Boeing B-2707. How it all started
The birth of Boeing B-2707 started in November 1960, when the French and British governments announced the launch of a joint project for building a jet airliner – a supersonic one, reaching Mach 2 speed. The project name is Concorde. This piece of news caused rumors 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 a matter of national pride for the Americans to respond to the European challenges. Still, it was a “matter of survival” if they considered the Russian project since we are talking of an era in which the Cold War was at its hottest development point. And if one managed to build a supersonic airliner for passengers, a military aircraft wouldn’t be such a big challenge. Consequently, the American aeronautical industry concentrated on the supersonic dream.
Boeing B-2707. Development and failure
In 1961 Douglas Aircraft developed a supersonic concept that would reach Mach 3. They were convinced they would materialize their idea until 1970, and their sales would explode. Despite their optimism, the government chose two other projects as finalists – one from Boeing and the other from Lockheed Martin, 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. At the same time, 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 increases, the wings fold neatly, creating a delta-wing plane with minimal air friction at supersonic speed. When the time came to translate all this theory into practice, significant problems arose due to technological challenges and high costs. These would eventually “bury” the Boeing B-2707 and the American dream of a supersonic airliner. But for the moment, Boeing won the “design competition” with their variable-sweep wing, which is how the Boeing B-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 a bigger bite than it could chew. To make matters even more complicated, the technological problems that arose for the B-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. In contrast, the B-2707 would have to carry 300 passengers. Then there were the engines – the fuel consumption would be extremely high, making it impossible for the airliner to cross the Atlantic without air refueling – an obstacle that Concorde had to surpass. The engineers devised a simple solution – the plane would not cross oceans; it would be used only for terrestrial routes. But this caused only more problems – the supersonic aircraft would exceed all known environmental pollution norms. We are talking about the ’60s when the standards 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 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 another problem that no one had considered 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 B-2707. The same problem determined Air France and British Airways to retire the Concorde in 2003 since the aircraft was not profitable. They could no longer afford the luxury of throwing money out the window just for the pride of operating a supersonic airliner.
Boeing planned to implement the B-2707 as a passenger airliner, and the B-747 would be turned into a cargo airplane. The complications of the supersonic design determined them to give up the idea of a variable-sweep wing. They turned their full attention to the delta wing in a desperate attempt to finally make the plane fly. Despite all these measures and President Nixon’s support of the concept, the American Senate began to lose its patience for this project. They voted to cut off the funds on May 20th, 1971. By then, only two 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 canceled, 115 orders from 25 air companies remained unfulfilled. Despite the project cancellation, one of the wooden mock-ups, 1:1 scale, survived and has been exhibited at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.
Boeing B-2707. The end of a dream
The decision to give up the “supersonic dream” also generated a lot of fuss. Senator Gerald Ford claimed that the Boeing 2707 project could have created 13.000 workplaces for Americans during the first year of production and 50.000 more during its second year. The main problem was not workplaces or money but the dream of an entire nation blowing up in smoke during times of significant transformations: landing on the moon, space rocket successful lift-offs and tragedies, and immense progress in space programs. Abandoning this project determined considerable disappointment for the whole of 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 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. After a crash, it was retired from service. There were a few new projects in 2000. Still, they were put on standby by the astronomical estimated costs because today, such a project is no longer the dream of a nation but rather dictated by our every day “master” – benefits vs. costs.