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supersonic flight

Jun 9, 2017


NASA wants this ‘quiet’ SST to start flying soon

There have been two Aviation Week stories by Guy Norris this week which might encourage even the most hard bitten pessimists about the near future of commercial supersonic flight into thinking a sliver of light had been shone into the decades of darkness that have characterised the topic.

The first, on moves to build an F-22 sized scaled model of hypersonic replacement for the long grounded SR71 Blackbird reports on some progress on the fiercely difficult issues of a combined cycle engine to deal with the totally different propulsion needs of an aircraft flying below and above the speed of sound.

It quotes a flight time in the early 2020s.

And, to be clear, it is a hypersonic rather than supersonic project. Something that is at least two orders of magnitude harder than supersonic flight, since it involves velocities three or more times faster than Concorde achieved, and skin temperatures even at more than 20 kilometres above the ground that would mimic those experienced for much shorter intervals by manned spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

The SR71 Blackbird flew at mach 3. The SR72 aims for mach 6. At no time, after it emerged from secrecy, was the design and technology of the SR71 considered remotely applicable to a future viable commercial airliner.

The second Aviation Week story is comparatively speaking, about a less spectacularly ambitious objective than mixed cycle mach 6 hypersonic flight. It would only do about mach 1.4 compared to a sustained cruise speed of close to mach 2 in Concorde, and from earlier accounts, be contemplated for an aircraft more the size of a corporate jet than a 100 passenger design that once regularly flew across the North Atlantic in about three and half hours.  This project would be assisted by NASA and could be going through its paces over a military housing estate in California (as the contract reportedly requires) also as soon as the early 2020s.

Both these stories require free registration with Aviation Week to be read in full.

They are also the work of another journalist, who has astonishingly good access and contacts in US aerospace, and who reports for owners who are making serious investments in quality reporting. Plane Talking is doing its bit to ensure that its readership taps into that resource, which is of a quality and level of specialisation unlikely to be found in this part of the world in a foreseeable future.

supersonic flight

May 28, 2017


A recent three engined rendering of an Aerion as2

The main disappointment of the week when it comes to aviation advances was the half-baked reporting of claimed ‘assistance’ for the Aerion as2 supersonic corporate jet ‘successor’ to the defunct Concorde from the engine designer and maker GE.

Even Bloomberg went soft on this. In this report it says the as2 is set to receive a ‘boost’ from GE. However further down the story also points out that a ‘boost’ as in cash or technical resources isn’t there.

Instead it quotes GE as saying a final agreement (on anything) has yet to be reached. Brad Mottier, GE’s vice president for business aviation says “We welcome their vision and are excited to continue discussions on engine configuration.”

This is probably the real story. No-one, including GE and Airbus, is likely to take the engine ambitions for the as2 seriously if Aerion continues to articulate a case for one which will  simultaneously perform like the highest tech subsonic engines under development in terms of fuel economy, by-pass ratios, and emissions, and conform to the totally different low by-pass, higher density power performance requirements of faster than sound aircraft propulsion systems.

The Aerion as2 isn’t a Concorde successor either. Concorde carried up to 100 passengers at just under mach 2 and close to 60,000 feet altitude and its subsonic ‘sweet spot’ was around mach 0.9 at 29,000 feet. The as2 will carry up to 12 passengers at mach 1.5  where a sonic overboom isn’t a problem, or at ‘just under’ mach 1 over inhabited areas.  It is specified for a slightly longer range duration than Concorde, but on the current figures, not with enough supersonic range to do Australia to west coast USA in less than two stops, which would not make it competitive with the latest version of the Gulfstream G650ER which can do Melbourne-Los Angeles non-stop at fast subsonic speed.

To have reasons to get excited about the Aerion as2 it would be necessary to learn about how the deal with Airbus announced in 2014 has made satisfactory progress to a claimed in-service date in 2021.

Nothing material has been heard about the Airbus ‘collaboration’ since September 2014. It didn’t rate a mention in general media reports about the GE ‘boost’ last week. The silence is deafening.


Dec 11, 2016


Wow, another graphic guaranteed to distract the masses
Wow, another graphic guaranteed to distract the masses

Lured by a neat graphic (as shown above) and the high level of general ignorance that prevails in much of the general media, which is now largely reliant on PR handouts for content, this story about a jet that could do New York to London in about 20 minutes is probably not far from getting a run here as a Sydney/Melbourne to London in 50 minutes story.

It is complete rubbish.  It also belongs to an enduring genre of ‘faster than Concorde’ stories that dates back to even before Concorde finally entered passenger carrying service in 1976.

The 40 passenger Boom jet, which collectors of such items might recall will begin flight testing sometime next year, was a recent entry into the Hall of Supersonic Shame Stories, and even attracted claimed orders from Sir Richard Branson, who in a never ending parallel epic, has been touting the imminent start to flights by the Virgin Galactic rocket ride thingy beginning in 2009 and every subsequent year until late in 2014 when one tragically crashed during a test flight.

