Remember the supersonic Concorde jet?
Well, forget it.
NASA has just commissioned Lockheed Martin to design and build a new supersonic jet that could cut existing air travel times in half. In fact, if you flew one between, say, Milwaukee and Chicago, you might arrive before you left.
The new X-craft is called the LBFD for Low Boom Flight Demonstrator and it’s scheduled to fly by 2022. NASA awarded the $247.5 million contract this week.
It came only two weeks after President Trump signed the massive federal budget for the remainder of this fiscal year. Trump said the new plane “would open a new market for U.S. companies to build faster commercial airliners, creating jobs and cutting cross-country flight times in half.” It contained full funding.
Before flying commercially, NASA and Lockheed Martin must convince the Federal Aviation Administration and the International Civil Aviation Organization that they’ve reduced a supersonic jet’s loud boom to a softer, muffled one.
Back when the U.S. had its own manned space launch system, such welcome sounds once told residents of Florida and Southern California that a space shuttle was inbound from another mission.
A sonic boom is like a sound wake from a plane moving through air faster than the speed of sound, which varies by air density but is generally around 700 miles an hour. You know, the whop-whop-whop of helicopters? The whop is the junior league version of a sonic boom as the whirling blade-ends break the sound barrier.
Mile-long, multi-diesel freight trains blowing their horns at every crossing night-and-day don’t bother folks. But apparently the single window-rattling boom, like someone loudly slamming a celestial door, frightens some. So, the Concorde, which left service in 2003, was confined to long, high-speed flights over water.
“The piloted X-plane would be built specifically to fly technologies that reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to a gentle thump,” said Jaiwon Shin of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
Because sonic booms can give away even a stealth plane’s presence, the military has been working for years on deadening sonic booms. That’s done largely by giving jets a nose job that reshapes the leading airplane part that forms shock waves in the air.
The new craft will be less than 100 feet long and cruise about 1,000 miles an hour at altitudes around 10 miles. The plane will be test-flown over select U.S. cities and residents interviewed about what, if anything, they heard. The ground-level goal is to make the sonic boom more like a car door closing.
Personally, I can’t wait to see flight attendants rushing to serve drinks before the end of a cross-country supersonic flight.