How about flying from New York City to London in 2 hours?
This summer, Boeing announced their plans for a commercial plane that will travel at a speed of 3,800 mph—Mach 5, in other words. To put this in perspective, the average 747 flies at 500 mph, and typically takes about 6 hours to complete the New York to London route.
It seems like something out of science fiction—finding yourself across the pond when you had been standing in Times Square just two hours ago—but this is not Boeing’s first foray into hypersonic flight. 5 years ago Boeing designed The U.S. Air Force’s X-51A Waverider. This experimental military plane “used a solid rocket booster to accelerate to Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds.” The X-51A then exceeded Mach 5 via its scramjet engine, which takes oxygen from the atmosphere, rather than an onboard tank, to combust.
So, when is the soonest we can expect to see these proposed planes in the air? Boeing estimates this dream to become reality in about 20-30 years. By 2025, another company, Boom Supersonic, thinks their own proposed plane—nicknamed Baby Boom—could handle the New York to London route in just 3 hrs,15 minutes.
But will Chinese innovation outrun Boom in the hypersonic plane race? A team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is also working on a hypersonic craft. Their design includes “a second layer of wings attached above the usual wings” which works to reduce drag, the enemy of super-fast travel, according to the BBC.
Of course, the first “supersonic passenger-carrying commercial airplane” was the Concorde. British Airways and Air France utilized this ultra-fast plane between 1973 and 2003, servicing London, Bahrain, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Washington D.C., and New York City. However, the high operating expense of the Concorde caused the airlines to lose money on many of these groundbreaking flights.
The Concorde’s incredible speed came at another, even more infamous expense. Flying faster than the speed of sound, the Concorde would emit a glass-breaking sonic boom, which happens when a very fast object creates pressure waves in the air. The New York Times wrote:
Whether it was a thunderstorm, falling rocks, roaring lions or unseen kinsmen already succumbing, the human body responded to noises eons ago […]
Today, when noises of the same loudness bombard many people several times a day and some people all day long, medical researchers worry that the effects of such a prolonged stress-response may be hazardous to health.
Engineers are working on eliminating the sonic boom, even as the planes are flying faster than ever before. But these advancements in hypersonic flight don’t just mean that we can now meet friends for brunch in L.A. and dinner in Beijing—hypersonic flight also means dangerous hypersonic weapons.
Of course, the benefits of these technologies to globetrotters are tremendous. So, if the idea of an international day-trip appeals to you, you may just want to clear your 2030 calendar.