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Startups and NASA working to return passenger supersonic flights to the sky

Putting supersonic flights back in the air
Startups, NASA pursuing supersonic commercial flight 13:40

If you have ever suffered through what felt like an endless flight on a cramped plane, you might jump at the chance to get to your destination in half the time. Does New York to Los Angeles in under three hours sound appealing?

The last commercial supersonic flight was almost 20 years ago, and even then super-fast flights were only on very limited routes. Most of today's jetliners actually fly more slowly than they did 20 or 30 years ago, in order to save fuel.

But that may be about to change. It's still a long shot, but as we first reported last November, private start-up companies – with a big assist from nasa - may just give us all another chance to fly faster than the speed of sound. 

When British Airways Flight 002 roared into the New York sky on October 24, 2003, everyone on board - passengers and pilots - knew that something special was coming to an end.

PILOT: Enjoy the moment, as you are the last people in the world, as passengers, to cruise at twice the speed of sound.

The supersonic Concorde, a joint effort of the British and French governments, was making its last flight after nearly 30 years in the air, grounded by a combination of stratospheric costs and safety concerns after a deadly crash in 2000. Even people watching that last landing in London were emotional.

KID (in tears): I just love airplanes.

INTERVIEWER: And there's not going to be anything like Concorde again, is there?

KID: Never.

Well, you know that old maxim "never say never?"

Blake Scholl: Supersonic's coming back. And it's gonna be different this time. It's-- it's back to stay.

Blake Scholl is the founder and CEO of Boom. His audacious goal is to build a new supersonic airliner, from scratch.

Blake Scholl

Bill Whitaker: Has a private company ever built-- a supersonic aircraft--

Blake Scholl: No.

Bill Whitaker: --anywhere?

Blake Scholl: No, nowhere. It's been governments and militaries only.   

Boom is not the only American startup company in the new supersonic sweepstakes. Spike is developing an ultra-fast business jet, and Hermeus aspires to make a hypersonic plane that would fly five times the speed of sound. But Boom is the only entrant to actually build an airplane. 

Bill Whitaker: This is it?

Boom's aircraft

Blake Scholl: That's it.

Bill Whitaker: Oh wow.

So far, Blake Scholl and Boom have built this single-seater test plane, which they hope will fly this year. The passenger jet meant to follow is called Overture. It only exists in artist renderings, but it's real enough for one of America's largest airlines to climb on board.

Bill Whitaker: So is the Overture the plane that United recently ordered?

Blake Scholl: That's right. United just ordered 15 Overture airplanes. So more Overtures than Concordes were ever delivered into service.

Bill Whitaker: Is this United deal like-- a stamp of approval?

Blake Scholl: I think it's incredibly validating. You know, when you are United, you take-- you take these things really seriously.

Seriously enough to produce a slick promotional video that's already playing on many United flights.

The ad may say supersonic is here, but it's not, not yet. Blake Scholl is a software engineer who started his career at Amazon, not in aerospace, but he insists he's going to make it happen.

Blake Scholl: When I look several decades out, you know, what I want is to be able to be anywhere in the world in four hours for 100 bucks. Now, that's not where we start. But that's the end goal.

Bill Whitaker: The Concorde charged thousands-- thousands of dollars for a one-way flight from New York to London. How is it going to be possible for you to have a similar flight experience for $100?

Blake Scholl: You keep iterating. And so the same way-- you know, for example, electric cars when they first came out, they were pretty expensive. But we kept working on them. And the price came down. They got better and better. And so we're gonna do the same thing with supersonic jets. We're gonna keep working on them. We're gonna keep innovating.

Jon Ostrower: This industry needs people dreaming big. That is essential. This industry was built on that. 

  Jon Ostrower

Jon Ostrower is editor-in-chief of The Air Current, a publication that tracks every development in commercial aviation, including Boom and Blake Scholl.

