In November 1960 the French and British governments announced the launch of a common project for building a jet airliner: a supersonic one, reaching a Mach 2 speed. The project name: Concorde. This piece of news caused rumor and a lot of fuss across the Atlantic. Although some American aircraft engineers had tested, at least on paper, some ideas for this type of project in the ‘50s, they had never thought about it very seriously. All ideas had been based on Russian and European sources of inspiration, that marched on using a delta-wing shaped aircraft. The European Concorde project challenged President John F. Kennedy to publicly announce a design plan for an aircraft that would fly faster (how else?!) than a bullet. The Russians could not keep away from these ideas also. The engineers at Tupolev were working hard on the concept, which later became the Tupolev Tu-144 aircraft. It was matter of national pride for the Americans to respond to the European challenges. It was also a “matter of survival” if they took into consideration the Russian project, since we are talking of an era in which the Cold War was at its hottest point of development. And if one managed to build a supersonic airliner for passengers, a military aircraft wouldn’t be such a big challenge anymore.
Consequently, all the American aeronautical industry concentrated on the supersonic dream. In 1961 Douglas Aircraft had developed a supersonic concept that would reach Mach 3. They were convinced that they would materialize their idea until 1970 and their sells would explode. In spite of their optimism, the government chose other two projects as finalists, one from Boeing and the other from Lockheed Martin. These were the companies with the vastest aeronautic experience at the time. Moreover, President Kennedy raised the stakes and sent the two companies the message that he was willing to support more than 75% of the costs for the supersonic aircraft from public funds.
For the USA these projects meant almost as much as the race for landing on the moon. The aircraft designers set to work. Lockheed Martin engineers and designers turned their attention to a delta wing, while Boeing chose the design of a variable-sweep wing. In theory the Boeing solution was ideal, offering the aircraft a better lift during landing or lift off. At the same time, when flying speed is increasing, the wings would fold neatly creating a delta wing aircraft with minimal air-friction at supersonic speed. When the time came to translate all this theory into practice major problems arose due to technological challenges and high costs. These would eventually “bury” the American dream of a supersonic airliner. But for the being moment Boeing won the “design competition” with their variable-sweep wing and this is how the Boeing 2707 was born. But developing these plans was not as easy as they seemed; the people at Boeing were in the middle of other projects at the time – the Boeing B-747 Jumbo Jet, NASA’s moon landing project and not to mention some military projects – not all of them being public. As the Boeing B 2707 became “priority zero” this determined Joe Sutter, the coordinator for the B-747 program, to issue more and more complaints about not having enough engineers for his project, most of them having been engaged in the design of the supersonic airliner. In other words, Boeing had taken, with Boeing 2707, a bigger bite than they could chew.
To make matters even more difficult, the technological problems that arose for the Boeing 2707 were huge: the folding-wings system had to be designed from scratch, even if some military versions had been designed and built those were small 2-seated planes, while the Boeing 2707 would have to carry 300 passengers. Then there were the Boeing 2707 engines fuel consumption that would be extremely high, which would make it impossible for the airliner to cross the Atlantic without air re-fueling. Itweas an an obstacle that also Concorde had to surpass. The engineers came up with a simple solution – the airliner would not cross oceans. It would be used only for terrestrial routes. But this caused only more problems because the supersonic Boeing 2707 aircraft would exceed all known environmental pollution norms; and think that we are talking about the ‘60s, when the norms were not as strict as today! Also the experience with the 1964 supersonic bomber XB-70 Valkyrie proved that the sonic boom produced damage that rose up to 12.456 USD in a range that reached 1,7km along its flying route. Some studies stated even that the sonic boom could affect people such as neurosurgeons, pregnant women and persons with mental disabilities. There was also another problem that no one had taken into consideration in the ‘60s, when fuel was very cheap. The soon-to-come recessions and “fuel crisis” in 1971 and 1978 suddenly made the engineers think about fuel consumption and flying costs of the Boeing 2707. The same problem determined Air France and British Airways to retire the Concorde in 2003. The plane was not profitable and they could not afford the luxury to throw money out the window anymore, just for the sake of having a supersonic airliner in service.
Boeing planned to implement the Boeing 2707 as a passenger airliner and the B-747 would be turned into a cargo airplane. The complications of the Boeing 2707 supersonic design determined them to give up the idea of a variable-sweep wing and turned their full attention to the delta wing, in a desperate attempt to finally make the plane fly. In spite of all these measures and President Nixon’s support of the concept, the American Senate began to lose its patience for this Boeing 2707 project and they voted to cut off the funds on May 20th, 1971. By that time only two Boeing 2707 wood mock-ups had been designed, although the first flight tests had been programmed for 1972 and mass production was to start in 1974. When the project was cancelled 115 orders from 25 air companies remained unfulfilled. In spite of the project cancellation, one of the Boeing 2707 wooden mock-ups, 1:1 scale, survived and has been exhibited at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California. The decision to give up the Boeing 2707 “supersonic dream” also generated a lot of fuss. Senator Gerald Ford claimed that it could have created 13.000 work places for the Americans during the first year of production, and 50.000 more during its second year. But the main problem was not work places or money, but the dream of an entire nation blowing up in smoke during times in which major transformations took place – landing on the moon, space rockets successful lift-offs and tragedies, immense progress in space programs. Abandoning Boeing 2707 project determined major disappointment for the whole American society. Today these facts may seem trivial, banalities encountered daily on social networks, but at that time all technological breakthroughs were breathlessly watched by the whole nation on black-and-white television screens.
Time proved that the moment had not come for a supersonic airliner yet. After years of service the Concorde left the stage, while the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 flew briefly, and after a crash it was retired from service as well. There were a few new projects in 2000, but they were put on stand-by by the astronomical estimated costs, because today such a project is no longer the dream of a nation, but rather dictated by the our everyday “master” – benefits vs. costs.
Photo credit: Boeing, American Aviation