The Antipode appears to be about one quarter the size of the Boom jet, but more than twelve times as fast, at 26,000 kilometers per hour, which would about 92 percent the velocity required to achieve low earth orbit without the lethal hindrance of an atmosphere. But because the Antipode requires flight in an atmosphere thick enough to provide oxygen for its engine and lift for its wings, it would be rapidly vaporized by atmospheric fiction, um, make that friction.

The controlled re-entry of spacecraft into the atmosphere generated temperatures of more than 1600C in the now defunct Space Shuttle and over 2000 C in some other vehicles. That’s peak thermal load, lasting a very short period. Sustaining comparable thermal loads for 20 minutes or more means the surface temperatures of the Antipode and its combustion chamber would exceed not just the ignition point of known alloys and some exotic ceramics and composites, but render them into plasma.

But fear not. As the piffle in the story says Some air would be channeled through a nozzle in the nose, to produce a counter-flowing jet of air.

The technique would stop it from having similar problems to Concorde, which suffered from a loud sonic boom over land and a massive heat build-up due to friction at high speeds.

The only technique apparent from this amazing passage is the use of gobbledygook to impress readers aged less than 10. And I can report that the windows of Concorde were hot to touch at mach 1.98 (or the mach 2 briefly attained at the upper operating limit for the temperature reading on its leading edges when in supersonic cruise.)

Such stories usually get dreamed up by various PR agencies to give publicity to funding starved university research departments, or indeed designers like M Bombardier, who seems to believe in a funding Santa Claus, or just outright fantacists bored with inventing cruel stories about how MH370 was shot down by the US Navy while a decoy drone was flown to fool the Inmarsat satellite which hardly received any information anyhow because Malaysia Airlines wouldn’t pay the price for full engine monitoring during the flight.

This is a silly season for media stories which in reality are likely to be deadly serious, given the state of world affairs and domestic politics in Australia. We don’t really need trash like this, do we?

supersonic flight

Mar 26, 2016


Why do such good looking graphics sucker so much of the media?
Why do such good looking graphics sucker so much of the media?

The PR fairly floss that is currently touting a mini-supersonic airliner with the ironically eponymous name ‘Boom’ supported by Richard Branson ought to trigger bullshit alarms all over the serious media.

As a long time follower and supporter of Branson, this is the sort of announcement that is beginning to wear out his welcome as an erstwhile brilliant entrepreneur and innovator.

The concept Branson is co-floating with publicity shy figures in Silicon Valley and declarations of intent to order by an unnamed European airline is exciting.

With 40 seats, large windows, and a cruise speed of mach 2.2, which is 10 percent faster than the 100 seat Concorde achieved, and slightly slower than the scary mach 2.3 the Soviet era TU-144 claimed under full after burner augmented thrust for hopelessly short distances, what isn’t to like about the confection?

Credibility, for a start. The stories, such as this excellent report, insist that Virgin Galactic rather than Virgin Atlantic is ready to take options on the first 10 Booms, via the mechanism of The Spaceship Company, which doesn’t make operational sense, since Galactic is about sub orbital rocket thrill rides, not scheduled airline flying.

Maybe that’s because US carrier Delta with 49 percent of Virgin Atlantic, is much more interested in breaking the grip of the British Airways/American Airlines dominance on the subsonic trans Atlantic market preferably with cheap current technology jets screwed out of Airbus and Boeing for big discounts, rather than think about science fiction, even nearer-term science fiction.

The story is totally lacking in any evidence of serious money being invested pronto in this incredibly attractive, and ambitious, but enormously risky project, called Boom of all things. And with a tail that looks more than a little like the shark fin vertical stabiliser that Boeing dropped from its Dreamliner poster during their Batman and Robin or Gotham City phase. Even the windows are evocative of the early 787 sketches.

A one third scale model is rubbish talk unless it going to replicate the 2.2 times the speed of sound performance of the full sized jet, and that just doesn’t make economic sense. If Concorde had gone down that route it would take taken at least six more years, and even more indulgences from French and UK taxpayers, to build and certify.

Virgin Galactic is building, building, and building a full sized sub-orbital rocket rider that will meet (or else) all of its certification hurdles and then take paying passengers, one day. It does so in conjunction with an immensely theatrical pterodactyl like lifter, White Knight Two, to take it first to 50,000 feet and then drop it for a full motor ignition for a parabolic ride to what had better be more than 110 kilometres altitude (one definition of the edge of space) and a few minutes of micro gravity.

Branson has been constantly proclaiming that the first paying passenger flights are imminent for most of this century. It has to be near, very near, but where the hell is it?

