Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic

Post originally Published November 10, 2023 || Last Updated November 10, 2023

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Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went SupersonicBreaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Shattering Records at Mach 1

For decades, the sound barrier existed as an impenetrable wall that kept aircraft speeds capped below 767 miles per hour. Aerospace engineers theorized about the possibility of breaking the barrier, but conventional wisdom held that planes would likely disintegrate if they reached such tremendous velocities.

That all changed on October 14, 1947 when Captain Chuck Yeager climbed into the cockpit of the Bell X-1, a rocket-powered supersonic research aircraft. Along with a small team of fellow test pilots and engineers from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Yeager had been preparing for this moment for over a year at Muroc Army Base in California.

As Yeager ignited the four rockets and accelerated down the runway, few could anticipate the significance this flight would hold. Just minutes after takeoff, the X-1 climbed beyond 30,000 feet. Leveling off, Yeager pushed the throttle forward, hoping to make history.
Passing Mach 0.92, the aircraft started buffeting heavily. Still, Yeager kept the pedal down. At Mach 0.95, the buffeting intensified into violent shakes. But Yeager pressed on through the sonic wall. As he exceeded Mach 1, the vibration stopped instantly. For the first time in human history, an aircraft had flown faster than sound.
While the landmark occasion lasted barely over a minute before Yeager slowed and circled back, the achievement sent shockwaves through the aeronautics community. Almost overnight, the sound barrier transformed from an impassable restriction into a boundary meant to be broken.

Over the following decades, numerous experimental aircraft would push the limits to new horizons. By the 1950s, American fighter jets commonly cruised above Mach 1. In the 1960s, the SR-71 Blackbird recon aircraft hit triple sonic speeds at over Mach 3.

What else is in this post?

  1. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Shattering Records at Mach 1
  2. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Pilots Push the Envelope
  3. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - When the Sonic Boom Shook LAX
  4. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Caught on Tape: The Supersonic Spectacle
  5. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Passenger Panic at 47,000 Feet
  6. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Designing an Airliner to Defy Physics
  7. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - The Day Concorde was Dethroned
  8. Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Will We See Faster Flights in the Future?

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Pilots Push the Envelope

As aviation advanced rapidly following the sound barrier's rupture, test pilots found themselves presented with new frontiers to push. Manufacturers built increasingly capable prototypes meant to expand performance limits, and courageous aviators stepped up to put these novel designs through their paces.

Chuck Yeager continued flying rocket planes for the Air Force, culminating in 1953's X-1A flights where he reached a then-remarkable Mach 2.4. Compared to today's hypersonic aircraft, this seems quaint. However, penetrating ever deeper into supersonic velocities remained dangerous work, as Yeager discovered when he lost control of the X-1A at Mach 2.7. Ejecting moments before impact, he escaped with minor injuries, ready to return to the cockpit soon after.
During the 1950s and 60s, manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic vied to develop the first supersonic airliner. Britain's de Havilland pushed their DH.106 Comet into service in 1952, but early models suffered catastrophic metal fatigue failures. After extensive re-engineering, the improved Comet 4 flew safely. Nevertheless, the earlier crashes had ruined its reputation.

Planemakers at Sud Aviation in France enjoyed more success with the Concorde. Conducting flight tests from 1969 onward, they refined the delicate delta wing shape needed for sustained Mach 2 cruising. On January 21, 1976, Concorde began commercial flights between Europe and the Americas. For over a quarter-century, it remained the world's only supersonic airliner, whisking elites across the Atlantic in half the usual time.
During the Space Race, even lunar ambitions shaped aviation. NASA's North American X-15 rocket plane was designed to test technologies for reentering from orbital velocity. Its most ambitious flight, piloted by William "Pete" Knight in 1967, exceeded Mach 6 and soared over 50 miles high - earning Knight's astronaut wings in the process.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - When the Sonic Boom Shook LAX

For decades, sonic booms remained a rare phenomenon, heard only by test pilots and the occasional witness near supersonic flight test facilities. Commercial supersonic travel changed that. Concorde entering regular transatlantic service meant sonic booms would become an everyday occurrence for communities near major airports. This led to intense public concern about the impacts of routine supersonic flights over populated areas. No airport experienced more community uproar over sonic booms than Los Angeles International during the Concorde's late 1970s heyday.

