Boeing has unveiled plans for the world's first hypersonic passenger aircraft, a sleek, futuristic ship the Seattle-based company said would be able to fly at five times the speed of sound, or about 3,800 miles per hour.
With this speed – Mach 5 aviation jargon – it would be possible to travel from New York City to London in about two hours instead of eight hours on a conventional airliner.
This means that someone would be able to fly overseas anywhere and return home in a single day.
"Humans have always wanted to be faster – always wanted to do something faster," said Kevin Bowcutt, chief scientist for hyperelectronics at Boeing. "People can not take their time, so time has inherent value."
The as yet unnamed aircraft would be not only faster than conventional airliners at a speed of about 550 miles per hour, but also the supersonic aircraft Concorde flying from 1
Boeing's proposed aircraft, described at an industry conference in Atlanta, could be widely used this week for both military applications and commercial aviation. According to Bowcutt, it could take 20 to 30 years to get into the sky.
Supersonic and hypersonic (that is, five times the speed of sound or faster) have been hyped as the next era of commercial aviation since at least the 1950s. But with the exception of the Concorde, which was permanently destroyed three years after a fatal accident in France, the construction of such aircraft has proved to be difficult to achieve.
"It has been a dream for a while," said Stuart Craig, an Assistant Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Arizona who is not affiliated with Boeing. "We've been seeking hypersonic technology for almost half a century, but in recent years, advances in computer technology and materials technology have made us understand them a lot better."
A key issue for Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers would be whether air passengers were willing to pay the higher ticket prices that hypersonic air travel would command.
High prices, along with limited routes, played a role in the sinking of the Concorde, said Mike Sinnett, Boeing's vice president of future aircraft development. "We can do all sorts of cool things, but those cool things must lead to something that creates value, or at the end of the day it will not be that successful," he said. "In general, people [the Concorde] flew as a novelty – it did not change the world, and the economy was not right."
But Craig said that new technologies and designs for supersonic and hypersonic aircraft are making high-priced air travel more attractive to travelers.
Concorde routes were limited in part because supervisors banned supersonic travel over populated areas to protect people on the ground from the loud supersonic bang the plane produced. But in the years since Concorde retired, Craig, researchers at NASA and elsewhere, have made significant progress in reducing sonic overshoots of supersonic and hypersonic vehicles.
What it would be like to experience a hypersonic flight, Bowcutt said That would be akin to flying in a conventional jet – but with some crucial differences.
Instead of flying from 30,000 to 40,000 feet on conventional aircraft, a hypersonic aircraft like the one proposed by Boeing would fly at 90,000
"At this altitude, you'll see the curvature of the earth below you," Bowcutt said. "You will not see the whole earth, but you will see the curvature – and above you will have the blackness of space – it is also a very gentle ride, since there is no atmospheric turbulence at that altitude."
But while less turbulence prevailed, more time would be needed to accelerate to Mach 5. In a conventional flight, passengers feel the feeling of being pushed back into their seats for about a minute during and shortly after takeoff. On a hypersonic flight, Bowcutt said that this sensation would take about 12 minutes.