A New Spin on Supersonic Flight

This innovative design has a plane flying in one direction subsonically, and in a 90° different direction, using the other set of wings, supersonically.

I frequently bemoan the lack of truly innovative new ideas when it comes to airplane design.  The timidity and unwillingness to invest in speculative R&D has slowed the pace of aviation development to a snail’s crawl.

The essentials of today’s ‘state of the art’ airplane designs (for example, the 787 or the A380) are nothing more than minor tweaks on concepts that date back 50 – 70 years or more.  A flying tube with swept back wings near the plane’s midsection, joined to the lower part of the fuselage, two or four engines hung off the wings, and a tail with single vertical stabilizer and low elevators at the rear.

Even double decker planes are nothing new – Boeing had double decker flying boats before WW2.

But here is a truly innovative design, being offered as a new approach towards supersonic flight – which is a concept that has tragically languished.  Ever since Boeing cancelled its development of the 2707 SST, 41 years ago, there has been no willingness on the part of airplane manufacturers to make sizeable investments in this massively appealing technology.  While both Boeing and Airbus are willing to spend more than $10 billion per new plane design for conventional planes, the thought of investing these sums (or more) to come up with a real game changing plane terrifies them.

Congratulations to the designer for his ‘outside the box’ thinking.  But while NASA’s $100,000 funding is doubtless appreciated, with a total cost to develop such a concept likely to be at least $10 billion and probably more like $20 billion, their $100,000 is less than one thousandth of one percent of the total cost.  This is a totally meaningless payment – indeed, so meaningless as to be also totally wasted – oh, a total waste, other than for the publicity value it buys NASA as being ostensibly supportive of developing new aerospace technologies.

Supersonic Passenger Flight Can Be Affordable, Efficient, and Effective

We all know why there is no interest in developing supersonic planes these days, right?  They are too expensive, too environmentally damaging, too fuel inefficient, and so on; or so we are told.

The criticisms of the concept of supersonic travel are both valid – and unfair – at the same time.  The only technologies we have experience with are either military (where sonic booms and fuel efficiency are irrelevant) or the Concorde, a design that dates back to the early 1960s.

The Concorde no more reflects current state of the art in terms of modern day potential supersonic airplane design as does a computer from that era reflect on modern computer design.

The Concorde was the first generation of supersonic plane.  But there has never been a second or subsequent generation to improve upon it.  Compare that situation to the first generation of sub-sonic passenger jets – the de Havilland Comet, and how that has evolved subsequently.  The Comet not only had an alarming tendency to mysteriously crash and kill all on board (advancing our discovery of the then new concept of metal fatigue) but it was a much less sophisticated plane in every respect compared to today’s jets.

The Comet 1 airplane carried a mere 36 – 44 passengers a distance of up to 1500 miles.

So, as an astounding approximation, modern jets can carry more than ten times as many passengers almost ten times as far, and (as best I can calculate) at one tenth the fuel consumption of the original Comet 1.

Unsurprisingly, the constant investment in improving airplane and airframe design, engines, and everything else that goes into a modern jet plane has brought about huge improvements over the years.

Now tell me why we use the performance characteristics of the Concorde – the first generation of supersonic jet – as a reason for claiming that supersonic air travel could never be practical, because it is too costly, too fuel inefficient, and too noisy.  Oh yes – the engines on the Comets – they were probably somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times noisier than modern jet engines.

My point is simply this.  There are no immutable laws of physics or nature preventing efficient effective and affordable supersonic air travel.  The biggest (indeed, probably the only) obstacle to affordable efficient supersonic flight today is simply the unwillingness of developers to invest the money to address and resolve the challenges posed by the pre-existing and never enhanced 50+ year old technology.  Even the sonic boom problem has been demonstrated, in laboratory testing, to be solvable with new types of wing design.

Speaking as one who is flying for 10 1/2 hours from Seattle to Tokyo tomorrow, and then more time from there on to Seoul, I’d surely welcome a return to air travel that is two (or three or four) times faster than our current speeds of around 550 mph.  Apart from the brief blip of the Concorde, the one thing that hasn’t materially changed since the dawning of the jet age is speed – indeed, the 707 flew 10% faster than today’s passenger jets (607 mph compared to about 550 mph).

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