LAX provided Concorde its only West Coast destination. Arriving from Europe, the plane needed to decelerate from cruise speed while still over the Pacific Ocean west of LA. This led the sonic boom to hit the coastline right at Santa Monica, startling beachgoers beneath the aircraft's path. The thunderclap reflected off the mountains, amplifying it. The boom propagated across the LA Basin, rattling windows as it rolled over homes and offices.

Residents soon grew incensed, with complaints pouring into the FAA's offices. Homeowners claimed the booms damaged roofs, broke windows, and caused cracks in plaster and stucco. The extra long booms Concorde produced entering transonic speed seemed particularly disruptive compared to the quick cracks military planes made.

While studies never substantiated claims of actual structural damage, the noise pollution severely impacted quality of life. Many lamented how their dishes and knickknacks rattled off shelves each time Concorde passed overhead. Some fled to the basement, seeking shelter whenever they heard the roar. Thousands signed petitions demanding an end to supersonic flights over land.

The uproar represented a real crisis for Concorde. Without access to LAX, its West Coast business would evaporate. The sensationalism also risked turning public opinion against supersonic travel entirely. Concorde's operators pleaded that the economic benefits outweighed the momentary noise nuisance. NASA investigated ways to mitigate the boom with careful flight path management.
Eventually, a compromise was forged to keep Concorde flying to LAX. The flightpath was shifted slightly to avoid direct overflights of Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. A curfew also banned supersonic arrivals between 10 PM and 7 AM. This appeased residents' concerns enough that, despite some lingering complaints, Concorde maintained Los Angeles service until its 2003 retirement.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Caught on Tape: The Supersonic Spectacle

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic

As supersonic flight transitioned from experimental to commercial reality in the 1970s, encounters between Concorde and the public transformed into media spectacles. With few opportunities to personally witness the aircraft's Mach 2 cruising, people clung to any video capturing the shockwave drama. Footage of Concorde's defining power soon permeated popular culture.
Indeed, Concorde's status as the world's only supersonic airliner made its every airport visit a sight to behold. From runway vantage points, crowds gathered to spot the futuristic delta-winged aircraft thundering down the tarmac. Stunned gasps greeted each takeoff roar as Concorde climbed skyward. But the real show came minutes later when the distant white needle shape hurtled back toward Earth to land.

Approaching the runway, Concorde pilots needed to decelerate from cruise down below 250 knots. Slamming the engines into reverse thrust, they generated a tremendous braking force. This also produced a spectacular shockwave cone visible from miles away. Dubbed the "Concorde kiss", the vivid cloud formed as supersonic air condensed into a ring-shaped vortex. Trailing behind the jet like an apparition, it signaled Concorde's impending landing in dramatic fashion.

Seeing this shockwave dissipate down the runway left witnesses awestruck. The sheer power required to generate such effects stirred the imagination. For avgeeks worldwide, filming a Concorde landing became imperative. At destinations like Heathrow, JFK or CDG, enthusiastscamped out daily to capture the moment on video. As camera phones emerged in the 1990s, crowds held aloft their flip phones in unison to preserve the scene.
When walking to an airport gate, catching a glimpse of Concorde through the concourse windows inspired similar astonishment. Witnessing the visceral shockwave phenomena soaring overhead on takeoff created lifelong memories. The entire Concorde experience felt elevated compared to conventional flights.
Enthusiasts cherished and shared their Concorde videos through early internet forums. The shaky VHS clips conveyed vicarious thrills to those yet to see the aircraft themselves. YouTube's 2005 launch provided the perfect platform to compile and preserve Concorde media.