If Virgin Galactic, which is seguing into the lucrative, and promising air launched earth orbiting satellite business, can’t promptly deliver on years and years of promises, the optics for Boom aren’t anywhere near as good as the fairly floss hand out about Boom makes out.

It may be an unworthy thought, but is there any relationship between the tardiness of Virgin Galactic coming up with the goods with its sub orbital rocket ride joy flights, and the noise made about Boom?

Branson has so many achievements to his illustrious name. Virgin Atlantic avenged the demise of Laker Airways, founded by Sir Freddie Laker in 1966, and remains a competitive airline brand to this day (as well as highly useful to Delta). It was Branson who funded the Brett Godfrey and Rob Sherrard plan for Virgin Blue, that broke the grip Qantas and Ansett had on the Australian domestic sector in 2000, leading to the Virgin Australia of today that some might be beginning to fret about.

But the passage of time is cruel, and relevance depends on big wins, and big wins these days means billions of pounds or euros, which is much more than insubstantial dollops of sticky PR fairy floss and you beaut graphics.

Branson needs to come up with something more nutritious and convincing than this.

supersonic flight

Sep 19, 2015


Concorde as it looked in 2003 when it flew for British Airways for the last time

Proposals to revive Concorde bring with them, alas, some serious problems.

It’s 12 years since pilots trained in the characteristics and procedures essential for flying the supersonic airliner were ‘currently qualified’ as required by the regulations.

Similarly, the engineers capable of maintaining and troubleshooting the mechanical and electrical requirements of an airliner designed and built in and to the limits of 1960s technology have either died, retired or been retrained to the needs of airliners far different to Concorde.

To legally fly Concorde when it was in service, pilots had to demonstrate their ability to save the jet from upsets or even cabin depressurizations, which at more than 55,000 feet, are even more serious than they are in lower cruising subsonic jets.

That recurrent training included all of the usual demands of line flying today.  Engine failures, landings in tricky crosswinds, the loss of hydraulics or other functionality, and undercarriage failures or problems with movable control surfaces on the wing and tail.

In short, being a Concorde pilot doing charter flights for the proposed revival of this great icon of the 20th century is a full time job, whether you fly the jet once a year, once a month or once a week.

It wouldn’t be a job on the side, unless special dispensations were granted to the new operation. You would need to be ‘currently qualified’, meaning that your pilot license for the type was being constantly tested or ‘checked’ according to a standard and schedule linked to an air operator certificate.

If operational dispensations were allowed (however unlikely that might be) the revived Concorde enterprise would be simultaneously asking the customers for a very high fare coupled to a lesser standard of safety than is regulated for scheduled airliners.

While there are very small numbers of restored historic airliners flying today there are few if any operating luxury charters with paying passengers, and none  have ever been operated in anything as complex or demanding as a supersonic Concorde.

The insurance situation would be ‘interesting’, assuming your trip or the operator’s asset was capable of being insured, or subject to critical exclusions.

Concorde flew faster than a speeding bullet, landed at high speed, and took off with engine thrust augmented by after burners.

What is most ‘strange’ about the reports is the reference to using a ‘normal’ Concorde as a static tourist attraction adjacent to ‘The Eye’ ferris wheel beside the Thames in London, yet converting a prototype Concorde to flying condition with a luxury interior.

Designing and fitting and certifying a new interior in a Concorde that never flew in scheduled passenger service could easily cost more than the entire sums being reported as being the budget for the project.

The ‘restaurant’ rather than ‘restoration’ part of the susceptible media hoop la about Concorde flying (yet) again may be the only part we need to take seriously.


Jun 13, 2014


Group photo Airbus Innovation Days 2014 at Aeroscopia

Before Airbus there were Concordes, Caravelles, Mercures, Falcons, Gazelles and Mirages.

Some of them now rest easy under cover of the grand hall of the nearly completed Aeroscopia museum in Blagnac, Toulouse, right beside part of the sprawling Airbus facilities and final assembly lines on one side of the city’s airport.

But the lights will come on, and illuminate these largely forgotten treasures of latter 20th century flight some time around the end of this year.

There is a monster to show the kids inside this still dark cavernous hall, an early Super Guppy custom build freighter which is based on a militarised Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, with engines similar to those of the Lockheed Electras of the late 1950s, and the nose gear of a Boeing 707 from the turn of the 50s to the 60s.

Super Guppy from under the wing of the A300: Airbus photo

It carried parts of the first Airbus type, the A300, from different suppliers to Toulouse, including the original demonstration A300, which is parked right beside it.

The media posse attending the Airbus Innovation Days this week were allowed in for a gourmet feast (this is France after all) and while the meal, which included a regional speciality, roasted marrow bones, the giants of those times stole the gazes and fascinations of the guests.

