Supersonic flight—it conjures up ideas of speed, luxury, the future. But the very first flight to break the sound barrier occurred 70 years ago this week. Since then, we’ve seen the development and demise of the Concorde, and today’s flyers are stuck traveling at boring subsonic cruise speeds of around 600 miles per hour. A trip from LA to New York takes an agonizing five and a half hours.
But don’t despair. There are companies and agencies working to bring back the supersonic age.
Boom Technology, based in Denver, Colorado, is building a jet that could fly around 50 people at Mach 2.2, or 1,452 mph, more than twice the speed of sound. Nevada’s Aerion Corporation is making a pointy-nosed business jet, good for Mach 1.5. Both want to make their first deliveries by 2023.
NASA and Lockheed Martin are working on a Low Boom Flight Demonstrator to show that the thundering sound that shadowed the Concorde—and prevented flights over land—can be minimized. That plane may one day get an X designation, labeling it as the latest in a long line of experimental aircraft. It’s a fitting callback to the very first X plane.
On October 14th, famed test pilot Chuck Yeager climbed into the low slung cockpit of the Bell X-1. Compared to the planes that came before it, the aircraft looked more like a streamlined, neon orange bullet with wings. That was deliberate. Aerodynamic engineers knew bullets were fast and stable in flight, but they had struggled to make a plane that could do the same at around Mach 1, or the speed of sound in air. The sound barrier was a real, impenetrable blockade, and trying to smash through it had cost several test pilots their lives.
So the engineers came up with smart fixes, without the benefit of modern computer modeling to figure out what was going on. The Bell X-1 had a radical new “all flying tail” that allowed Yeager to maintain control as the air compressed ahead of his plane, drastically increasing drag. (This is still standard on supersonic military jets today.) It also has thin wings and a sharply pointed nose to help it slice through the air. As he fired the final two chambers of the rocket powered plane, Yeager finally pushed through that sound barrier, to a speed of Mach 1.06, making him the fastest man on Earth, which you can watch in the video above.
The public didn’t find out about the record-breaking flight for several months, but Yeager and the Bell X-1 are now recognized for their groundbreaking role in making supersonic flight routine—in military aircraft anyway. The rest of the traveling public may not have long to wait to take advantage of their achievements too.