Bill Whitaker: He admits that it's-- something like he is proposing has never been done by-- a private company before. But yet, he's convinced that he can do it. Do you think he can?

Jon Ostrower: I think you cannot ignore the obstacles that will be on the path to getting there. And I think the amount of money that is-- is required to make this happen-- makes this a very long shot.

Bill Whitaker: How much money will it take?

Jon Ostrower: Probably in the neighborhood of at least $15 or $20 billion. 

Ostrower says that's about what it cost Boeing to develop and build and certify a new subsonic airliner. And they already have huge manufacturing facilities, Boom doesn't.

Blake Scholl told us he can get Overture built for $7 to $8 billion, but that's a lot more than the $300 million he's raised so far. And money's not the only hurdle. Boom and United have promised their new plane will operate on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, but that doesn't exist yet in anything like the quantities they'll need. Oh, and one other thing...

Jon Ostrower: They're gonna need an engine to do this.

Bill Whitaker: And they don't have the engine yet—

Jon Ostrower: They don't have an engine.

Blake Scholl says an engine is on the way, from the same company that built the supersonic engines for the concorde.

Blake Scholl: And we are working with Rolls Royce on a-- custom jet engine that will power Overture.

Bill Whitaker: You're working with Rolls Royce. It-- it doesn't ex-- this engine does not exist yet.

Blake Scholl: It is a-- it is a lightly customized engine. And part of that is Rolls Royce's work where they're kind of turning some design knobs.

Blake Scholl doesn't dismiss the skeptics, but he points to the example of Elon Musk and says not so long ago no one thought he could build Teslas and reusable rockets.

Bill Whitaker: Where does this passion come from?

Blake Scholl: It's because we stopped making progress on the speed of travel. You know, the airplanes we have today are no faster than the ones we had when my parents were growing up. And there is no good reason for that. It doesn't have to be. We can fix it.

Bill Whitaker: When do you expect the first paying customers to fly on one of your planes?

Blake Scholl: By the end of the decade.

Supersonic really only makes sense on flights of 4 or 5 hours or more. But thousands of such routes are out of reach to Boom. The reason is in the very name of the company: The sound of a sonic boom created by a plane breaking the sound barrier.

The first boom was made by Chuck Yeager's X-1 rocket plane when it passed through mach one – about 660 miles per hour - back in 1947.

Bill Whitaker: What is the sonic boom? What-- what generates it?

Mike Buonanno: So when an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound it creates disturbances.

Mike Buonanno is a top engineer at Lockheed Martin's "Skunk Works" aircraft design studio in California. Dave Richardson is his boss.

Mike Buonanno and Dave Richardson

David Richardson: A lot of us understand the wake that's generated by a ship or a boat. And so imagine that wake from a speed boat or whatever, all those different waves coming to be one large wave.

Mike Buonanno: Those individual disturbances created up by the airplane, they combine together to make a loud double bang.

The Federal Aviation Administration tested the impact of that big bang back in 1964, by flying military supersonic jets over Oklahoma City for six months. The outcome? Broken bricks and ceilings, frayed nerves and public outrage.

Mike Buonanno: It was just patently obvious that no one was gonna tolerate such a loud noise on a day-to-day basis.

The result was a ban on civilian supersonic flights everywhere in the world other than over open water.

Mike Buonanno: And that basically hit the brakes on the development of commercial air travel in terms of an advancing speed. Up until-- that ban, every decade air travel had gotten faster and faster.

The ban remains in place today, so if Boom gets its overture in the air, it will only be able to serve long transoceanic routes similar to what the Concorde flew.

Mike Buonanno: So if you want to go from JFK in New York to Paris, that's-- okay. But for many of us, we wanna fly places over land. Here living in Los Angeles, almost everywhere I wanna go-- flying east requires over land travel. And that's one of the big problems that we're trying to solve.

