November 1, 2017

1967. The Revolutionary Prospects of Supersonic Transportation

U.S. Seeks to Enter the Supersonic Transport Business
The Concorde supersonic jet prototype in Toulouse, France on the day of its first flight, March 2, 1969 (Photo by Jean Dieuzaide - source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

January 1, 1967

The Federal Aviation Agency very carefully selected the last and longest weekend of 1966 to put the United States into the multi-billion dollar supersonic transportation business.

After an exhaustive two and a half year study involving more than thirty US and foreign airlines and more than two hundred private and federal engineers and technical experts, the FAA picked the aircraft design of the Boeing Company and the jet engine design of the General Electric Company to go forward with the preliminary work to prove out both the engineering and feasibility of a plane longer than a football field which will fly almost three times the speed of sound.

The FAA's timing of the announcement for the long weekend obviously was made to have minimum effect on the stock market and to prevent speculation in shares of the companies which were vying for the SST contracts.

Boeing and the Lockheed Aircraft Company had been in intense competition for the airframe contract. General Electric's major competitor was the Pratt-Whitney firm, a veteran builder of aircraft engines since the days of the bi-wing Jennies.

The Federal Aviation Agency's announcement specifies that the initial contract awards to Boeing and GE do not constitute a government decision to actually build a prototype plane—meaning that the final determination of whether to put a fleet of American supersonic transports into the air is still held in abeyance.

But it does mean that the federal government has selected the type of supersonic plane it will build if the decision is affirmative, and most aviation experts here in Washington say there is no technological reason why the federal go-ahead should not follow.

Thus the Boeing design of the SST, with its moveable wing that sweeps more than forty degrees as the plane goes from subsonic to supersonic speeds, has defeated the Lockheed fixed delta-wing configuration. Even the nose of the Boeing plane is radical, in that the needle-tipped frontal cone must be tipped downward to allow the pilots proper visibility for landing.

If the FAA gives the final go-ahead, it's estimated it will cost about one and a quarter billion dollars to get the first prototype SST into the air for testing. The cost of getting the first commercial plane into actual service will be another four and a half billion.

The US aircraft industry figures that the stake is worth the gamble—not only in preserving American leadership in the air, but also the industry foresees some $40 billion in sales of the planes around the world, plus the creation of about one hundred thousand new jobs.

Thus far, the US taxpayer has invested more than $300 million in the supersonic transport program, while America's plane builders and allied industries have risked some $75 million over their own money on SST technology.

Officials for the victorious Boeing Company say that if the government gives the expected go-ahead, they may have the first SST ready for flight testing in 1970, with commercial models of the giant plane ready for transoceanic service in 1974.

Federal aviation officials are withholding their final approval for a number of reasons, some of them technical.

For example, there's the question of noise abatement. Many federal officials here in Washington and local officials across the country believe that the airport noise caused by the roaring and screeching engines of the present fleet of commercial and military jets plying the skies is about at the tolerance levels that the ordinary citizen will stand.

The new supersonic engines to be built by General Electric will each be six feet in diameter, twenty-five feet long, and weight four and a half tons apiece. They will develop sixty thousand pounds of thrust, or enough energy to light a city of seventy thousand homes. And each supersonic plane will have four of them. The on-the-ground and takeoff noise problems are obvious, but not insoluble, according to the aircraft designers.

Another problem which awaits solution is that of the shattering percussion effects of a high-explosive bomb. When such a plane breaks the sound barrier, it leaves behind it a rolling wake of sonic booms which bounce off the globe. Some aviation technicians say that for this reason a giant SST as planned by the GE-Boeing team of engineers will never be able to fly at its maximum speed over populated continental areas; that the SST's maximum efficiency and speed could only be employed over the world's oceans. Therefore, these pessimists claim, the proposed supersonic transport is a very limited kind of aircraft.

There's no doubt that the federal government's go-ahead which ended this week in Washington also was influenced by international political considerations. The first SST which the world will see in commercial use is likely to be the Concorde, a smaller and slower aircraft now being developed by a British and French combine.

The Concorde is scheduled to go into regular service in 1970—or three years ahead of the Boeing commercial design. And about at the same time, the Soviet Union is expected to be ready to unveil its entry in the supersonic race—and it could be sooner.

If these planes are even moderately successful, it would appear that the American people should brace themselves for a tide of foreign propaganda three years from now about how the United States has lost its traditional leadership in world aviation, an argument that may or may not be viable until the new Boeing SST gets into international competition with Europe and Russia.

And there's one other factor which questions commercial feasibility of supersonic transportation. It is the cost-plus-convenience factor. On the Boeing-GE SST, it will be possible to fly some 227 passengers from New York to Los Angeles in approximately two hours. If SST passenger tickets are more expensive than the present jet fares, will Americans pay the premium to save two or three hours' flying time?

Evidently the world's commercial air carriers think so, because even before a final government OK, the American SST has received advance orders for 114 of the planes from twenty-six airlines around the globe—even at a projected $35 million per plane.

