As experimental aircraft now push for speeds up to Mach 20 (15,200mph), manufacturers are seeking ways to design viable supersonic, and perhaps eventually hypersonic, passenger aircraft. Transatlantic flight times would tumble if key challenges such as propulsion, fuelling and heat dissipation could be overcome to provide safe supersonic flights at a reasonable cost.
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Although Concorde remarkably achieved supersonic passenger flights way back in 1976, the post-9/11 economic climate, along with the cost of running and upgrading the fleet made the aircraft unsustainable. Here we take a look at the changing duration of transatlantic crossings throughout aviation history, starting with the first non-stop flight in 1919 and ending with what might just be possible in the future!
1919 Vickers Vimy bomber
First ever non-stop transatlantic flight - 16 hours
In 1919 British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew a modified WWI Vickers Vimy bomber across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland, now part of Canada, to County Galway in Ireland. The crossing was the first non-stop transatlantic flight in an aeroplane, and earned the pair a knighthood from King George V.
1939 Pan American Boeing B-314 flying boat
Around 30 hours New York - Southampton
The first commercial non-stop transatlantic flights were made by flying boats, with Boeing's $500,000 B-314 being selected by Pan American for its postal and passenger flights across the Atlantic. One-way tickets were $375 and departed from New York to Marseilles, France or Southampton, England.
1945 Douglas DC-4
14 hours New York to Bournemouth
The Douglas DC-4 propeller airliner was the first land-plane to be used for regularly-scheduled transatlantic passenger flights. American Export ran services flying to New York from Bournemouth, England, stopping at Gander, Newfoundland and Shannon, Ireland en route.
Subsonic commercial jetliners 1950s - present
Around 6-7.5 hours
The time taken for commercial transatlantic crossings has changed very little since the introduction of jet-powered aircraft in the 1950s and 60s. The de Havilland Comet was the first commercial jetliner, making its first flight in 1952, but safety problems leading to a series of fatal accidents restricted its wider success. The Boeing 707 and slightly smaller Douglas DC-8 brought jet-powered passenger travel into the mainstream, with the 707 flying New York to Paris in just over eight hours.
The next substantial reduction in the time taken for transatlantic crossings came in 1976 when the revolutionary Concorde supersonic jetliner made its debut. Achieving a top speed of Mach 2.04, or 1,354mph, Concorde designers had to overcome the huge number of technical challenges associated with supersonic flight.
Slashing transatlantic flight times to less than half those of subsonic aircraft, Concorde services by operators BA and Air France remain the fastest commercial airline services in history. Retired in 2003 due to the worsening economic climate and increasing running and upgrade costs, Concorde remains a staggering engineering achievement and an icon of air travel.
USAF SR-71 Blackbird
1hr 54mins record
In 1974 the legendary SR-71 Blackbird aircraft made the trip between New York and London in an hour less than Concorde. However, for this record-breaking flight the plane was already at 80,000 feet when passing over New York, unlike Concorde which completed the journey from airport to airport.
The Blackbird could reach a maximum speed of Mach 3.3, or 2,200mph, and when flying at higher altitudes pilots wore pressurised suits similar to those worn by astronauts.
USAF/Boeing/NASA/DARPA X-51 Waverider
(Theoretical) 1 hour
Moving into more theoretical possibilities based purely on speed rather than the range of an aircraft, the experimental X-51 unmanned hypersonic aircraft is capable of sustaining flight at Mach 6 - around 4,000mph. Using solid rocket boosters the aircraft reaches a speed of Mach 4.5, at which point a scramjet takes over to propel the vehicle up to Mach 6.
DARPA/USAF Falcon HTV-2
(Theoretical) 20 mins
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Beyond the theoretical and into fantasy, at least for a very long time... this prototype unmanned aircraft is designed for high-altitude speeds of up to Mach 20, and is launched up to the edge of space using a Minotaur rocket.
The craft is intended to then glide at full speed before crash-landing in the ocean. However both tests of this vehicle have ended in failure, with test crews losing contact with the vehicles before the flights were complete.
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