A few years ago, entrepreneur Vik Kachoria was spending a lot of time up in the clouds flying from Boston to Europe to Asia. He had plenty of time to ponder this question: “Why aren’t we flying any faster?”
Computers have gotten faster, trains are faster, everything is faster. “In every industry we look at, except for aviation,” reasoned Kachoria.
In fact, you could argue that aviation technology has gone backwards: We used to be able to fly twice as fast on the Concorde not long ago. That sleek plane with the pointy nose — which primarily shuttled passengers from New York to London and Paris — was designed in the 1960s. The Concorde shut down in 2003 largely due to a lack of customers. It was a money loser.
Kachoria, who began his career with NASA, figured it shouldn’t be that hard to create a new-and-improved supersonic jet, and, at a fraction of the cost.
“The software has gotten to the level where we can do things in hours for a few hundred thousand dollars. Just 10 years ago, it would’ve cost hundreds of millions of dollars because you would’ve had to fabricate test aircraft. Now we can do it with computer simulation.”
Kachoria is the CEO of Spike Aerospace and now has a team of engineers in Boston working on a new 18-passenger plane geared at business travellers. (The Concorde carried between 92 and 128 passengers.) He'd like to sell his planes to existing airlines as well as individual operators.
A handful of other companies are also working on supersonic models. They’re all promising big things, a return to the days of sipping champagne at more than 1,000 miles per hour. It’s a romantic image, but John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, says there’s a reason it hasn’t happened again: “The problem is the physics are hard to beat, because it’s just fundamentally difficult to go faster than the speed of sound.”
Hansman teaches some of the smartest university students on the planet, but I asked him to explain flight and the sound barrier as if he was talking to a ninth grade science class.
“When something goes faster than the speed of sound, be it a bullet or an airplane, or anything, it creates basically a pressure wave. So the speed of sound is the fastest something can propagate through the atmosphere,” says Hansman, pausing mid-sentence. “No, that’s too complicated.”
Complicated indeed. To over-simplify matters, the faster a plane goes, the more drag it creates. This means specially-built engines need to work harder to punch through the sound barrier. It’s achievable, but only at a very high cost.
“You have to burn a lot more fuel than you would burn in a conventional airplane,” says Hansman. The plane also has to climb higher, burning even more fuel.
Even with all the odds stacked against supersonic travel, Vik Kachoria claims that a seat on one of his planes will cost the same as a business ticket today on a commercial airline, about $5,000 to go from Boston to London, for example. He also wants to transform the flying experience: Make the seats comfier, reduce outside noise and get rid of windows entirely to actually give you a better view of the outside.
“Inside you put a very flat screen, digital screen, that we all have in our homes, and you make it the entire length of the fuselage, and you put cameras all around the aircraft. So you can look left or right, up or down. At night you can look at the stars; you get the best view of the starry night inside this cabin,” says Kachoria.
Who wouldn’t want a seat on that plane? Speedy jets could also transform the very nature of business travel,
“It’s appealing to me to think that I could fly over to Europe, have a meeting and fly back,” says Amy Cohn, who focuses on aviation scheduling and logistics at the University of Michigan. “I have actually, occasionally, spent 12 hours flying to spend six hours there. ... And that’s not fun.”
Still, she questions if there will be enough demand to support supersonic travel, especially in this day and age: “Today vs. the time of the Concorde, the technology to be doing remote business meetings is a whole lot more sophisticated.”
But if people like the idea of face-to-face meetings assisted by supersonic jets, there will also be a much bigger environmental cost — burning huge amounts of fuel would generate more greenhouse gasses. And flying at higher altitudes, around 50,000 feet, would greater pollute the ozone layer.
And then, there’s that tricky sonic boom thing. The Concorde couldn’t fly over land because of the noise disruption it would have created below. Even if a new jet could cut the LA to New York flight time to three hours, the pilot could get busted for speeding.
“We literally have a speed limit in the US,” says John Hansman. “And unless you’re a military airplane, you will get violated if you fly faster than the speed of sound.”
It’s not that Kachoria with Spike Aerospace doesn’t see all of these challenges, but he also sees something else. “Two years ago, 3 billion people took a flight somewhere,” says Kachoria. “Right now, there’s 100,000 aircraft up in the air at any one time.”
That’s a lot of potential customers. Kachoria hopes to be serving some in about seven years.
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