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  • Micheal N.

The History of Supersonic Planes

In the 1950s and times before that, a flight from London to New York would take 13 hours. Planes often did not have much capacity and were only available to the upper class. Many planes flew in clouds and experienced turbulence along with other problems. However, from the 1960s up until today, we have flown in jetliners, making the Atlantic flight seven and a half hours long, with capacities and demand growing since then.

In 1947, for the first time ever, a small rocket-powered plane broke the sound barrier, meaning it was faster than sound and was supersonic. Until today, our understanding of supersonic planes has expanded and military planes can fly faster than the speed of sound. But if a Supersonic commercial plane could be built, a flight from London to New York would take just three and a half hours and would pull the world closer and make aviation faster than before.

In 1949, the British stunned the world with the first jetliner, it flew faster and higher than any other plane at that time. A design flaw caused some deadly accidents and per British aircraft sold, the Americans sold ten. The British lost their lead in the jet age but Britain wasn’t going to give up that easily.

By 1961, the British came up with a design for a supersonic plane called the Bristol Type 223 and at the same time, the French designed the Sud Aviation Super-Caravelle. These concepts were similar and in 1962, the two countries signed a treaty of the Concorde program. Through this, many British and French engineers were put together to make Commercial Supersonic Air Travel a reality. Although it would burn double the fuel or more of a Jetliner, a Concorde could fly two flights in the time a Jetliner could fly one. Airlines also preordered over 70 Concordes.

The Concorde was eventually built and was an engineering marvel of the century. Its wings took over 5,000 hours of wind tunnel testing and were perfectly adjusted to fly supersonic but could also break enough and gave pilots enough control to fly safely. By 1967, the Concorde was ready to be unveiled to the public. But the Concorde didn’t come without its controversies. Too many supersonic planes such as these would damage ozone layers and everywhere the plane flew over supersonic booms were heard.

By the 1970s there were doubts the Concorde would ever make it into service. One by one, countries were banning supersonic booms over their airspace. This meant that a flight from London to Vienna would have to fly around Switzerland and West Germany and the flight path would be extremely difficult. That is why the Concorde only flew from New York or Washington to London or Paris, as the Atlantic airspace didn’t belong to anyone and the Concorde could fly over this route undisturbed.

However, as if those problems weren’t big enough, it only got worse with the economics of the Concorde. By the 1970s, fuel prices skyrocketed - just like they did when the war in Ukraine started. This meant flying the Concorde was expensive and risky for airlines since the Concorde burnt more than four times as much fuel than a regular Jetliner at the time. The Concorde also had minimal and tight seats which were very expensive. Most airlines that preordered Concordes had to cancel their orders and for the Concorde to be profitable for the developers, it had to sell over 150. Development costs were also ten times that of the original estimate. Nevertheless, 14 Concordes did enter service: 7 for British Airways and Air France each. On 21st January 1976, two Concordes lifted off simultaneously, these airlines were nationally owned and were forced into having Concordes. Soon, though, British Airways and Air France lost tens of millions operating Concordes.

By the 1980s, they surprisingly improved because supersonic travel to this time was aimed at richer customers and Concorde flights came with luxurious meals, Champagne and more. Tickets costed more than 20,000 US Dollars in today's money. In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crash from a piece of debris on the runway destroyed Concordes safety record. Only a year later, after 9/11, air travel suffered, as many passengers feared flying and in 2003 the Concorde was retired.

Air France's crash in 2000

But if you thought that was the only supersonic commercial plane then you are mistaken. There was another, which looks like the Concorde: the Soviet Union's Tupolev 144, more commonly known as the Tu144. The 144 was even faster than the Concorde and carried more passengers but it too, had many flaws. Just like the Space Race there was a Supersonic Race between America, France, Britain and the Soviet Union. It looked like the Concorde was going to win by a landslide, but Soviet spies had stolen over 90,000 documents about the Concorde and copied most of its structure. The Tu-144 ended up winning the supersonic race, with the Tu-144 taking its first flight two months before the Concorde. But to build a supersonic plane faster than the Concorde, the Tu-144 had such loud engines and cooling systems that passengers couldn’t hear each other and the experience on board was terrible. The Tu-144 only flew one route from Moscow, Russia to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The thing is, the Tu-144 burnt so much fuel it couldn’t fly much further. The Tu-144 also flew once a week. On average, there were over two technical failures per flight. Due to this, many had to cancel flights. The reason for this is that the Soviets thought it was more important to get the plane flying before the Concorde, than to get it to fly well.

