If you’ve ever been on a transatlantic flight, you know how mind-numbingly boring and
uncomfortable it is to be stuck inside a metal box for at least eight hours, pressed close to virtual
strangers in a seat no bigger than the one you’d get at the bus. Too bad the age of supersonic planes is long gone – or is it?
(The original Concorde. Source: Dennis Stone / Rex Features)
Just last month Airbus filed a patent for the Concorde 2.0, a jet with the capacity to fly from London to New York in a record-breaking hour. This is almost four times faster than its predecessor, who boasted a flight time of three to four hours. A quick reminder: that would be more than four times faster than the speed of sound.
The original Concorde, operated by British Airways and Air France, was inaugurated in 1976. Carrying 120 passengers, it could reach an altitude of 50,000ft (15 km), high enough for them to see the curvature of the Earth. It owed its incredible speed to its aerodynamic design; its powerful Rolls-Royce Olympus Engine; and the high altitudes it was able to reach, as the higher you go, the thinner the air gets, which means less resistance against your movement and less wind. The Concorde’s downfall began in July 2000, when it crashed just after take-off in Paris and all 109 people on board plus four on the ground were killed. In an unfortunate coincidence after over a year of security tests, the Concorde embarked on their first post-crash passenger flight… on September 11th, 2001. The market was greatly reduced after that, and the Concorde was grounded indefinitely in 2003. The ever-shrinking world had gotten at least four and a half hours bigger again.
Revolutionary in more ways than one, it was the first plane to have computer-controlled engine air
intakes which could slow down the air that reached the engine by 16,000km in less than five minutes (necessary to prevent them from overheating and blowing everyone up, and a pretty big deal back in the 70s). It also had carbon-fibre brakes (the norm now, back then a technological marvel).
Back in the present, the Concorde Mark 2 has updated its design. The unveiled documents mention an “ultra-rapid air vehicle” with the capacity to reach over 100,000ft (30 km), carry up to 20 passengers and go 4.5 faster than the speed of sound. While the new model has retained the original Concorde’s sleek lines, its innards have been radically changed. Mark 2 designs suggest “at least” three engines: a conventional jet one that could be retracted, a rocket motor, and one or more ramjets (currently used in missiles). The plan is to begin take-off with the regular jet engine, then use the rocket one to shoot up almost vertically above the atmosphere. Ramjet engines would then take over and the Concorde 2.0 would cruise on the edge of space before slowing and dropping down closer to the destination. The regular engine would reignite to allow landing.
Apart from business travel and VIP passengers, the design could also find a home within the military-industrial complex, be it as reconnaissance, transport of goods and elite commandos, and precision strikes to take out high-value targets. It would most likely be coveted by militaries everywhere, as the incredible height it can reach makes it almost invulnerable to anti-aircraft systems (they’d have to shoot almost into space to reach it).
However, obstacles remain. By breaking the speed of sound, the Concorde 2.0 would create a sonic boom (a massive blast of noise produced by the shock waves created when an object travels through air faster than sound). Enormously loud, the explosion-like sound was why the original Concorde was banned from traveling over land by many countries, which was an obstacle for opening flight lines beyond the transatlantic ones. Details are limited, but developers hope to avoid this by flying at an almost vertical angle, giving the sonic boom a longer distance to dissipate. A more mundane issue for both companies and us is cost-viability, Rocket fuel is not precisely cheap and Airbus would have to be sure they are in for a profit before making it available. For the common people, money would still be a big obstacle: the original Concorde’s last tickets sold at £4,350, a one-way ticket that would nowadays cost £300-900. Of course, you’d have been in for a glamorous and decadent journey, and the evening meal would include vintage champagne and gourmet dishes like foie gras mousse and sour cream barquette.
Despite winning approval from the US patent office, it’s likely to be a while before it leaves
the drawing board. “Airbus Group and its divisions apply for hundreds of patents every year in order to protect intellectual property,” a spokesman said. “These patents are often based on R&D concepts and ideas in a very nascent stage on conceptualisation, and not every patent progresses to becoming a fully realised technology or product.” Furthermore, when announcing a similar proposal in 2011, Airbus said it would take 30-40 years to enter service if at all. So even when Airbus is at least working on two hypersonic planes, don’t hold your breath for tickets.