Faster Than Sound

By Tyler DeWacht

If you’ve ever been on an aircraft, can you recall what you felt, moving thousands of meters off the ground at over a hundred kilometers per hour? Perhaps you felt exhilarated or terrified, moving ever farther away from everything you know in such a short span of time. Now imagine you’re moving even faster, twice or even three times as fast as a conventional aircraft, fast enough to break the sound barrier at Mach 2. Today, very few people have the legal means to reach those speeds. Back in the 1980s though, this wasn’t merely a dream for us civilians. As long as you had the money, you could travel in style from New York to London in 3.5 hours aboard a supersonic airliner.

As far as options go, there were two plane models to choose from: the British/French joint-owned Concorde or the Soviet-owned Tupolev Tu-114. If we compare the two, however, there really wasn’t much of a contest. The Tu-114 prototypes had numerous flaws, the most notable demonstrator of this being a complete structural collapse at the 1973 Paris Air Show which resulted in the deaths of all 6 crew members, 8 onlookers, and the destruction of 15 houses. Not surprisingly, public opinion of the Tu-114 fell greatly, and most seats went consistently unclaimed (not helped by having only 1 flight path on a 1 day per week schedule and the unreliability of said flight) upon its commercial release in 1977. After only 55 runs and another crash during a new model’s test run, the commercial flight was deemed unsustainable and shut down, the planes repurposed for cargo transport and research purposes.

The Concorde didn’t have nearly as many design flaws. For 27 years, there were no major incidents aside from the occasional popping of tires, so it had a pretty good reputation. In terms of cost, the ticket prices could go for over $9,000 when adjusted for inflation. Very expensive, but for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this, those who could afford it consistently had positive things to say about their experience. Though a bit cramped compared to the standard airliner at the time, the food was exceptional and the champagne complimentary.

So, what went wrong? Why did the Concorde flights stop running when they had an almost flawless run? On July 25, 2000, a fatal incident occurred on Air France Flight 4590. The runway hadn’t been cleared from the previous take-off, and a titanium strip that dislodged from that plane sat right in the path of the Concorde. Upon contact, it burst a tire, and that tire’s debris flew upwards at a high velocity, sending a shockwave through the left wing and rupturing a full fuel tank. As the Concorde took off, the wing burst into flames as the fuel came into contact with loose wiring, but it was moving too fast by that point to abort the flight. In the air, all control was lost as the wing disintegrated, causing the plane to veer off course and crash straight into the nearby Hotelissimo building. This hotel was reduced to rubble as well, but thankfully, there were only 4 staff casualties among everyone in the hotel at the time. The same can’t be said for the 109 people onboard the plane though, none survived the crash.

While everyone tried to figure out what went wrong, all Concorde services were shut down for over a year. Turns out having thin landing tires on an aircraft is not a good idea, and nobody saw this as a problem until it was too late. If the timing of the incident were different, perhaps the Concorde could’ve recovered its reputation, but right when services were set to resume in late 2001, a certain terrorist incident took place on September 11. Not many people were keen to fly for obvious reasons, and many seats went unfilled. The upkeep costs just weren’t worth it anymore, and all Concorde operations ceased by October 2003, bringing an end to commercial supersonic flight.

Ever since then, supersonic flight has mostly been restricted to specially-trained pilots, government officials, and billionaires who can afford their own planes. However, we may soon be seeing the return of commercial supersonic flight; a ban on breaking the sound barrier over US soil was recently lifted, and several aerospace companies are interested in bringing it back to the public. Boeing even wants to go so far as to make hypersonic transportation practical with a conceptual Mach 5 passenger plane, over twice as fast as the Concorde. Assuming there are no issues, it should be ready to put into service by the late 2030s.

The reason the ban was implemented in the first place was primarily due to noise complaints. A sonic boom is produced whenever the sound barrier is broken, and that will get annoying quickly if you happen to live anywhere near the airport where it lands. In addition, it can also disorient the local wildlife and startle unsuspecting pilots. Being a comparatively newer and more experimental development, various safety and environmental concerns inevitably rise as well.

Many would argue that there’s no point in having supersonic flight when subsonic flight gets you to your destination just as well without all the extra noise. However, they provide a level of luxury and speed that can’t be paralleled by the conventional flight. I’m going to leave this off with a question: How do you feel about supersonic flight, and would you ever try it if given the chance?

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