BBC Future

Supersonic jets of the past and the future

  • End of a legend
    On 24 October 2003, the Anglo-French Concorde flew for the last time, ending 27 years of supersonic passenger travel by British Airways and Air France. (SPL)
  • Unforgettable flyer
    The airliner could fly at twice the speed of sound, cutting flight time between London and New York to just over three hours. (SPL)
  • Future of fast flight?
    In decades to come, supersonic designs could resemble this Japanese concept, which uses a biplane construction to make it quieter and more fuel-efficient. (Tohoku University)
  • Pioneering design
    Aviation’s supersonic designs owe much to the very first plane to break the sound barrier; Bell’s X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, which first flew faster than sound in 1947. (Nasa)
  • Soviet speedster
    Concorde was beaten into the air by a rival design from behind the Iron Curtain; Tupolev’s Tu-144 took to the air in 1968 and flew until the mid-80s. (SPL)
  • Supersonic spy
    Concorde is not the only retired record-setter; the US Air Force’s Blackbird spyplane left service in the 1990s after three decades of edge-of-space flight. (USAF/Getty Images)
  • Faster-than-sound freighters
    Using experimental engine technology – like this scramjet concept – hypersonic designs could deliver satellites into space. (US Air Force)
  • The X factor
    The X-43 vehicle still holds the world-airspeed record for an air-breathing, free-flying aircraft – clocking up a speed of 7,000mph (10,461 kmh).[ (Getty Images)
  • Around the world in a day?
    No supersonic passenger planes have yet replaced Concorde, though designs and concepts are keeping the dream of ultra-fast airliners arrive. (Nasa/Lockheed Martin)
A decade since the airliner Concorde last took to the skies, we take a look at whether we will see its record-setting like again.

Ten years ago, one of our most iconic planes made its final flight. For around three decades the supersonic roar of Concorde filled our skies. Thanks to its four giant engines and a top speed of Mach 2, New York was only three-and-a-half hours away from London. The plane oozed sophistication and exclusivity, and that wasn't limited to the champagne-sipping passengers. It’s said there are more US astronauts than Concorde pilots.

Concerns over high operating costs, limited ticket demand and safety led to the fleet being retired in 2003. And as BBC News reports, the chances of it returning to our skies are virtually zero.

But the idea of travelling faster than the speed of sound remains alluring, and as we have mentioned before, there are several projects trying to create the next generation of supersonic planes. As materials and computer simulations become more advanced, aerospace researchers are hoping they can overcome some of the issues that Concorde faced.

Hopefully they will be more successful than the designs of the past, such as the Russian Tupelov Tu-144 (nicknamed Concordeski). To see how advanced and ambitious these ideas have become, we’ve explored the more radical end of designs, and went behind the scenes at Nasa’s Dryden base – whose mission, appropriately enough, is to “fly what others only imagine”.

It’s not the fastest retired supersonic plane you'll find here. The US Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spyplane reached speeds of Mach 3.3. Building a supersonic military plane and supersonic commercial plane are two completely different challenges – for one thing the Blackbird was purposely designed to leak fuel. And as our colleagues at BBC Culture say, Concorde was, in its way, one of a kind. But wherever ideas for future supersonic planes go, we will eagerly follow.

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