Last spring, Boeing revealed its proposed hypersonic passenger airliner that would fly much higher and faster than the Concorde — the only previous supersonic commercial airplane.
For reference, supersonic jets fly over the speed of sound (660 mph or Mach 1), while hypersonics surpass Mach 5 or 3,800 mph.
Boeing told the annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference held in Atlanta its sleek new airplanes would travel at Mach 5, enabling them to cross the Atlantic Ocean in just two hours and the Pacific in three while cruising at 95,000 feet.
By contrast, the Concorde, built jointly in Great Britain and France and in commercial service from 1976-2003, flew at 1,354 mph. Only 14 supersonic transports (SST), operated by Air France and British Airways, ever flew passengers on commercial routes.
While one of the retired Concordes was donated to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field and is a Seattle tourist attraction, Washington state’s first experience with supersonic aircraft was disastrous. It almost sank Boeing and Seattle.
In the 1960s, American and European airplane makers focused on speed rather than passenger capacity. The fierce competition was heavily funded by national governments.
Boeing beat out Lockheed for the government-funded contract to build a prototype American SST at its facilities in Seattle. Boeing even lined up 26 airlines that said they would order more than 120 planes. However, in 1971, Congress pulled the funding and the SST “mock-up” became known as “the airplane that almost ate Seattle.”
When federal money dried up, Boeing reduced its workforce by more than 60,000 in the Puget Sound region. That’s when the infamous billboard appeared near Sea-Tac airport that read, “Will the last person leaving Seattle – turn out the lights.”
Since the SST debacle, Boeing, at first, shifted its focus to passenger capacity and then added fuel efficiency when petroleum prices soared. To replace the SST concept for overseas flights, Boeing developed the 747, capable of carrying three to four times the number of passengers as the Concorde without its associated environmental concerns — sonic booms and ozone layer depletion.
Until the Boeing announcement in Atlanta, it has focused on subsonic jets that cruise to nearly 600 mph and at altitudes below 37,000 feet. It continues to be a highly lucrative market.
Reuters recently reported Boeing has 2018 net orders totaling 581 aircraft through August, up from 487 toward the end of July. That includes 90 orders in August for 737 variants from leasing firms and unidentified customers.
What would make Boeing invest in “ultra-fast” jets considering the past U.S. history in supersonic airliners? The answer is rapidly advancing technology and competition.
The company strategy is to compete in both the autonomous and hypersonic aircraft markets developing over 20 to 30 years. As suborbital rocket flight advances, faster flights are once again being emphasized. Both SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson plan to adapt their rockets for global flights, reaching from New York to Sydney in just an hour. Boeing says hypersonic aircraft production, including autonomous piloting, could begin within the next 20 years and a prototype could appear within the next decade.
“Though Boeing hasn’t decided the final dimensions, the airplane (which doesn’t have a name yet) would be larger than a business jet but smaller than a 737,” Kevin Bowcutt, Boeing’s senior technical fellow and hypersonics chief scientist, said in Wired.com.
What about the future of pilots? Boeing says not to worry. Its 2018 Pilot & Technician Outlook projects 790,000 pilots will be needed over the next 20 years — double the current number and the most significant demand in the outlook’s nine-year history.
Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, after more than 25 years as its CEO. He can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.