We’re a little short on actual scientific progress lately, aren’t we? Oh sure, the coding sweatshops of the Far East turn out a million-plus new “apps” a year, and today’s cars have much bigger LCD screens than their immediate predecessors, but consider the following: The remarkably underwhelming F-35 fighter plane began development in 1992, flew for the first time in 2006, and began operations (of a sort) in 2013. That’s a twenty-one-year timeline. Now think about the fact that the X-15 started poking around Mach 5 and Mach 6 in 1961, after a first flight in 1959. What’s the state-of-the art look like in 1940? Why, it’s the Mach 0.6 Supermarine Spitfire, which had set world speed records during civilian development five years prior. In other words, airplanes got ten times faster in that twenty-one years.
The pace of technological development in the Fifties and Sixties was just plain staggering. It was also an era of national pride, one in which billion-dollar projects could be fired-up on a whim just so a country would have more presence on the world stage. Two of those billion-dollar projects happened to be supersonic airliners… and therein hangs a tale.
The Air Force Historical Foundation has a neat publication called “Air Power History”. You can read the most recent issue here and I strongly suggest you do, if only to consume a detailed and compelling history of supersonic airliners by Richard K. Smith. The breathtaking cynicism and just plain cussedness of Smith’s authorial voice is perfectly suited to discussing the Concorde and its competitors, which never had anything like a compelling business case and which caused far more problems than they solved. One great piece from the text: this nugget about the unpleasant effects of transcontinental supersonic travel.
The size of the [sonic] boom is a function of the airplane’s mass; the bigger the airplane the bigger the boom. The in- tensity of a boom varies with altitude; the lower the alti- tude the higher the intensity as measured in psf. As of 1960, sonic booms were created by only relatively small air- planes, usually fighters. The, biggest “boom-maker” was the B–58 bomber, but relative to prospective supersonic airliners it was a small airplane. The Mach 3 SST promised to have at least ten times the mass of a B–58.
By 1960, the mechanics of the sonic boom were well understood and it was equally well understood that most xpersons on the ground found a sonic boom disturbing. The experience of one or two sonic booms could be “interesting;” but to transform this into a multiple experience of daily life would be a terrible nuisance…
That sonic booms could cause serious damage was well understood before the Oklahoma City tests. On August 5, 1959, during ceremonies that opened the new airport ter- minal in Ottawa, Canada, an F–104 fighter in an air display accidentally exceeded Mach l at low altitude. The shockwave measured 38 psf, extraordinarily high. It literally exploded the structure of the airport’s control tower, shattered glass throughout the new terminal building, and collapsed many of its internal non load-bearing “curtain” walls. It is amazing that no one was killed…
In 1966 it was estimated that the American SST, if built, would create a “boom trail” sixty miles wide on the earth’s surface from a cruising altitude of 60,000 ft. Furthermore, even if routed around densely populated areas, the airplane would “boom” some five million persons. FAA bureaucrats hastened to dismiss this number as less than three percent of the nation’s population. It is nevertheless a substantial number of people.
Government proponents of the SST tried desperately to cover up the uncoverable: the sonic boom. They sought to minimize the problem with doubletalk, bafflegab, and thickets of buzz-words, perversions of the English language that were raised to an artform in the 1960s. At one point the FAA even suggested that the sonic boom could be “designed out” of the SST, which is patently impossible.
It’s a great read, written by someone with an exhaustive personal knowledge of the subject. A few other points of note: Smith mentions in passing that 2,060 — that’s two thousand and sixty! — examples of the B-47 Stratojet were built. That’s four Stratojets for every Boeing 727 put into production, but there was a time in my life where the 727 was seemingly omnipresent while the B-47s were already in scrapyards. Today, of course, both of those planes are essentially nonexistent.
Some attention is also paid to the XB-70 Valkyrie, the final remaining example of which has been at Dayton’s Air Force Museum since the Eighties at least. For years they just let it sit outside, but it’s been scrubbed up and now occupies pride of place in a new hangar. For all the (entirely justified) hype surrounding the SR-71, the XB-70 makes the Blackbird look a little tame. It sustained Mach 3 for over half an hour in testing despite being 200 feet long and weighing half a million pounds — more than a Boeing 767 or Lockheed L-1011. Its top speed was just 150mph below the SR-71’s all-time record… and given the kind of operational time and space that the SR-71 received, the Valkyrie might well have gone faster still despite the fact that it was an entire technological generation older.
I could go on, but why not read Smith’s story for yourself? For better or for worse, those supersonic days were unique and special in American, and world, history. The emblematic aircraft of The Current Year is probably the Gulfstream G650, which is designed to take rich people around the globe away from the stink of the hoi polloi. If I had a functioning XB-70, I would fly it back and forth above Davos during the little globalist party they have every year. Not to drop any bombs, mind you, but merely to “boom” those folks over and over again while keeping the sky clear of their private jets. No F-35 could catch me and make me stop — nor, as it turns out, is there “an app for that”.
Last week, I discussed my experience behind the wheel of America’s best-selling wagon.