Included with the Super Guppy (one of four that carried the parts of the A300 to Toulouse from other parts of France Italy, Spain, West Germany and the UK) and the A300 show jet was Concorde 201 (which eventually flew as the French Presidential jet)  and some early corporate jets. Concorde 09 is still outside Aeroscopia.

There will also be one or more other Aeroscopias springing up, in Germany and elsewhere. Word is that a Dassault Mercure, of which only 11 made it into service, is being stalked as an acquisition of a 150 seat single aisle design that preceded the A320, flew incredibly fast at low altitudes to head off the threat posed by the plans for a TGV network all over France, but failed to stop the trains, or sell to anyone outside France, since it didn’t have enough range to leave the country, which of course wasn’t really true at all.

Aeroscopia is part funded by Airbus. Who knows what other historic Airbus airliners will be added to its collection in the years to come.

This reporter flew in this A300 demonstrator at the Le Bourget Air Show in 1973, and has posted some recollections and photos here.

As is always the case, half a life time ago, no-one had any idea how big Airbus would become, or where the designs and business models of the early 21st century, would lead us.

This was a place or orchards and small farming when Airbus was just a curiosity back in the early 70s. The last men on the moon had come home, the incredibly short lived first age of supersonic flight was about to come and go, and the concept of a European unity of purpose that would do more than design and built token make-work airliners was largely in hiding in the highest levels of bureaucracy far away in Paris and Bonn.

Dinner was sumptuous. But something else will nourish those who come to this place to touch the fabric of aviation history, and it may do so for centuries to come, when supersonic flight will have been achieved in a durable, commercial form, and people will have returned to the moon, and gone far beyond it, beyond Mars, and Miranda, and even set forth, for the stars.

These exhibits will endure like relics, revered and respected, yet their intimate stories and personal connections will have faded and fallen silent, known only to the shadows and shafts of light that play over them.

Concorde 201 in the grand hall of Aeroscopia: Airbus photo

supersonic flight

Mar 14, 2014


air safety

Jun 16, 2013


The doomed TU-144 on arrival at Le Bourget 1973: Public domain

There was a flying contest at Le Bourget north of Paris 40 years ago that was not about anything as predictable as those between today’s airliner makers.  It was between the dueling supersonic airliners, the Concorde, and the Soviet Union’s TU-144.

This was wasn’t Airbus v Boeing, but East versus West.  And the West won. The TU-144 crashed, already in pieces from structural failure, into the village of Goussainville, killing eight people on the ground and all six who were on board.

Not everyone will agree with the writer’s recollections or reports from that crash, but most of those who saw it most likely would agree, as would one person in particular, Sir George Edwards,  the head of Concorde partner the British Aircraft Corporation.

I was standing beside Edwards in the BAC Chalet when the pride of the USSR crashed to earth.  As an ABC News and Television reporter on assignment in Paris, I had my ‘giant’ ¼ inch tape Nagra recorder with me.

Edwards gave me a succinct summary of what we had just witnessed, then I disassembled the telephone on a nearby desk, jacked the Nagra into the mouthpiece with alligator clips, and played the unedited interview down the line to Aunty.

Concorde and the TU-144 were in an avowed contest to thrill the crowds and display superiority over each other.  Doing so at low altitude and speed would not have proven anything really from the point of view of  the world’s airlines, many of whom, including Qantas, had signed up for intentions to buy the supersonic Concorde, if it all worked out.

But that was what air shows have always done.  The goods are not just put on ground display, but often in a flying display, and in 1973 Concorde and the TU-144 were being flown for visual effect, in ways neither would ever be flown with paying passengers on board.

On 3 June, 1973,  Concorde took off first and immediately performed a series of graceful wing rolls followed by a steep but smooth climb in what was from memory several passes of the line of chalets and their viewing terraces or areas.

The TU-144 followed the routine, but lurched rather than rolled from side to side,  in an aggressive and clumsy looking display in which the afterburners were re-ignited at the start of the climb. (Memory says Concorde also fired them up at this point, but memory may be wrong. ).

There were two passes by Concorde, bracketing the visibly less stable turn in, wing waggle  and climb routine by the TU-144.  The BAC chalet was the place to be.

On its second pass the TU-144 was notably more aggressive in its handling than on the first.  It slammed from one side to the other, and then entered a breathtakingly steep climb, afterburners on.  Conversation stopped.  At the vertex of the parabola the TU-144 seemed to slow notably.  There was a hint of a shudder, and  on the starboard side, which was being presented to observers, there was a mist of brown that briefly appeared behind the engines on that side.

Reheat was off.  In a matter of seconds the TU-144 was falling, ever faster downwards. “He’s lost it” Edwards said.  Edwards, 1908-2003, was as qualified as anyone on earth to make such a call.  A few seconds after that everyone else was gasping their disbelief then dismay as the delta winged SST became notably faster in its downward trajectory.

