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From London to New York in one hour – are hypersonic passenger planes on the horizon?

27 Aug 15  | Aviation & Aero
From London to New York in one hour – are hypersonic passenger planes on the horizon? 
 
Aviation enthusiasts rejoice: Concorde may fly once more! 


Earlier this month, Airbus was awarded a patent for a hypersonic passenger aircraft that is being affectionately referred to as ‘Concorde II’.
The original Concorde was, despite her flaws, something of a marvel in aviation and engineering circles: reaching supersonic speeds and able to journey from London to New York in around 3.5 hours, she blew conventional aircraft, which took up to 8 hours to travel the same distance, out of the skies.   

Developed and produced by the collaboration between the British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale, under an Anglo-French treaty, the luxury craft flew from 1979-2003, when she was retired due to falling profit margins and a general decline in the aviation industry, and was one of only two aircraft in commercial service capable of supersonic speeds.

Now, however, Concorde may find herself resurrected, albeit in a younger, faster and more streamlined form. Airbus, the company which succeeded BAC and Aerospatiale to the Concorde legacy, foresees Concorde II’s market being ‘principally that of business travel and VIP passengers, who require transcontinental return journeys within one day”, as well as imagining military uses, such as strategic reconnaissance and the “ultra-rapid transport of high value-added goods or elite commandos”.


 

Documents filed with the US Patent Office describe an ‘ultra-rapid air vehicle’, which would cruise at an altitude in excess of 100,000ft and carry up to 20 passengers (or 2-3 tons of cargo) for distances of up to 5,500 miles.

Concorde II would fly at speeds of around Mach 4.5 (more than four times the speed of sound and twice the speed of Concorde, which maxed out at Mach 2.04), and complete the London to New York run in around an hour, making a transatlantic return trip possible in a single day.

The hypothesised craft would be powered by a combination of three different engines. A rocket motor and conventional jets would combine to power a ‘near vertical ascendant flight’ initially, driving the Concorde II to a height of around 100,000ft, at which point these engines would retract into the fuselage, allowing twin ramjet engines to take over and propel the plane to its top speed of Mach 4.5.

The patent also acknowledges the problem of supersonic (and hypersonic) aircraft creating sonic booms as they break the sound barrier, which can cause significant issues to those on the ground.

Indeed, this sonic boom was one of the main factors which crippled the original Concorde, as the disruption it caused was such that many countries banned supersonic flight through their airspace, negating most of the benefits of the incredible speed of the aircraft. 

The patent filing addresses this issue, saying that the “air vehicle proposed... substantially reduces the noise emitted when the sound barrier is broken, also called the ‘supersonic bang’; this noise has been the main limit, if not the only one, preventing the opening of lines other than transatlantic ones for Concorde.”

This reduction in noise is achieved, in part, by the increased height at which the craft will fly, allowing for more dissipation of the boom before it reaches the ground, as well as a new shape, narrowing the angle at which the supersonic shock wave would come off the nose of the plane.

 


However, aeronautics fans, it would be wise to curb our excitement: this patent was actually filed in 2011, and it is receiving media coverage now only because the patent has received approval this month. At the time of filing the patent, Airbus (then EADs) projected that the aircraft would take 30-40years to enter service, if it ever did. Airbus, commenting on this patent approval, have stated that they apply for 100s of patents every year in order to protect intellectual property, and that not every patent progresses to becoming a fully realised technology or product.


It is probably sensible to assume that this current furore surrounding the ‘Son of Concorde’, as some are calling it, is unlikely to amount to hour-long transatlantic flights any time soon.

 


 
However… Airbus are not the only aviation company racing towards hypersonic speeds…

In June of this year, NASA pledged £1.5million ($2.3million) in funding for research projects into super- and 
hypersonic travel.


Eight different 
projects are planned, addressing technical challenges such as the impact of supersonic cruise aircraft in the stratosphere.

‘Lessening sonic booms - shock waves caused by an aircraft flying faster than the speed of sound - is the most significant hurdle to reintroducing commercial supersonic flight,’ said Peter Coen, head of the High Speed Project in NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Washington.  ‘Other barriers include high altitude emissions, fuel efficiency and community noise around airports.’

Additionally, companies and organisations around the world are engaged in the headlong rush towards hypersonic travel. 

In June, Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley said that the Air Force and DARPA, the Pentagon’s research entity, hope to have a new and improved hypersonic air vehicle by 2023. This optimism builds on their successful test flight of May 2013, when their X-51 WaveRider achieved speeds in excess of Mach 5 before it ran out of fuel. Endsley refers to this test flight as ‘a proof-of-concept test [which] showed that you could get a scramjet engine, launch it off an aircraft and it could go hypersonic’ and regards it as a ‘very successful test of an airborne hypersonic weapons system’.

The SpaceLiner, first proposed in 2005 and in constant development, is the DLR Institute of Space Systems’ answer to the problem. DLR’s website describes the SpaceLiner as ‘an advanced, visionary concept for a suborbital, hypersonic, winged passenger transport’, which would reduce inter-continental travel times dramatically: DLR posits flights from Europe to Australia could be flown in as little as 90 minutes, or Europe to North America in slightly over an hour.

The world is getting smaller every day, it seems. Only a little over a century ago, crossing the Atlantic Ocean could take weeks. In the near future, it could take an hour.

The head of our Aviation team at CBSbutler, David Rowe, is very excited about the prospect of a new generation of Concorde. He believes that “while the technical, commercial and environmental challenges will be sizable, there will always be a demand to save time through super- and hyper-sonic travel.”

So, do you want to be involved in the genesis of the next generation of air travel? Are you interested in aeronautics and aviation jobs?

Get in touch with David Rowe at CBSbutler! David specialises in recruiting for the aviation sector and would be happy to discuss your next career move with you.

Send CVs to drowe@cbsbutler.com



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