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02 December 2021

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Breaking the sound barrier – are we going to have flights again?
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Breaking the sound barrier – are we going to have flights again?

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A whole new set of pioneers is ready to make this a reality. Good luck to them!

Breaking the sound barrier was originally almost a thing of science fiction, indeed it was questioned as to whether it was even possible.

The sound barrier was first broken in 1947 by Chuck Yeagar, regarded as the most famous test pilot of his generation. He died in 2020 at the age of 97.

His unique achievement was followed in September 1948 by de Havilland’s chief test pilot John Derry who achieved this milestone by accident! This was the first British aircraft to break the sound barrier. And so it has gone on and of course all sorts of aircraft have been built to go faster than the speed of sound, about 660 mph.

But there has only been one notable supersonic aircraft used in domestic service and that was Concorde developed jointly by the English and the French. That aircraft made its first successful flight on 2nd March 1969.

In actual fact Concorde was strictly not the first supersonic transport aircraft. It was beaten to it by the Tupolev Tu-144 which made its maiden flight on 31st December 1968. Unfortunately this aircraft was not a success; in its lifetime it only made 55 passenger flights; it continued to make cargo flights until 1983 and was used in the Russian space programme and also by NASA. It made its final flight on 26th June 1999.

So the only real contender was Concorde and it flew for a number of years. Its history was chequered though because the number of destinations where it could go was limited because of the noise issues and the huge costs of development and running. In 2000 there was a fatal crash in France killing all on board. Although the aircraft came back into service after significant changes had been made to the airframe, it ceased to operate in 2003. It was just too expensive and with its limited destinations could never really be a viable option and of course following 9-1-11 there was a general downturn in the commercial aviation industry which also contributed to its demise.

It has always seemed almost like having a limb cut off with no supersonic flight available, a science regression.

However it now looks like that vacuum is going to be filled by the American airline United which has announced that it will start supersonic flights in an aircraft looking remarkably like Concorde in 2029. The aircraft has yet to be built. It will be called Overture and will be built by Denver based company Boom. It is expected to be a net-zero carbon aircraft.

No doubt in the intervening sixty years there will have been massive advances in technology which may make such an aircraft far more viable than was Concorde and the huge fuel consumption is expected to be satisfied by the use of biofuel, the commercialisation of which is expected to be completed long before this aircraft comes into service.

But can they overcome the problems with the noise? Breaking the sound barrier is a noise producing action which cannot be avoided. Perhaps if this aircraft can fly higher that may help but then it will be on the fringes of space, or perhaps that is the idea. After all who knows where we shall be in eight years time.

And will there be demand? Aviation has taken a fair knock over the past year or so with the pandemic. All eyes are now on alternative forms of travel with a particular view of reducing carbon emissions. But in our modern world, surely there is room for re-inventing this particular wheel? As a society in general we try and not let insurmountable hurdles get in our way especially when we have such an appetite for progress.

Keep an eye open for further developments.

Adrian Leopard 05-06-21

Photo John Quayle

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