Today, the most iconic vintage footage remains iconic. Certain sequences stand out as encapsulating the Concorde mystique: A KLM 747 narrowly outracing the supersonic jet across Atlantic skies; the red-white-and-blue Air France Concorde debuting a ceremonial water cannon salute in New York; a test plane diverterless supersonic intake system glowing cherry red at Mach 2; the infamous ten-foot-long flames shooting from engine nozzles asthrottles slam rearward.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Passenger Panic at 47,000 Feet

While routine today, flying at high altitudes was unnerving for early airline passengers unaccustomed to the experience. When the De Havilland Comet and Sud Aviation Caravelle introduced new horizons in the 1950s by cruising above 40,000 feet, many travelers suddenly felt uneasy so far removed from the familiar ground below. Comet pilots received various complaints from on-edge passengers seated in the abnormally quiet cabins pressurized to simulate 5,000 feet. The anxiety intensified further when Japan Airlines' new Douglas DC-8s climbed towards 47,000 feet after 1960.

At such heights, apprehensive flyers struggled psychologically with the absence of sensory cues signaling movement. Accustomed to loud propeller noise and vibrating cabins, jetliners seemed eerily motionless. Looking outside, passengers saw only empty blue sky instead of passing landscape. Some felt untethered, as if suspended motionless high above the Earth. Unfamiliar physiological effects of high altitude exacerbated discomfort for anxious travelers too. The low cabin pressure and humidity caused dry eyes, stuffy sinuses, and initial breathlessness.

When Japan Airlines suffered a rash of in-flight emergencies aboard its DC-8s in 1961 due to insufficient cabin pressurization, the incidents fueled passengers' fears. Hyperventilating travelers required oxygen, but many panicked that sudden decompression would suck them out into oblivion. Although pressurization systems improved soon after, peace of mind remained elusive above the troposphere. The term "aerophobia" entered popular lexicon to describe pathological fear of high altitude flying.

Aerophobia persisted as a recognized diagnosis through the 1990s. At outpatient clinics, psychiatrists treated patients for debilitating phobias manifesting as panic attacks, nausea, and sweaty tremors on airliners. Exposure therapy helped gradually acclimate people to cruising altitude through virtual reality simulations. Airlines also sought to alleviate anxiety by explaining the physics of pressurization during pre-flight safety videos. By the 2000s, in-flight amenities like personal seatback entertainment provided useful distractions from rumination on extreme altitudes.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Designing an Airliner to Defy Physics

At first glimpse, Concorde appears otherworldly, more akin to a fighter jet than a commercial airliner. However, behind the radical shape lies rigorous physics calculated to enable sustained supersonic flight.

Translating the Concorde concept into reality required overcoming daunting aerodynamic hurdles. Standard cylindrical fuselages created too much drag approaching Mach 1. Early wind tunnel tests revealed the need for a slender, ogival delta wing planform and sharply pointed nose. This allowed Concorde to slice through air molecules rather than bludgeon them.
Extending the nose also aided visibility for pilots during takeoff rotation. Drooping it downward granted better visibility landing. Heating challenges were immense as friction at Mach 2 caused surfaces to reach over 120°C. Testing novel aluminum alloys provided the crucial heat dissipation needed.

However, the most troublesome obstacle was shockwave interaction with the wings. An aircraft's pressure waves merge as it nears Mach 1, creating wave drag that peaks at the sound barrier. Concorde's thin wings generated minimal shockwave drag themselves. Yet their location amidships interacted violently with shockwaves coming off the nose and fuselage.

Solving this conundrum consumed years. Engineers eventually arrived at the complex double-delta shape for minimizing shock interference. But even then, violent forces buffeted the aircraft whenever speeds varied near Mach 1. Keeping accelerations gradual during transonic transition remained critical.

Inside the cabin, flying supersonic also introduced difficulties. Standard porthole windows needed replacement with tiny, high-tolerance openings to handle the heat and pressure loads. Small cabin volume posed a ventilation challenge at high altitudes. Passengers also felt higher G forces during turns and turbulence.
Testing refined solutions for these myriad hurdles through thousands of hours aloft. But overcoming the engineering challenges to sustain Mach 2 ultimately demanded a custom design philosophy deviating from common practice. Everything about Concorde was optimized for speed - from the thermal-resistant aluminum skins to the twin hydraulics loops with no single-system failure points.

This ruthless focus came at the cost of efficiency and practicality. Concorde's Rolls-Royce engines only delivered acceptable fuel economy near Mach 2; subsonic cruising proved uneconomical. Limited to just 100 or so passengers, the tight fuselage couldn't match conventional widebodies' capacity. And with such a specialized design, operating costs soared.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - The Day Concorde was Dethroned

For over a quarter century, Concorde maintained its throne as the world's only supersonic airliner. But on July 25th, 2000, that reign ended abruptly with the inaugural flight of the Tupolev Tu-144 'Concordski'.