It was evidently a rushed development and that’s why you have probably never heard of it before. The Tu-144's wings were also made for faster speed and landings were dangerous, bumpy and it required a parachute. While the Concorde flew for 27 years before retiring and still being seen as a failure, the Tu-144 retired after only eight months and seventeen were built. This made it a massive money burner for the Soviet Union and it was only really used as a propaganda tool.

The Tupolev 144 

However, as I mentioned earlier, the Supersonic Race was between America, Russia and the British French Concorde. America never had a commercial supersonic plane of its own, but it did try. While the tu144 had up to 140 passengers and the Concorde between 92 and 128, the Boeing 2707 would have had 250 passengers and would have flown three times the speed of sound. America had taken over the aviation industry and both the US Government and five American aircraft manufacturers wanted to stay on top of the aviation travel, even when it came to supersonic planes.

In 1963, Kennedy announced that America would help and fund an American supersonic commercial aircraft and in 1967, after a design contest, Boeing was chosen by the US Government to build a supersonic aircraft. The Concorde and Tupolev 144 had wings that were used to fly at supersonic speeds but also needed to be built for a slower take-off and landings. The Boeing 2707 had wings that would fold back to move faster while flying supersonic and were further forwards for landing and take-offs to be safe. The 2707 would fly so fast, that cheap Aluminium couldn’t be used for the exterior of the Aircraft because it would melt and Titanium -which is considerably more expensive- would have to be used instead. Boeing was confident that it could enter services with airlines by the mid 1970s.

The wings and jet engines of the plane were so heavy, that Boeing was forced to redesign the plane and build delta wings like that of the Concorde, which would make the plane slower. But the speed remained a problem. With the 2707 flying so fast, supersonic booms could be heard from 30 miles away. A single flight from New York to Los Angeles would be heard by over five million people and tolerance for supersonic booms was not great. In 1969, Nixon took over the presidency of America and he announced that the 2707 was still going to be built, despite many controversies and the public being against the decision. However, in 1971, the Senate rejected any further funding for the project and the 2707 was never going to be built.

The Boeing 2707 prototype and exterior design 

While the stories of commercial supersonic aircraft are sad, with advancements in the aviation industry since the 1960s, supersonic air travel may be returning. Many startups have already drawn sketches for supersonic planes but only one has gotten a substantial amount of funding and preorders from airlines like Japanese Airlines, United, American Airlines and more, with funding from the US Air Force and a new factory in North Carolina. The name of this company is Boom Supersonic. It was founded in 2014 in a basement and is planning to start putting supersonic planes back in the air by 2027. Its concept- Overture- will carry 60 to 80 passengers on board and it will run on renewable fuels like biodiesel. But its supersonic boom is expected to be at 105 decibels, nearly as loud as the Concordes. That’s why, like the concorde, the routes they say the plane will fly will be over the Pacific and Atlantic and therefore it needs to focus on range because these oceans span over thousands of kilometres.

The Concorde was constructed using Aluminium and the 2707 was supposed to be with titanium, which is even heavier. The Overture will use carbon fibre composites, which has been tested and used on the Boeing 787 and it makes the plane much lighter and reduces drag. While the Concorde has a nose which can bend down for visibility during landing, the Overture will use cameras for the pilots. This will minimise maintenance costs for airlines. Boom Supersonic and the Overture have the advantage of coming sixty years later than the Concorde and the fact that aviation is more advanced. In 2020, Boom Supersonic got Rolls Royce to build the engines of the Overture. Rolls Royce also built the engines of the Concorde, but it wasn’t very profitable for them. That’s why Rolls Royce has left and Boom Supersonic will need to build its own engines.

Boom Supersonics Overture 

The Futuristic Interior of the Overture 


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