It’s called the X-59, and the Lockheed Martin Corp. intends for it to reopen the door to supersonic commercial flight.
Having grown up in the Seattle area, I was among a lot of folks who were majorly disappointed when Boeing discontinued its Supersonic Transport (SST) program in the early 1970s. I was also sad to see the British-French Concorde go away after actually carrying passengers rapidly across the Atlantic Ocean for 27 years beginning in 1976.
By the same token, I’m glad Lockheed is “going for it” again, so to speak.
The prospective new plane’s full name is X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology Aircraft. Quiet? Designers of the sleek bird say it will break the sound barrier (767 miles per hour) without making much sound. In fact, Lockheed said that when the X-59 surpasses the speed of sound, the resulting noise will resemble a car door closing or a “gentle thump.”
Lockheed hopes the new technology will lead to a reversal of current regulations that prohibit commercial supersonic flights over land because of the massive booms that accompany having a large aircraft break the sound barrier.
Cool. The dog won’t start barking and the antique heirloom dishes and fine crystal sitting in grandma’s fancy glass hutch won’t be in danger of breaking, like when a U.S. Air Force F35 or B-1 bomber zooms overhead unseen. I’m definitely down with that.
While standard airliners cruise at around 30,000 feet at speeds in the neighborhood of 550 miles per hour, the X-59 will be capable of maintaining an altitude of about 55,000 feet and moving along at about 940 miles per hour. I think it’s safe to say there won’t be much traffic up there, except for the occasional UFO or maybe a Chinese space station or satellite falling back to Earth.
For the record, the Concorde flew at speeds of over 1,300 miles per hour and a flight from New York to London took only about 3 ½ hours. But its operational costs were astronomical, making it anything but practical.
When a Concorde crashed in 2000, killing all 100 passengers and nine crewmembers aboard (the infamous Air France Flight 4590), the plane’s future was all but doomed. Some flights continued until 2003, but passengers were scarce and the crash pretty much sealed the Concorde’s destiny to become a former in-service airliner.
Obviously, it’s been quite a while since a supersonic airliner has been tried, and one would have to assume much has been learned since the last go round. So perhaps Lockheed is indeed ready to walk the supersonic walk after talking the supersonic talk.
I hope so. I’m not one to get behind all so-called technological advances, but I feel like faster transportation only makes sense – as long as it fits in with what we now know to be safe and practical.
Funded in part by NASA as an experimental aircraft, the X-59 is being developed at the renowned Lockheed Martin Skunk Works facility in Palmdale, Calif. Its first test flight is set for sometime in 2021.
Maybe we’ll be able to buy a ticket to fly on it not long after that.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.