Will the Skylon be the new Concorde? The obstacles for supersonic planes are still high.

Will This “Space Plane” Be the New Concorde?

The future of how we move.
Aug. 9 2013 10:15 AM

The Concorde’s Cousins

Why there hasn’t been a successor to the aviation world’s greatest engineering marvel and probably won’t be any time soon.

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Still, if similarly pessimistic appraisals had been right about the 1.3 billion pound (7 billion pounds in today’s sterling) program to build the Concorde in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, then one of man’s greatest technological feats would never have taken off. Traveling at 1,354 miles per hour, or more than twice the speed of sound, the Concorde could go from Paris to New York in 3.5 hours, less than half the time of a normal aircraft. “This most graceful of aircraft embodied our dreams of transcendence,” said Salman Rushdie in describing the plane. “[For a] brief, fabulous period we exceeded our limits ... we [escaped the grip] of the surly bonds of Earth."

The retired Air France Concorde number five.
Employees prepare to lower the retired Air France Concorde No. 5 onto pylons on the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle Airport north of Paris on Oct. 19, 2005.

Photo by Franck Prevel/Reuters

While it was truly beautiful both as a piece of design and a feat of technology, the Concorde was grounded for a reason: It was one of the greatest economic boondoggles of all time. Because of the ground noise from the sonic booms caused by supersonic aircraft when they break the sound barrier, flying the Concorde (or any civilian supersonic jet) over the continental United States was outlawed. The plane’s costs and the limited distance it was able to travel meant that only 14 planes were ever used for commercial flight, and its principal routes connected London or Paris with New York or Washington, D.C. Very few people could afford a $12,000 round-trip ticket to scarf down Caspian Osetra caviar, truffle-stuffed roast guinea fowl, and Pol Roger 1986 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill champagne on a ride from London to New York alongside Sting. “[Of 100 passengers at full load] there’s only about 10 people who were paying full fare,” said MIT’s Hansman. “Everybody else was on upgrades.” Not to mention the environmental waste—more than 6,800 gallons of fuel per hour.

The Concorde was such a phenomenal financial loser that Richard Dawkins coined the term “Concorde fallacy” to describe the phenomenon when people throw good money after bad because they have already invested so much into a failing endeavor. Ultimately, after rising maintenance costs and financial losses following its first and only deadly crash—an accident that was probably not the result of an engineering failure in the plane itself, for what it’s worth—the Concorde was put out of its misery in October 2003.

In spite of its well-earned reputation as one of the great economic debacles of the 20th century, the dream of the Concorde is still so profound that every year or so a new “Son of Concorde” is minted by the media as the plane’s spiritual successor. These “new Concordes” have actually been around since even before the original one retired. In 2002, a prototype of a Japanese supersonic plane called “the Javelin” exploded over the Australian Outback during a test flight. The Soviets built their own version of the Concorde, the Tupolev Tu-144 or Concordski, that was mothballed after just 55 flights and two dramatic crashes. The United States also attempted to build its own American supersonic jet— designed by Boeing—that would seat 277 passengers and travel at Mach 2.7. “I want the United States to continue to lead the world in air transport, and it is essential to build this plane if we are to maintain that leadership,” said Richard Nixon, announcing the project. “In the year 1978, when it will fly commercially, Tokyo will be as close to Washington, D.C., as far as hours are concerned, as London is today.” The plan was halted in 1971 after the Senate sensibly rejected further funding due to environmental concerns.

The rocket that carried the next generation supersonic model aircraft explodes on impact after it crashed into the desert at the Woomera rocket range in outback Australia.
The rocket that carried "the Javelin," a Japanese supersonic aircraft, explodes on impact after it crashed at the Woomera Rocket Range in the Australian Outback on July 14, 2002.

Photo by Mark Baker/Reuters

While no true successor appears to be on the horizon, a few “Concorde light” models under development in the United States actually have the potential to do what the Concorde did—take really rich people across the globe really fast. These mini-Concordes, so to speak, would seek to provide business travelers with supersonic flight on small private jets, rather than on commercial aircraft. The startup firm Aerion has been testing technology for a supersonic business jet that would transport eight to 12 passengers at speeds upward of Mach 1.6—fast enough to cut the New York to Paris travel time to 4½ hours. Gulfstream, meanwhile, is working on a similar private business jet, as is Boeing. In order to be economically viable, these new planes would have to figure out how to eliminate or mitigate the sonic boom effect that makes traveling across the continental United States untenable.

Even testing the technology would require getting lawmakers to grant permission for civilian supersonic flights over land. “Trying to change a law to allow very, very rich people to go a lot faster than less rich people over the same airspace—it’s not the easiest one to justify,” said Flightglobal’s Trimble.

These tiny, private jets for billionaires don’t seem quite as inspiring as a first-of-its-kind, superfast 100-seat commercial aircraft that accepts Air France and British Airways frequent-flyer miles. That the technological dream of a Son of Concorde will remain grounded by economic and environmental realities is probably not such a bad thing. The most viable of these proposals continue to be environmentally costly, high-tech toys for superrich people, rather than inspiring visions of man’s ability to create things indistinguishable from magic.

Even so, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming bigger about rocket planes, or even more bizarre supersonic transportation possibilities. As the Concorde proved, sometimes those dreams take flight.

Correction, Aug. 9, 2013: Due to a captioning error by Getty Images, the lead photo in this article was initially labeled as a scale model of the Skylon plane instead of a SABRE engine. The photo has been removed and replaced.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.


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