U.S. May Pioneer Supersonic Passenger Aircraft Second Time Around

A British Airways Concorde at London's Heathrow Airport

By Jonathan Spira on 7 June 2021
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The United States, which was a bystander in the first wave of supersonic travel that started in the 1970s, may be a pioneer as the second wave of supersonic transport starts to take flight.

The order by a U.S. airline for 50 new supersonic aircraft may put the country at the forefront of flying at twice the speed of sound, after having passed on the opportunity the first time around.

The carrier, United, announced a firm order for 15 Overture aircraft from the upstart aircraft manufacturer Boom Technologies, with an option for an additional 35.

The order represents more supersonic aircraft than the 14 Concordes that operated in the period 1969 through 2003 by both BA and Air France.  The aircraft, which has yet to be built, is scheduled to roll out in 2025 and go into commercial service in 2026, according to the manufacturer.

If built and accepted into United’s fleet, the unfortunately named Boom aircraft would herald a return to supersonic travel, something that disappeared in 2003 with the final Concorde flight, operated by British Airways, after a third of a century, which captured the public’s imagination.

The Overture, which would use sustainable aviation fuel, would be capable of flying at Mach 1.7, or 1.7 times the speed of sound, according to the manufacturer and United.  This would allow a flight from New York to London in three-and-a-half hours or from San Francisco to Tokyo in fewer than six.

Boeing, which started to develop a supersonic transport, the 2707, in the mid-1960s that was initially supported by orders from Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airways as well as U.S. government funding, announced in 2018 its Hypersonic airliner that was smaller than a 737 but larger than a business jet.  The Hypersonic was to fly at Mach 5 and cruise at 90,000-to-95,000 feet (27,000-to-29,000 meters) but the aircraft was never built. The 2707 would have seated 150 passengers or more and would have been the first aircraft in the world to use a glass cockpit.  Boeing also proposed the Sonic Cruiser in 2001. The Sonic Cruiser would have seated 200 to 250 passengers and cruised at Mach 0.98.

Meanwhile, the Overture can seat 88 passengers in a 1-1 configuration, a far smaller number than Concorde, which could seat anywhere from 92 to 128 passengers. The only possible layout only permitted four-abreast seating in a 2-2 configuration with extremely limited headroom. British Airways’ Concorde had 26 rows and sat 104 passengers, while Air France’s featured 24 rows with seating for 96.

In contrast to the Overture, Concorde was able to fly at twice the speed of sound, or Mach 2, ferrying passengers from New York to London in three hours with the tagline, “Arrive Before You Leave.”  Concorde entered service on March 2, 1969 with its maiden flight from Paris to Washington, D.C.

When Concorde was in the last years of operation, it was the only aircraft in BA’s fleet that required a flight engineer.

While the 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde was largely blamed for the type’s retirement, it was the economic realities of operating the type that were to blame: The high-tech aircraft was extremely fuel inefficient, requiring far more fuel per passenger for a transatlantic flight than the non-supersonic aircraft of the day.

Indeed, both Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airways cancelled their orders for Concorde given the high running costs and low passenger counts per flight.  The United States banned the plane from operating over the country due to the potential of a supersonic boom, which further limited the utility of the aircraft.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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