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(Tribune News Service) — Supersonic air travel is back — almost. That’s the latest news you may have heard, anyway.

United Airlines announced last week that it’s ordering a fleet of jets from a Denver startup that can travel at faster than the speed of sound, aiming to carry passengers before the decade is up. President Joe Biden also mentioned supersonic flight when discussing his infrastructure plan in April.

But before that can happen, U.S. regulations would have to be changed. And a team at Hampton’s NASA Langley Research Center may be key to the process.

For the past several years, the team of about 60 has been helping lead a $500 million cross-country project to figure out how to quiet sonic booms — those pesky, explosion-sounding side effects of planes moving so fast.

“There’s a law against flying commercial supersonic flights over land because of the ... annoyance and startle factors that happen when there are sonic booms coming down on the public,” said Craig Nickol, the Langley team’s project manager.

What NASA hopes to do is find a way to minimize those booms and allow the restriction to be lifted.

But first, what exactly is a sonic boom?

It’s what happens when air around planes moving faster than the speed of sound expands and compresses rapidly, creating shockwaves that produce a loud cracking sound on the ground. A typical sonic boom can be heard for 25 miles on either side of a plane’s flight path. Hampton Roads residents might have heard such a boom two weeks ago, according to the Navy.

The ability to fly faster than the speed of sound — more than 767 mph miles — isn’t new. The first plane did so in 1947. Perhaps most famously, a British passenger airliner — the Concorde — flew over the Atlantic at twice that speed before it was retired in 2003.

Flying supersonically over water is legal. But Nickol said it hasn’t been an appealing option for airlines, because the costs outweigh revenue for flights that can’t travel inland. Opening land routes would change that.

The current NASA project is building an aircraft specifically designed to muffle the booms. Lockheed Martin, the project’s prime contractor, is constructing the plane at its facility in California, while Langley and others provide technical support.

The plane — dubbed the X-59 QueSST — is not meant to be a commercial prototype, Nickol said.

But key aspects of the design will be shared with the industry. So if those features work as NASA hopes, companies could incorporate them.

The plane features a long, slender nose that spreads out the shockwaves “so they don’t coalesce and form into a very strong boom,” he said. Inside, however, it’s so narrow that there’s no central window in the cockpit, preventing the pilot from seeing out front.

Here’s where Langley’s contributions have been essential to this project.

Research there decades ago to design a Concorde replacement, which was dropped at some point, helped form the technology NASA’s using to remedy the no-window problem.

It’s called the external vision system. Pilots will look at a computer monitor instead of a window. Two cameras — one on the front of the plane, one on a pop-out below — then serve as a replacement for the human eye. Officials use an algorithm to automatically line up the images from both camera feeds.

Nickol has said this is a unique project for NASA because of its direct impact on the average American. The military has not prioritized or provided funding for the supersonic research.

The X-59 plane is more than halfway constructed and should be finished by the end of the year. Then there will be several rounds of tests to ensure safety and take detailed measurements of boom-producing shock waves. The plane should move at about 940 mph.

By around 2024, NASA plans to fly the plane over several different test communities to get feedback on how annoyed they are with accompanying sounds. Officials previously told The Virginian-Pilot they “wouldn’t be surprised” if Hampton Roads is included, but Nickol said the test sites have yet to be chosen.

The rest is in the hands of officials at the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the power to lift the ban it put in place in 1973.

“We’re helping to attempt to remove those barriers and open up potentially new markets,” Nickol said.

There are some side benefits to flying supersonically, such as opening up airspace because such flights tend to happen at a higher altitude, he said.

But the main goal is just giving everyone more time. A cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York could take less than three hours, as opposed to more than five.

“Time is a very precious resource for everybody,” Nickol said. ” Anything you can do to reduce time, especially in that travel scenario, has value.”

©2021 The Virginian-Pilot.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

United Airlines announced Thursday it will buy 15 planes from Denver-based Boom Supersonic. The company’s planes have yet to be approved or built.
United Airlines announced Thursday it will buy 15 planes from Denver-based Boom Supersonic. The company’s planes have yet to be approved or built. (Boom Supersonic/Facebook)

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