In the early days of aviation, the pioneers saw aviation improving in 3 ways. Flying higher, flying further and flying faster. Today, these early goals have been put aside for new ones such as fuel efficiency, environmental impact, safety and profitability. Whilst these are essential factors, and we have seen huge improvements in these areas, it does feel to many aviation enthusiasts like progress has slowed.
Commercial airliners cruise at much the same altitude as they did 35 years ago & the average range of today’s long haul airliners has increased by no more than 50%, which compared with the previous 35 years shows slow progress. Service ceilings have also decreased from their height, however, the weakest of the 3 has been the quality that creates excitement in any field of human endeavor. Speed. Since 2003, the fastest commercial airliner travels at less than half the speed of the fastest airliner more than 35 years ago. The fastest civilian aircraft at the moment is the new version of the Cessna Citation only reaching mach 0.935.
So we thought we would take a quick look at the 2 fastest commercial airliners of all time.
When Chuck Yeager first broker the sound barrier in the Bell X1 it seemed that the future of air travel was going to be supersonic. It was just a question of when.
In the late 1950’s, Great Britain, France, The USA and The Soviet Union were already considering the development of a supersonic airliner. By the early 60’s two major projects had started development. The first to fly was the Soviet Tupolev 144 which took to the skies on 31st December 1968. Reaching a maximum speed of mach 2.15 this aircraft is the fastest commercial airliner ever to take to the skies.
However, although it won the race into service, and took the speed record, the aircraft was extremely unreliable with a huge number of system failures on a regular basis and having dangerous problems with its airframe. The rush to build the aircraft before its Western counterpart along with inferior technologies created an aircraft that was not fit for purpose.
After a number of incidents the aircraft was removed from passenger service in 1978, less than 3 years after entering service.
The other major project was a joint development program between the British Aerospace Corporation and Aérospatiale which would result in the Concorde. Concorde was first introduced into regular service on 21st Jan 1976. It’s maximum cruising speed was less than the Tupolev at mach 2.02, but it was only limited to conserve the airframe. It could have flown faster.
Compared to its Russian counterpart, Concorde was a success, being in operational service for nearly 28 years and flying some of the world’s most influential people flying routes such as New York to London in under 3 hours.
However, in 2002 tragedy struck. On the 25th July that year, according to the accident report, a Titanium strip of metal fell from a Continental airlines DC-10 departing Paris Charles De Gaulle settling on the runway. An Air France Concorde bound for New York lined up and accelerated to take off. When it reached the titanium strip, it burst the aircraft’s tyre sending heavy pieces of rubber flying into the landing gear and into the wing. The impact created a shockwave which burst a fuel valve whilst also creating sparks from damaged wiring in the landing gear. This chain reaction resulted in a fire, and the aircraft came down shortly after takeoff.
Although the problem was supposedly solved following the investigation, Concorde’s reputation never fully recovered and along with the crash in the aviation market following the September 11th Attacks, Concorde was retired in 2003, ending the age of commercial supersonic air travel… for now.
So what is the future of commercial supersonic flight? Well it’s hard to say. There have been many concepts released over the years.
One possibility is the Aerion supersonic business jet (below). It has been said that a supersonic business jet based on this concept could be in the air by the end of the decade. However, even this futuristic looking aircraft will still not fly as fast as Concorde or a Tu 144, with a predicted speed of mach 1.6.
Looking a bit further into the future, with the dawn of space tourism following the award of the X-prize (a project in which ACS brand ambassador Erik Lindbergh was closely involved), aircraft could also soon be making long haul journeys utilising sub-orbital space flight, making the journey from London to Sydney in a few hours.
What the future holds for aviation is still anybodies guess. The industry needs to be greener, and quieter for sure. However, as long as these goals can be achieved, I for one still hope that the future of aviation is faster.