It has been 16 years since an airliner delivered passengers at speeds beyond the sound barrier. When Concorde retired from the skies in 2003, many were left to wonder if the era of supersonic commercial travel had come to a permanent close.
Fast forward to today, and Boom is nearing completion of XB-1, history’s fastest privately-developed aircraft. Unlike Concorde, this non-commercial supersonic demonstrator will neither carry passengers nor depart from an international airport. But this aircraft will mark a turning point in commercial viability for supersonic speed.
That’s because XB-1 has been precisely designed to garner learnings for Boom’s future supersonic airliner, Overture. As what will be the world’s fastest commercial airliner, Overture will deliver passengers in half the time as today’s aircraft. The insights gained from XB-1 translate directly into future cost-savings, safety, and efficiency for Overture, which ultimately means commercial viability.
But Boom is neither the first or last company to implement this model of operation. XB-1 is, by definition, an experimental aircraft used to conduct experiments and test the viability of new analysis methods, systems, configurations, equipment, and material.
To fully understand what it means to develop and fly a demonstrator aircraft, let’s investigate the history of experimental aircraft and their role in driving commercial viability.
Safety and efficiency drive the need for experimental programs.
No matter what new innovations or technological advancements are made for commercial aviation, the first goal is always the same: to assure a safe and comfortable flight for passengers.
Before any airplane can be considered ‘runway ready,’ manufacturers must test and validate any new technology and engineering design philosophy. Experimental aircraft can provide a cost-effective proof of concept.
In history, experimental aircraft have informed supersonic programs like Concorde and the Soviet-build TU-144. The Fairey Delta 2 and Avro 707 provided aerodynamic proof of concept for Concorde’s delta wing design. The United States Bell X-1 experimental aircraft proved the sound barrier could safely be broken. The Soviet-built supersonic TU-144 program leveraged wing planform design from the MiG-22I Analog.
Just as the Fairey Delta informed the Concorde Program, XB-1 is providing insight for the future. The technology for supersonic may have existed for more than 70 years, but only recently have new innovations made this model viable for commercial-scale.
Today’s experimental aircraft push the limits of innovation.
Today, as the airlines’ appetite for quieter, faster, and more sustainable aircraft grows, experimental programs become even more relevant. Programs of today not only serve to validate technology, but in many cases, assist in guiding the way for setting commercial standards, certifications, and design practices.
NASA’s X-57 Maxwell, the organization’s first all-electric airplane, could pave a new path for sustainable flight. The Lockheed Martin and NASA-partnered X-59 QueSST features low boom technology that could overcome present-day noise restrictions for commercial supersonic flight over land. The Boeing-built X-37B Space Plane is exploring reusable vehicle technologies for space exploration.
Just as XB-1 will demonstrate a number of key technologies in aerodynamics, material, and propulsion, the program will also provide evidence that supersonic is here and here to stay.
Supersonic of Yesterday and Tomorrow
Concorde was a technological marvel of its time, but the airline arrived to the scene too soon to be economically viable. Hindered by afterburners and dated systems, the airliner suffered from inefficiencies and significant maintenance costs.
Where Concorde proved that airliners could carry passengers at supersonic speed, XB-1 will demonstrate the key technologies that enable affordable and accessible supersonic travel for the next generation.
Equipped with advanced aerodynamics, carbon composite materials, and high-efficiency supersonic intakes, XB-1 is able to cut significant development and maintenance costs in ways Concorde never could.
As the first manned demonstrator of its kind, XB-1 is both building on a legacy and paving the way for a new era in commercial supersonic aviation.