Here's Why Supersonic Airliners No Longer Exist

by FliteTest | October 22, 2018 | (5) Posted in Just Fun

The era of the SST was short lived. Why was this and how did we come to have no more supersonic airliners?

The journey of the supersonic airliner was, during the twentieth century, a step too far for the rapid advancement of aviation. 1960s relentless optimism for the future of air transport came to a juddering halt with the reality of making supersonic airliners a viable in the following decades. Hopeful projects from the USA, Britain, France and the Soviet Union were all stopped dead by 2003 with the retirement of Concorde. Here is the unfortuante story of the supersonic airliner and why they disappeared from our skies. 

The spirit of the decade

The 60s was a time of technological advancement and innovation. Hovertrains would soon become a thing as well as household robots and flying cars - or so people thought. In a short period of time, aircraft had lept from conventional piston power to jet age turbines. People were flying into the stratosphere and would soon touch the moon. It wasn't surprising, therefore, that everyone thought another giant leap was about to take place. 


Interest in supersonic transport for everyday civilians had been there since the first aircraft, like the Bell-X1, smashed the sound barrier all the way back in 1946. As jet technology quickly matured, it looked more and more likely that future skies would be populated with aircraft flying in excess of Mach 1. Aviation companies around the world took a keen interest. In Europe, France and Britain respectively looked to start developing their own experimental projects. Motivated by the idea of a 'race' for influence on the SST (Super Sonic Transport) market, both countries joined forces to inject more funds and resources into what would become the famous French-British Concorde

The Bell-X1 was the first aircraft to travel faster than the speed of sound in level flight


As Concorde took flight for the first time in 1968, another supersonic airliner had already beaten it to the sound barrier. Working on an extremely similar looking design, the Soviets had been working on an SST of their own called the Tupolev TU-144. The 144 wasn't as fast as the Concorde, or as comfortable, but it did prove that regular SST flights were possible. 

Over in the United States, enthusiasm for a supersonic airliner had been just as strong. Five companies - Convair, Lockheed, Douglas, North American Aviation and Boeing - all come up with their own designs for an airliner that could smash through the sound barrier and get into service before the competition. If the future was to be supersonic, these companies had to have a slice of the thousand mile-an-hour pie. 

The Boeing 2707-300

Boeing Bows Out

With a concept that trumped all others, Boeing was the company that won the bid for a government-funded contract for an American SST project called the 2707. It was hugely ambitious, planning on flying 250-300 passengers at an eye-watering Mach 3. That's almost 2283mph, much faster than Concorde at 1,340mph. It's initial design included swinging swept wings, four turbojets with afterburners and a titanium airframe to resist extreme heat.

The original 2707 design with a swinging swept wing

Quickly, it was realized that the 2707 would face numerous challenges if it was ever to fly. The design was incredibly complex and astronomically expensive. This was largely due to features like the aircraft's swing wing which was extremely heavy. Nothing like this had ever been built on an aircraft so large before. This and other parts of the airplane like the titanium airframe was really unproven technology. In the time of the space age, it really was going where no one had gone before. For this reason, it ended up being redesigned with a more conventional wing to reduce costs. 

In 1971, funding was cut and the project was scrapped as, on top of the massive unresolved engineering hurdles, a new concern had arrived to face the SST. 


As well as cost, the final blow to the SST programmes of the USA and the Concorde project in France and Britain was one of noise. Along the routes of aircraft that regularly broke the sound barrier, sonic booms could be heard. For those who don't know, sonic booms occur when an aircraft passes through the sound barrier. It is the result of compressed air forming a shock wave. These can be extremely loud and can cause numerous problems. Tests in 1964 over Oklahoma City resulted in 9,594 (!) complaints of damage to buildings due to the effects of sonic booms. This unavoidable feature of the SST would be its fatal undoing. 

Around airports, noise from the 2707-300's huge afterburners would have been extreme

Thanks to public pressure and environmental agency concerns, the Boeing 2707 was resigned to the history books. During the 1970s, Concorde was banned from flying over land. Although many airline companies around the world had initially expressed interest in purchasing Concorde including Pan American in the US, a land ban meant that the aircraft was extremely limited in where it could fly. In the end, only British Airways and Air France flew the Concorde on a transatlantic route. In 2003, due to spiraling costs and unprofitability, the aircraft was retired. 

Concorde flew for the last time in 2003

Ultimately it was a combination of economic and environmental factors that saw the first age of the supersonic airliners come to an end. As you read this, however, experiments in new forms of SST are already being worked on which aim to reduce and nearly eliminate sonic booms. Although you currently can't buy a ticket to go supersonic, you may be able to one day right around the corner. 

Here's What Climbing Aboard a Concorde is Like

Future Supersonic Transport Will Be Almost Silent 

Hawker Typhoon: When Designers Get it Wrong

Article by James Whomsley

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CarolineTyler on October 24, 2018
I think you will find the TU-144 (Mach 2.15) was actually faster than Concorde (Mach 2.04)
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Here's Why Supersonic Airliners No Longer Exist