It’s been eighteen years since Concorde, the world’s fastest commercial jet, grounded its iconic and luxurious supersonic fleet, after 27 years of whisking people across the Atlantic in a head-spinning three hours. Now some of the world’s top aviation experts and research institutes are re-inventing the concept, with flight trials with humans beginning next year.
One of the trailblazers of the new wave, Spike Aerospace, has just released the first images of its Spike S-512 Supersonic Jet cabin. The jet stands out from its competitors by offering both low sonic boom (cutting out those heart-stopping loud booms produced by most supersonic vehicles when they break the sound barrier) and a commitment to offering a ‘Zero Carbon’ flight by 2040. To be clear, this is nothing to do with off-setting; Spike Aerospace is working on a flight with zero carbon emissions.
Concorde was a collaboration between British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and France’s Aerospatiale and only ever produced a commercial fleet of 14 aircrafts, seven for British Airways, seven for Air France. Each had a maximum cruising speed of 1,354 miles per hour or Mach 2.04 (more than twice the speed of sound), famously halving the flight time between London and New York.
Despite its unparalleled glamour and then-innovative design, Concorde was exceptionally expensive to run and pumped out three times as much carbon dioxide as its subsonic equivalent, so after a fatal crash of an Air France Concorde flight taking off from Paris in 2000, the fleet was retired in 2003.
Since then, supersonic jets have vanished from our skies but behind the scenes, the key players in the industry have spent the better part of a decade developing their own improved versions.
“From the beginning of time, people have wanted to travel places faster,” says Spike Aerospace founder and CEO Vik Kachoria. “Getting places faster means increased opportunities. Whether that’s riding a camel instead of walking or flying across the Atlantic in six hours rather than spending four weeks on a steam ship. But imagine a six-hour flight becoming a three-hour flight. That’s what supersonic offers.”
Spike Aerospaces’s supersonic offering, SpikeS-512, will fly at Mach 1.6, which is twice the speed of any other aircraft on the market currently. While Concorde flew a little faster, Spike’s aircraft will have almost no sonic boom (the explosive noise caused by the shock wave from an aircraft) so it can fly overland (from London to Dubai or Hong Kong, say), combining minimum emissions with maximum efficiency.
The low-sonic boom element is a hugely significant addition and everyone involved in this new wave of supersonic development is tackling it to some degree or other. The Spike S-512 will be able to carry up to eighteen passengers and reach Mach 1.6, so it will be able to do 3,000 mile hops such as London to New York or Dubai or Dubai to Hong Kong, in around three and a half hours, all while maintaining low sonic boom.
“Every competitor is talking about low boom, but they have their caveats,” says Kachoria. American start-up Boom Supersonic, for example, is designing a Mach 2.2 supersonic jet, but it will focus on the transatlantic crossing. Meanwhile NASA has enlisted private companies including Virgin Galactic and Aerion Supersonic to help it come up with a jet in the Mach 3-5 range.
Every developer has to grapple with the same issues: “Either they fly in the standard supersonic corridors avoiding overland, or they slow down,” says Kachoria. “Concorde was originally intended to fly overland. I don’t know who thought the sonic boom wasn’t going to be a problem. The vision was to be able to fly from London to Sydney, cross-country from New York to LA, journeys like that. But the public protested because it can sound like gun shot or explosion, so it could only go back and forth across the Atlantic.”
In the US, a congressional regulation passed in 1973 prohibits flying faster than the speed of sound. As of 2020, some supersonic flight testing has been permitted in very specific places in the US for the first time, in preparation for the developments ahead. In Europe, the rules specify that you cannot significantly disturb people on the ground. Consequently, Spike Aerospace, while it will operate between New York and London, will otherwise be focusing on routes from London to the Middle East and Asia when they launch.
Spike’s plan is to have a four-man demonstrator ready for next year to fully test drive the low sonic boom. Then, after the inevitable multiple-year certification period, the first commercially-ready aircraft should be delivered in 2028. The hope is to progress to a speed of Mach 3.2 over the following decade, which would see flights between London and New York, down to an hour and a half.
Short flights travelling long distances are fun but clearly these operations will mainly target the business traveller. But do business people really care about face-to-face any more, in the age of Zoom?
“Zoom works great but if you’re doing a billion dollar deal, you really want to be there on the ground, to touch and feel and see it,” says Kachoria.
So what will the Spike S-512 be like inside? Where the Concorde carried up to 100 people, this aircraft, with a maximum of 18 seats, will feel incredibly luxurious inside, a lot like the Gulfstream G650, favoured by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey. It can, of course, be configured in multiple ways, with additions such as flat beds and conference tables.
The most unique element to the design will be the aircraft’s lack of windows. Window frames are the weakest point in any aircraft and a lot of noise comes through them. By removing these, the fuselage is stronger and more fuel efficient and by reducing the constant drone of the engine, passengers arrive at their destination more refreshed, rather than drained by the constant noise.
“The Concorde was ridiculously noisy,” says Kachoria. “Most conversations between two people are between 65 and 75 decibels and the noise level found within most plane cabins is around 85 decibels. Not quite a vacuum cleaner but not far off. Our windowless aircraft, will be about 60 decibels, so lower than the sound of a conversation. No noise-cancelling headphones required.”
Instead of windows which, regardless of the class you are travelling, never seem to be in line with the seat anyway, the entire inside length of the cabin on both sides will be like a long computer screen, allowing you to have panoramic views of wherever you’re flying over, do power point presentations or break it down into individual screens for each seat.
And just how will Spike Aerospace achieve ‘SpikeZero’, as it refers to its zero-carbon by 2040 mission. Kachoria says there is a three-stage roadmap. He won’t reveal the key parts of the technology as it’s still under wraps, but does give me one example. The first stage concerns ground emissions and noise pollution, when the aircraft leaves its gate, pulled by the tug vehicle, often standing still, engine roaring, for prolonged periods. The SpikeZero technology will see the craft taxiing with new ‘electric nose gear’, engine off.
And how much will a seat on the Spike S-512 cost? This will be down to the individual airline, but Kachoria thinks it will pretty quickly be about the same as flying Business Class in a regular plane. “Remember, almost every technological innovation we’ve had has started out for the uber-rich: cars, telephones, computers, flat screen TVs – the first ones cost $25,000 in the 90s and now they’re $200.”