percent sustainable alternative fuels. That could be either a biofuel or a synthetic fuel that is made from carbon that was extracted from the atmosphere. In the latter case using carbon that was extracted from the atmosphere to make fuel amounts to a net-zero carbon equation.
Part of how Overture will achieve sustainability will be through maximized fuel efficiency. Part of that will come as a result of using lighter building materials and more efficient engines than are used in today’s aircraft.
Managing the Sonic Boom
One of the problems with the Concorde was the sonic boom, which people on the ground objected to. Because aircraft generate a massively loud boom when they surpass the speed of sound, Concorde was restricted to overwater routes. It only flew between New York and London or Paris.
Overture will also be restricted to routes that are primarily over the water. But it will not be limited to the two routes of the Concorde. Scholl says there are hundreds of possible routes.
The Overture will fly Los Angeles to Tokyo in half the time of today’s flights. It will fly Los Angeles to Sydney in eight hours, or from San Francisco to Tokyo in six hours. It will cut today’s flight times in half.
In regard to the sonic boom, the Overture can fly out over the ocean before it breaks the sound barrier, and then slow down to 95 percent of the speed of sound when it is flying over land. But, even when it is overland, it will be faster than today’s jets.
The flights will cost about the same price as a business class flight today, Scholl says. On long-haul routes that today are often done with in-flight beds, Scholl says you’ll be able to skip the in-flight bed and get a real one at your destination.
More evidence that the return of supersonic passenger jet travel is actually happening is that major airlines are getting on board with the quest for supersonic travel. Boom is now reporting $6 billion in sales already, at $200 million per aircraft. And Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Airbus all have supersonic flight projects in development.
A World Transformed
As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, every new medium changes the users, and Blake Scholl is quick to point out that this will certainly be true of supersonic jet travel. It’s not just a simple matter of shortening flight times. In Scholl’s vision, doubling the speed of air travel will transform the world, similarly to how air travel itself has already transformed the world.
“We love airplanes, and the technology that makes them possible,” said Scholl, in a presentation. “But our pursuit of speed runs deeper. It’s about how we as humans experience each other and the planet. When airplanes fly twice as fast we’ll all be able to experience more of the world’s people, places, and cultures.”
When transportation times are significantly reduced, the effect of the change will radiate throughout the world, creating significant changes in many aspects of our lives. “A donor heart could arrive in time,” said Scholl.
So there’s a reason to keep living, something to look forward to. It’s something that could restore one’s belief in progress.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.