Although the federal government has soft-pedaled the military application of supersonic transportation and on the surface, at least, there's little comment or enthusiasm for it in some Pentagon areas, the advantage of being able to airlift American troops or armament from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, say, to Calcutta in India in about six hours is obvious.

But mostly the commercial airline industry is depending on the increasingly curious and itchy-footed flying public to make supersonic transportation the tourist buses of the future.

With the SST, the fog-weary San Franciscan will be able to leave the International Airport on the Bay and only two hours later make a landfall on Oahu's Diamond Head before landing at Honolulu. A Washington diplomat will be able to take off from either Baltimore's Friendship Airport or the Dulles Airport in nearby Virginia and some two hours and fifty-five minutes later be on his way to meeting with President De Gaulle in Paris.

Although the advocates of supersonic transportation admit that in the initial stages the jet-set of 1973 may have to pay a premium to ride the new swing-wing Boeings, as more and more of the giant planes come into service they hope to make passenger rates as economical as today's present tourist fares.

In the first place, the new planes will carry twice as many passengers as even today's biggest jets. Also it will be possible to establish a coast-to-coast shuttle service wherein it will be feasible for a man to leave his home in Chicago or Los Angeles and fly to work in Boston or New York and return home in the evening, spending no more time en route than some commuters do in getting to their jobs today by train, bus, or automobile.

If and when approved by federal authorities, America's entry into the supersonic transport race will mark the biggest single peacetime investment in the future of aviation since Orville and Wilbur Wright sold their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio to improve their Kitty Hawk flying box-kites.

The most cheering and hopeful aspect of this international race between the US, the Anglo-French aviation combine, and Soviet Russia's SST program is that the competition has been kept on a non-military basis.

In terms of time and space, the supersonic transport will again shrink the world in which we live—technologically drawing whole continents closer together and putting virtually every nation, race, and people within a half-day's journey of every other. The sociological impact of this supersonic fact of life has to have vast significance in the field of international politics.

Russian and American space travelers already have proved that man can circumnavigate the earth in an hour and a half, giving the world a new perspective of the insignificance of this most fortunate of planets able to sustain life in the thin envelope of oxygen and hydrogen which has been mankind's heritage.

But as this week in Washington ended, it was clear that while men were lifting their eyes to the stars, their overriding preoccupation was with the acreage at their feet, divided by civilization's turbulent history into nations, states, and sovereignties; riven by racial and cultural differences and by ancient and modern superstitions and prejudices.

Thus far, twentieth century man has not been able to adapt this thinking to the astronauts' nor the cosmonauts' view of our earth. And it's doubtful that he's ready to take advantage of the technological "togetherness" implicit in tomorrow's international supersonic transportation.

As Washington begins what must be a fateful 1967, the task before President Johnson and the American people is to somehow get man's feet out of the mud of the past and on the high and dry road to the future.

The problem is both national and international, because a million supersonic transports are not going to be able to lift the undeveloped nations of Africa, Latin America, or Asia if there are no airports cut out of the jungles or deserts or carved out of the isolating mountains. A thousand SST planes traversing the skies in only a few hours flying from Manila to Moscow will do nothing for the embattled Chinese peasant.

The new supersonic transports may soon be able to take curious travelers on a unique tourist junket in which they will be able to photograph both the North and South Poles, making it possible for the first time for ordinary men to see the land of the penguin and the polar bear in a single day. But this will do little toward settling the bitter struggle in Vietnam where it's dangerous to cross, let alone travel, most roads.

The new supersonic planes may have the marvelous ability to transport a population the size of most of the world's villages to the farthest reaches of the globe in half a day, but the further success of the SST will depend on what awaits the world traveler when he arrives at his destination.

If it's war formally declared, as the Arab quiescent one against Israel, or the civil wars which now seem to rage in the back alleys of most cities, then the SST travel agencies might as well close shop.

If the destination is an overcrowded slum city smothering its population and poisoned air, forget it. If the nature-loving SST tourist finds a countryside raped of its trees, foliage, and wildlife, its streams polluted and watershed eroding, then the nations investing in supersonic travel can save their money.

But supersonic transportation will expose to more and more diverse peoples these dangers and blemishes on his planet, and perhaps make him realize that his globe will only be truly habitable when these threats to his atmosphere, his earth, and to his very species are removed.

These are the global and domestic challenges which will confront the new 90th Congress when it meets ten days from now. President Johnson will outline his approach to them in his State of the Union address, and his budget message will reveal to the people how much of their wealth will be needed to throw into the struggle.

We hope someone has foresight to ask for a program closely associated to the supersonic transport plane. Every SST someday will be dumping more than two hundred travelers at a time on crowded air terminals all over the country. And you wait and see—no one will have figured out a way to get the passenger that last few miles from the airport to his destination in town.

Have a Happy New Year.

This is Bill Downs for ABC News in Washington.