Looking from behind, it was suddenly obvious that the nose had been raised into a flatter attitude than before. It was now well beyond the perimeter of Le Bourget. The TU-144  was being pancaked downwards. There were several quick eruptions of flame from the fuselage ahead of the leading edge of the delta wing, one much larger than the other,  almost instantly followed by a catastrophic break up of the first half of the airliner into large chunks and streams of debris.

Several seconds at most after that there were two large impact balls of flame and smoke on the horizon. A church steeple snapped and fell over.

Either just before or after this Concorde touched down at the opposite end of the field from the belching smoke from Goussainville.

The flying show public announcer announced whatever it was that then took off on the  flying program roster.  No mention was made of the twin plumes of smoke  on the horizon from the loser of the supersonic airliner show off show down.

Edwards outlined the sequence of events in a matter of fact delivery.  Reheat, steep climb, possible aerodynamic low speed instability, definite engine stall on starboard side, puff of unburnt fuel from attempt to restart it, steep descent, recovery effort, nose high, aerodynamic rupture, crash.

It was scoop time.

A quick call to the London bureau. ‘Concordski down’. Get me a TV crew.  Raw interview coming down the line next.  (Was able to work in with BBC crew that came running from further down the flight line. )  Quick exec decision taken to leave the impact zone to either BBC or RTF to keep hooking up to project leaders at Le Bourget.

Russians not talking.  Same people who had refused earlier requests to go flying on the jet. They were sitting with their backs to a locked door into their area. By contrast, Airbus Industrie had been more than willing to let me on board their A300 demonstrator with cameras, with  Bernard Ziegler, Airbus test pilot and head of engineering,  and US presidential hopeful Senator Barry Goldwater,  at the controls,  but that was another happier story from my first Le Bourget.

Like the French media,  who had been onto the ‘flying contest’ between the supersonics for days,  the ABC story was about a fly-off that had ended for whatever reason in a crash.

The special BBC ‘hit’ team that charged through the door quite some hours later from London  was aghast at the angle taken, perhaps because it implied Concorde had been somehow responsible for the TU-144’s misfortune.

Which was never implied or framed in such a manner.  The  local media approach to the situation, and that of various qualified aerospace authorities, including Edwards,  was that the TU-144 had been flown outside of its capabilities, and that the consequences through handling issues at top of climb, with or without the additional challenge of a related engine stall, came together to bring it tragically undone.

This account of the crash in Wikipedia accords with this view.

Although the quality of the video isn’t great there is an historic YouTube of a story on Planete  which captured Concorde starting its routine as the TU-144 that crashed is moving into position for takeoff. To view it you need to first visit this page on a TU-144 site then locate it under the title Concorde and TU-144 Paris Air Show.

There are two screen captures from this below.

Concorde in distance under the nose of the TU-144: Planete

One of the astonishing things about the 1973 crash was that no television footage of the entire sequence of the  crash has ever been found searching accessible video libraries. It was witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators but not apparently, recorded in full by the camera crews present.

None of them were following the TU-144 from reheat and climb to the first signs of difficulty that stopped the small talk in the BAC Chalet. It was an event that took only seconds to play out.  The various reports that are discoverable start either just before or immediately after the fuselage ruptures under the excessive forces of a drastic recovery pull up by the crew.

One of them is shown below.

[youtube] [/youtube]

Much has been made in subsequent years of claims that a French Air Force Mirage, which distantly followed the TU-144 on its second ill-fated pass  ‘surprised’ the pilots.

The Mirage was trailing the SST  on its starboard side from where it could have, as speculated, been observing the deployment of the retractable canard winglets mounted behind the cockpit, and some other control surfaces as well.

But in that position it seems to have been in the blind spot of the second test pilot, who may however have learned of its presence by radio.  It was a  long a way away, and certainly not a factor in the engines afterburners being relit and the jet initiating a steep climb from which for a combination of factors it was unable to recover.

The merits of an observation mission seem questionable.  The ‘west’ knew what the canards did, and what their dimensions were to the last millimeter well before the jet arrived in Paris, where spooks had limitless opportunities to walk under and around the jet and take all sorts of photos of it.

The Russian jet was flown by test pilots, meaning they wouldn’t be surprised by anything,  and at the time the Mirage comes into frame, the TU-144 is committed to a course of action that proved fatal. There is no time nor reason for the second pilot to glance over his right shoulder.

This year there will of course be flying contests at Le Bourget.  Sane ones. Not flypasts of 787s pulling Gs followed by the surprises appearance of an A350 pulling Gs.  There won’t be, indeed never has been, dueling fly pasts by 777s and A330s or A380s.

The only surprises will be the statistical analyses which will as always, be masterpieces of emphasis, arithmetic, and exquisitely selective data starting points  that ought be reviewed by forensic accountants rather than aviation journalists.