Grounded after just 55 supersonic flights in 1978, this mysterious Russian counterpart to Concorde had been derided as an aerodynamic disaster. Yet while Concorde went on to fame, the Tu-144 moldered forgotten in a Moscow parking lot. Then, in the late 1990s, American aerospace firm SNC picked up two mothballed airframes for research. With plans to use the supersonic airliner as a testbed, they reassembled one Tu-144D and got it flying once more in 1999.

A year later, the resurrected Tu-144 took off on a series of supersonic test flights. On its third outing in August 2000, the Tu-144 ignited its afterburners and exceeded Mach 2 over the Volga River plains – reclaiming the mantle as the world's fastest airliner. While brief, the successful supersonic runs signaled the Tu-144's improbable return. Suddenly, Concorde faced a challenger to its longstanding speed record.
Yet Concorde's operators seemed unperturbed by the Russians reclaiming bragging rights. For British Airways and Air France, commercial viability mattered above all. Operating costs prohibited extensive record chasing. As one BA spokesman quipped when asked about the Tu-144's revival: "It's not about who's the fastest, it's about who makes money carrying passengers. Concorde does that superbly."

Indeed, most travelers saw the Tu-144's achievement as wholly academic. While a technological feat, the outdated Soviet design remained unsuitable for passenger service and seemed destined only for experiments. Concorde continued its profitable transatlantic operations, leaving the 'Concordski' as a mere cold war relic consigned to history books.

Or so it appeared until that fateful July day when a nosecone-drooped Concorde touched down at Moscow's Zhukovsky airfield cradling 18 research scientists aboard. The Tu-144 had just completed a successful final supersonic test run with a live payload, proving its capability for practical applications. With renewed funding, the program aimed to continue refining the Tu-144 as a reusable commercial research platform.

Concorde suddenly faced credible competition, not for airline business but for lucrative government contracts. No longer could it claim exclusive status as the last flying supersonic passenger jet. Geopolitically, the Tu-144's revival also signaled Russia's aerospace sector regaining prior stature after years overshadowed by Western firms post-Cold War.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: The Day a Jumbo Jet Went Supersonic - Will We See Faster Flights in the Future?

For over half a century, commercial supersonic travel has remained an exclusive niche occupied solely by the Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144. Yet visions of a more accessible faster future persist. As aerospace technology keeps advancing, many ask whether supersonic's time has finally come for going mainstream.
Several startups aim to fulfill this dream over the next decade. Boom Supersonic leads the pack, promising airline flights connecting major cities in just half the usual time. Their slender 55-seat Overture jet is now under development, with rolled-steel fuselage barrels already emerging to form the long-awaited assembly line.

Yet Boom's business case shows supersonic profitability remains challenging. At $200 million per plane, Overture costs four times typical airliners. Its efficiency gains from using sustainable aviation fuel barely counter the inherently high fuel burn. Ticket prices must remain lofty even if 80% lower than Concorde's nosebleed fares.

Environmental concerns also linger. Faster speeds exponentially increase emissions. Sonic booms continue disturbing communities. And while Overture pledges carbon neutrality through purchased offsets, its actual operation may prove substantial. Regulatory hurdles similarly persist around supersonic flights over land.

Still, things feel different this time. Supersonic startups display savvier salesmanship compared to Concorde's overly technical 1960s promoters. Using viral marketing and stylish plane designs, they stir public excitement lacking since the Anglo-French jet's heyday. orders already exceed 30 units.

Practical evolution has also occurred. Testing with NASA's X-59 should finally quantify sonic boom impacts and leads to new noise-based regulations enabling overland routing. Efficiency advancements bring viability closer through lighter composites and sustainable biofuels. Real-world data may eventually substantiate claims of profitability.
Other factors assist too. Expanding non-stop long-haul travel creates demand for time-saving. Certain premium passengers may value speed over price, although likely not many. And with supersonic research ongoing, spin-off innovations could catalyze the industry.

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