Supersonic Flight and American Technological Leadership

On June 28th, 2019, after 46 years of regulatory dormancy, action was once again taken to make supersonic flight a reality in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a notice of proposed rulemaking that would allow for special flight reauthorizations for the testing and development supersonic aircraft. This came after bipartisan legislation on advancing America’s leadership in supersonic was signed into law in 2018. Moves such as these, which push forward innovation in the world of atoms, are essential for America to maintain its technological leadership. By enabling for new possibilities in air travel innovation, a boost is given to the wider economy through the benefits of both faster flights, and the downstream innovations enabled by aviation research.

While America is a leader in aviation, commercial advance has been held back by the 1973 ban on overland supersonic. The noise caused by the sonic booms of breaking the sound barrier raised concerns and limited the advance of the sector. The benefits of supersonic are, however, immense. Transatlantic voyages between London and New York on the Concorde, one of only two supersonic planes to operate commercially, occurred in less than half the time of currently operating flights. The Concorde was allowed to fly into New York and Washington at subsonic speeds before the aircraft’s retirement in 2003, but the regulatory environment prevented American firms from advancing commercial supersonic technologies. There exist fighter jets that can surpass Mach 2, but commercial routes prevented from breaking the sound barrier over land continue to fly at about one-third that speed. 

Addressing concerns about noise, safety, and environmental impact are essential to ensuring that the technology is viable. Just because faster speeds are technologically feasible, does not mean that they will be commercially successful unless standards are in place to assuage public concerns. The FAA has invited international participation in setting new standards for supersonic, on areas such as updated guidelines for landing and takeoff noise. This proactive approach to supersonic, rather than a generic deregulatory attitude, shows commitment to the technology’s promise, and is essential in attracting investment and boosting competition.  

This proactive approach was once a mainstay of US economic policy, and the Trump Administration’s return to taking the lead is welcome. It sends a positive signal about America’s commitment to technological leadership. It is clear that supersonic will provide numerous benefits, and that a public-sector concern with its success is needed.

Enabling supersonic flight has practical benefits resulting from reduced speeds. Faster flights reduce the opportunity cost of travel, which enable a more interconnected populous. Making travel quicker makes it more likely, and expands the number of global connections people make. Communication is an essential component of innovation, and faster air travel increases communication. While communication costs have decreased thanks to faster internet speeds, face-to-face communication is still essential for many resource intensive projects. Research from China found that High Speed Rail between major cities had a significant positive effect on productivity. That same benefit can be expected of supersonic. 

These benefits are feasible entirely with existing technology, which companies need to synthesize into practical and profitable products. The first generation of new supersonic aircraft is likely to come from incumbent aircraft manufacturers, public agencies, and startups, such as Boom Technology, which have already been investing in their development. This early development, however, sets the stage for a far more competitive landscape that enables wider benefits down the road. 

Competition in aviation will be enabled by efforts to improve other necessary inputs for R&D, such as 5G. The national priority of making America a 5G leader will enable more reliable and cost efficient cloud computing offerings, a service that makes massive amounts of computational power more accessible for firms. Cloud computing in turn lowers the fixed costs for entering the sector, opening up more possibilities in innovation.

Supersonic aircraft being developed currently, such as Boom Technology’s Overture have expected speeds of Mach 2.2, but it is not unfeasible that future entrants would seek speeds of Mach 3 and above. To make these a reality, a significant investment will need to made in new materials research to develop aircraft that can withstand higher speeds while providing a comfortable experience. Cloud computing combined with advances in deep learning are lowering the costs in this space as well, making competition to develop the necessary materials even more likely should buyers exist. The benefits of new materials research stretches well beyond the domains in which they are first applied as they are repurposed and more commercial possibilities are explored. 

To unlock these benefits, foresight is required. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy identified supersonic as “the challenging new frontier in commercial aviation,” and “essential to a strong and forward-looking nation,” before calling for industry to support the government in making it a reality. While the Boeing 2707 that came out of this vision was an aborted dream, there are lessons from the Kennedy-era attitude. A similar vision was crafted to put a man on the moon which was successful by the end of that decade. That major project spurred American innovation both through its spirit and in the commercial technologies produced by the underlying aerospace research. 

America’s innovation leadership will only be defended if a proactive desire exists among the government to enable moonshot ideas, and provide the necessary infrastructure for their success. The FAA’s supersonic reauthorization is a positive sign for America’s future.

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Pictured above: Image of the Bell X-1 on a 32¢ stamp. On October 14, 1947 it became the first piloted aircraft to fly faster than Mach 1. Wikimedia.


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