May all those present enjoy the spectacles, in the air, or in Powerpoint.

The technicalities of reporting  in 1973.

Voice inserts, as the ABC then called them, were almost instantaneous, while TV, shot on 16 mm film, and then developed and sound synched, took about three days to get to air in Australia. Which  would be around two days after the headlines on a newspaper reporting the same incident had gone to fish wrappers.

Satellite crosses cost something like $US 70,000 for a few minutes. No “take two” allowed, ever.  There weren’t many satellites either, they had to be booked in advance, and 20-70 grand was the sort of money that in those days bought a line of three or more inner Sydney harbour view cottages that these days go far millions of dollars apiece.

But we did eventually use a satellite, for about 30 seconds,  to top and tail to camera a voice over done against footage of the crash. Which came after much scripting to and fro by telex (look it up) and recording it to the exact second using a datel line, which was a large number of telephone lines simultaneously tasked with conveying speech at passably broadcast quality within the capabilities of 70s communications technology.

It was anything but straightforward, but unlike today, reporters always had time to review what they knew, and think before speaking.


May 3, 2013


NASA graphic of Lockheed Martin low boom SST concept


Those who have been writing about the imminent development of a viable successor to Concorde  since well before it was retired from unviable service in 2003 have something slightly more encouraging to contemplate in this story by Stephen Trimble in Flightglobal.

That because it involves an internal proposal by NASA to partner in the building of a Concorde sized supersonic airliner capable of overflying cities, towns and even isolated homesteads (cough) without the sonic boom overpressure smashing windows and collapsing out buildings and causing livestock to stampede in panic.

The writer remembers one of the wide-boys employed by the old BAC or British Aircraft Corporation telling the Australian aviation media that the sonic boom problem between Sydney and London would be immaterial because it would fly only fly at supersonic speeds directly across cities in India and Asia, inferring that what was unacceptable for ‘people like us’ in the developed world needn’t be given a second thought in relation to what was still called Bombay.

Note the references to ‘low boom’ rather than no boom transonic and supersonic flight in the article.  There has been significant progress already on boom reduction. Perhaps an acceptable design will result from this study, if NASA doesn’t find a more worthy cause for the available money.  Hold the champagne.


Dec 20, 2012


The patent drawings covering the Gulfstream inventions

You need to go to Flightglobal here to read all about this, but it looks like Gulfstream has made some very promising breakthroughs in suppressing the shockwaves that have been a barrier to the development of supersonic passenger aircraft that can fly directly over cities.

There is no information about its range or payload as this is all about engineering and design features, but if it could be made to work for a supersonic business jet or SSBJ then naturally the same innovations can be scaled up one day to airliner size.

One day soon, many would hope. Concorde was a wonderful yet limited machine, which could carry up to 100 passengers at maximum speeds of just under or over mach 2 between New York City and London, but the supersonic boom it generated was too damaging at its most intense to be acceptable over built up areas.

The last Concorde service flew in October 2003, after a retirement brought on by the need to replace and upgrade some of its systems at a cost far in excess of any plausible returns.

Contrary to popular reports, the jet was profitable for British Airways for a period during the 1980s, when it made around £ 600 million in profits, although the acquisition costs of the very expensive Anglo-French jet were not borne by the two operators, BA and Air France, but by the taxpayers of each country.

Those glory days in terms of expense accounts passed, and in the 90s these services made rather less if anything for the two airlines, with a significant factor being the rising cost of fuel and the consumption by Concordes of around four times as much of it per passenger or flight as the most efficient Boeing 747s of the times.

Concorde was not the fastest nor highest flying SST, the USSR’s TU-144 at mach 2.3 and sustainable altitudes of more than 63,000 feet was able to fly faster and higher, however it couldn’t do so safely, or for useful distances, while Concorde was superbly competent at crossing the North Atlantic both ways with full payload.

The display Concorde at Heathrow after flights ceased


Apr 6, 2012



Credited to Boeing in US reports

Despite some misleading headlines in the US about a NASA supersonic flight breakthrough, there is some very promising progress about sonic boom reduction to report.

The Aviation Week site is so burdened with ‘waiting for Sitelife’ delays that it is damn near ‘site dead’, but you can read a comparable report in a flash here.

The upshot is that NASA has announced that tests by Boeing and Lockheed under research contracts have reduced the sonic boom noise of an overflight by a comparatively small supersonic airliner design to the limit that US authorities say is just legal over America.

Meaning, among other things, a scaled down Concorde successor that will not leave a trail of smashed windows or even collapsed outhouses in its wake is possible along the centre of the boom path where it’s signature double whip crack of closely spaced leading and trailing shock waves were least attenuated and most focused.