Buonanno and Richardson and their Lockheed Martin team have been commissioned by NASA to build a test plane that can fly twice as fast as current airliners without rattling nerves or breaking windows.

Bill Whitaker: Your mission is to get rid of this sonic boom?

Mike Buonanno: That's right. The entire point of the airplane-- is to reduce sonic boom. 

The airplane is called the X-59. It will look like this when it makes its first flight later this year. For now, it looks like this, inside Lockheed Martin's assembly building. 

David Richardson: You're looking at the cockpit of the airplane, and there's no forward windscreen. This is it.

Every part of the X-59 is streamlined and smooth to disperse sound waves and transform the loud sonic boom into a much quieter "thump."

  Nils Larson

Nils Larson: If you look at it, it's pretty slick. I mean, it looks like a dart.

Nils Larson is the NASA test pilot whose job it will be to prove that the X-59 can replace the sonic boom with a simple thump. Later this year he'll pilot some of the early test flights and then its first sound tests.

Nils Larson: That's coming to a town near you. So our researchers are gonna work with the public and we're going to fly over various cities and towns, and they're gonna give us the feedback of that thump. Was that thump too loud? You know, did you even hear it at all?

Bill Whitaker: So if you are able to fly over populated areas, and provide this data, then the FAA will use this data, perhaps, to lift this ban?

Nils Larson: Exactly.

Bill Whitaker: Are we likely to see planes in the future flying supersonic that look like this one?

Nils Larson: I certainly hope so. And I think you will.  So there are definite things that you would see, if you walked into a commercial, you know, supersonic airplane here, you know, ten, 12 years from now, and you were to look at that, you could see, you know, some DNA that goes back to the X-59.

Larson took us over to NASA's X-59 flight simulator, and the first thing we noticed is that there's a TV screen in place of the missing windshield.

Bill Whitaker: For you, does it work as well as--

Nils Larson:  Yeah, I think--

Bill Whitaker: --using your own eyes?

Nils Larson:  So far, I think it does. About to go through mach one. There's mach one. You know, you see--

Bill Whitaker:  So we're now going supersonic.

Nils Larson:  Yup, you're now supersonic.

Larson gave me a turn in the cockpit, not to fly supersonic but to land the X-59, which is tricky given that it's shaped like a pencil, has no windshield and I'm not a pilot.

Nils Larson: Come up, follow them up just a little bit. So pull back just a little bit, little bit more. And just hold it right there. Hold it right there. There you go. You just landed the X59. And in the middle--

Bill Whitaker: I landed--

Nils Larson:  --of the runway.

Bill Whitaker: --I landed the--

Nils Larson:  --that's better than I did. (LAUGH) Sign him up.

Nils Larson will start test-flying the real X-59 later this year. And soon after that, he'll be flying it over us. And if it's quiet enough, future planes that follow its design lead could eventually fly us lots of places twice as fast as we can get there now.

Bill Whitaker: When might I be able to fly from New York to Los Angeles in a supersonic plane--

David Richardson:  So there's-- there's a long line of things that have to happen, starting with the X-59. But I think 2035 is your answer, if everything marches along the way that it's supposed to.

Bill Whitaker: It's something that people have been trying to solve for-- for decades. Have you guys solved that problem?

Mike Buonanno: We believe we have. It's rewarding seeing it getting built. But I think that real "aha" moment for me is gonna be when I hear that first shaped boom from X-59.

Bill Whitaker: Thump, thump.

Mike Buonanno: Thump, thump.

David Richardson: We won't hear this BANG. And when we hear, or don't hear, that sound is when we know we did it. 

Lockheed Martin and NASA plan the first test flights of their X-59 sometime this year. 

For its part, Boom has chosen the location for the factory where it intends to build the Overture airliner: Greensboro, North Carolina. But it still doesn't have an engine for the Overture. 

Produced by Rome Hartman. Associate producer, Sara Kuzmarov. Broadcast associate, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Robert Zimet.

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