Supersonic commercial air travel may return — without all the noise
Earlier this year, NASA awarded $250,000 to Lockheed Martin to create an aircraft capable of silently breaking the sound barrier (“Low-Boom flight program”).
On Nov. 16, the companyLMT, -3.39% started production of the experimental QueSST (Quiet SuperSonic Transport) aircraft. This elegant vehicle can cruise at Mach 1.42 (1,510 km/h or 940 mph) and is capable of reaching 55,000 feet (16,800 meters), creating a low 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB) thump. This means that when the airplane breaks the sound barrier, it creates noise equivalent to the sound of slamming the car door.
In contrast, conventional supersonic jets generate booms powerful enough to startle or awaken people, or cause minor damage to some structures. Although passengers can’t hear the sound, those on land can, as it is generated behind the jet. This led to the prohibition of routine supersonic flights over land.
Furthermore, these jets had to fly at higher altitudes, which caused further problems, such as increased radiation exposure, and even increased risk of cabin depressurization to both passengers and the crew compared to subsonic airliners.
The last Concorde flew in November 2003. Business had been hit by the slump in air travel following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. as well as rising maintenance costs. Furthermore, the aircraft was built for speed and not for comfort; its narrow fuselage wasn’t wide enough to allow for reclining seats or anything more than minimal moving space.
Now, 15 years later, QueSST could usher in a new era of commercial supersonic aircraft. Its shape is as slender and sleek as its predecessor’s, but unlike the Concorde, its low-boom features could allow it to fly over land. Test flights over U.S. cities will be conducted in 2021, at which time NASA will reach out to regulators, hoping they will lift the ban — at least for this aircraft. If it succeeds, this could revolutionize commercial cargo and passenger markets.
How so? Well, subsonic jets take around eight hours to fly from New York to Paris, while QueSST would make that trip in a little less than 4 hours.
The question remains, though, whether NASA’s experimental jet overcome Concorde’s other shortcomings. We have yet to see any footage showing the airplane’s interior, but some conclusions can already be drawn from the shape of the plane. With fewer passengers and more expensive tickets, this type of flight service could find its way into the market, while keeping a sufficient level of comfort and luxury to justify the purchase.
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