The statements made by Peter Coen, NASA’s  Supersonic Fixed Wing project manager, are measured and encouraging, although 2035 seems a long way into the future for their plausible introduction, and possible use on a much larger design.

This is the heart of the matter. Flying is all about saving time for passengers.  When Qantas began services in the Queensland outback, it was sending small contraptions to rural properties or outposts to save time for people going to Brisbane by flying them to the nearest place they could catch a train, since the average speed of a steam drawn train in the 1920s was much faster over any large measure of country miles than a device that had to take off and land a lot, and sometimes landed in places not inscribed on the hand written passenger tickets. (In fact steam trains in the 1920s were often faster in service than today’s congested tracks, but that’s another story.)

Trips are all about time taken. That’s why Eurostar is much faster for getting between most of London and most of Paris than flying, especially with all the pathetic security posturing that goes on and on and on for several hours at some airports.

But if a jet can fly at two or more times the speed of sound at an acceptable price, and a negligible sonic boom, across the land, conventional sub-sonic flight cruise times can in some cases be cut to around 40-50% of the time taken today, assuming we are measuring wheels up to wheels down, and not all the other nonsense that goes on before departing including taxying in a queue for six kilometres, in a frustrating stop start procession that keeps the main gear wheels from overheating!

The Boeing model shown at the top of the page represents a design that would be just over 60 metres long and carry 30 passengers around 7200 kilometres at Mach 1.8, compared to just over or under Mach 2.0 for Concorde, which flew up to 100 passengers for around 6500 kilometres in extremis in its real operations and usually for shorter distances.

The Lockheed study shown below represents a high wing tri jet (two of them obscured below the wing) which was to be about 70 metres long, but carry 81 passengers at Mach 1.6. The much higher payload of the Lockheed design would in part reflect the trade off between lower speed and increased payload, and also the dramatic decline in sonic boom that can be achieved as a similar trade off in the tough physical realities of faster than sound flight.

Described as a Lockheed supplied image in US reports

Such trade offs always exist in formulating airliner offers. Just where is the biggest earning segment in the high speed market? Is it 100 passengers at Mach 2, or one day, 250 passengers at Mach 1.5? Boeing and Lockheed weren’t in head to head competition in the NASA study, but demonstrating what might be achievable at particular performance levels in terms of sonic boom reduction, because commercial success is likely to require a design that can fly unrestricted over densely populated cities as well as oceans and wildernesses to which the supersonic Concorde was banished.

Gee. 2035 is such an ask for some of us. That elusive palace of the future swims into view once more like a mirage, the half seen blurred images of future flying machines never quite resolving themselves into focus, in a place that all of us can glimpse, yet not all may enter.


Apr 4, 2012


One of the most valued contacts this writer has in the air transport industry asked a supposedly simple question today as to ‘how do you think we will see today’s preoccupation with non-stop flights from the eastern capitals to London in 20 years time?’

The question was provoked by the terrific movie of the early Concorde days posted on Flightblogger by Jon Ostrower, when much of the enthusiasm for the impending advent of mass supersonic flight looks exaggerated or misplaced today, no matter how wonderful Concorde may be in the memories of those of us who flew on it.

Just about any of a wide range of answers to the question about the prospects for  ultra long range subsonic flight are plausible, ranging from ‘we will remember air travel as something we lost when the world plunged into economic turmoil’ to ‘there will be dozens of to-hell-with-the-cost sonic-boom-free eight seat mach 3 mini-Concordes making the trip with two refueling stops in less than nine hours every day.’

Right in the middle of the spectrum ranging from a post aviation world trapped in a new dark age, to a $200,000 super fast ride to a steam catapult and capture facility somewhere near today’s London City airport, the consensus view is that a version of current jets, such as the A380 or the 777, will be able to do the trip, but only if the business case is compelling.

And that’s the problem, it isn’t compelling. It is doubtful that Airbus or Boeing could sell enough super-ultra long haul jets to recover the costs of development, since there aren’t at this stage hundreds of city pairs half the circumference of the earth apart that would turn a decent profit from flight stages of more than 20 hours.

If we argue that Sydney-London is only between 3.5 and 1.5 hours further away using efficient routes than Newark (for New York) to Singapore, that difference amounts to much more than engines and airframes can deliver at this stage.

The reason no airline has ever ordered the Airbus A340-500, the operational long haul champion, or the Boeing 777-200LR, with auxiliary tanks, is because both are at their maximum possible total weight when they push back on a route such as New York to Singapore now.

Any additional weight in terms of structure and fuel has to be found elsewhere in the already fully utilized maximum possible weight of such an airliner, which means the payload, already severely reduced, falls to ridiculously small numbers if it is to make it from Sydney to London and touch down with legal minimum fuel reserves left in its tanks.

The fixation for Qantas with London non-stop flights in the middle of the first decade of this century was being able to bypass hubs like Singapore or Dubai, and thus break free from the notion that Australia had to allow foreign airlines based at such hubs to have free access to our airports in return for our flag carrier using them.

Those arguments are irrelevant today, and not just because freer trade has made Australia far more prosperous than it would be if it retreated into protectionism and some sort of walled garden based on unrestricted exports but limited imports.

If Qantas had ever won the right to control a flag carrier of an Asia state, such as Malaysia or Singapore, as an investment in an offshore premium carrier, the quid-pro-quo would have been allowing the national flag carriers of such states to have their Australia based premium carrier set up here to exploit the technology for non-stop flights from Sydney to London in competition to Qantas anyhow.

It was a half-baked idea, burdened with potentially lethal consequences, since no Asia state is likely to give Australia such an opportunity without demanding reciprocal rights for the airline business model of its choice.

But, we know such ultra-long range flights are technically possible, even with very strict new rules in force for in-flight fire fighting capability, and of course, the mundane needs of more reliable toilets, extended crew rest facilities and enhanced engine and systems reliability.

What might push them over the line for the airlines and the aircraft makers?

A start would be non-fossil-carbon releasing fuel, not the bio-fuel blends coming on line in the very near future through the efforts of British Airways, and Qantas, but the algal fuels that have already flown in test flights, but which will take longer than bio-fuels to bring up to the volumes and down to the price levels where they will replace jet grade kerosene refined from oil.

Carbon pricing disincentives to standard fuels will spread, and tax rewards for using non-fossil carbon releasing fuels will rise, and ultra-long range flying is far less fuel efficient than flying the same route with a refueling stop someone near the geographical mid-point if possible.

Two things are reasonably probably going to happen to algal fuels.   One is that their price will fall to well below the levels of fossil-carbon releasing fuels today in real terms. And another possibility is that they can be made available in a stable form that generates slightly more energy per unit of volume than jet grade kerosene.

If a weight and volume advantage can be designed into ‘designer’ fuels, airframes like those of the A340-500 and 777-200LR , or improved versions of the 777 and A380 families, would be able to carry much more useful payloads non-stop for 21.5 hours than they can now for 19 hours.

Of course it is just as reasonable to argue that these developments will not occur.

But there is a third factor in aircraft technology that doesn’t reflect the foreseeable improvements to fuels and airframes, and that is the inevitability, sooner or later, of an ambush by technological innovation.

In the 19th century the elegant visions of an industrial future based on transport along canals, and even grander sailing ships, were ambushed by the steam age.

Ambushes of similar magnitude lie in wait for the technology of flight (in addition to those unleashed by information technology), rendering immaterial the limitations that frustrate sustained supersonic or hypersonic flight.

When this happens, and it will happen, and most likely happen in a country intensively investing in pure science and alternative energy sources, the door to such an astonishing future and all the changes it will bring, will swing open.


Jul 9, 2010


Boeing's preferred future SST design. Boeing image.
Boeing's preferred future SST design. Boeing image.

Boeing’s study of future options for viable supersonic flight has produced a design for a jet slightly slower than Concorde but with far more range.

It would cruise at between Mach 1.6-1.8 compared to Mach 2 or slightly lower for a typical Concorde flight, and carry in a two class singe aisle configuration 120 passengers compared to 100 all first class seating on the Anglo-French SST which was withdrawn from service in 2003.

But the proposed range for the Boeing study of 5000 nautical miles is the intriguing metric, as it would allow non-stop flights between Los Angeles or San Francisco and London in about five to five and a half hours or similar times to Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai.

From Sydney the jet nicknamed Icon 11 could reach Los Angeles via a stop in Honolulu in around nine hours, depending on how long customs & paranoia took at the refuelling point. It could also connect major Australian cities to Beijing and other north Asia cities in five hours or less.

The tag Icon 11 might have been a reference to Concorde as Icon 1, or the Boeing 747, also one of the great icons of the 20th century.

The Boeing study was done under contract to NASA for its N+3 project to assess in considerable detail, plausible technological solutions for sustainable airliner designs three decades after the work was commissioned in 2005.

Lockheed Martin's NASA SST study proposal
Lockheed Martin's NASA SST study proposal

Unlike the Lockheed Martin supersonic entry, the proposed Boeing design doesn’t promise to reduce to negligible levels the fierce supersonic boom generated by the Concorde or its faster, but even less practicable Russian counterpart the TU-144.

The pressure shock waves generated by the Concorde were for those directly under the flight path like a very loud double action shotgun blast at close quarters. Boeing says that its design reduces the noise level of supersonic overflights to between 65-75 decibels, which is not devastatingly loud, but not likely to result in public enthusiasm either. Boeing says this level ‘may make it possible’ for supersonic corridors to be flown over land.