The high-speed aircraft is expected to fly three times faster than the speed of sound.

By Stefanie Waldek
August 03, 2020
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Between 1976 and 2003, a transatlantic flight between New York and London took just three hours. Today, it typically takes more than twice as long. For those three decades, folks could fly the Concorde, an aircraft that whisked passengers through the sky at twice the speed of sound, but the plane was a rare instance in which old technology was simply too far ahead of its time. The Concorde was retired without a successor after it became too costly to operate and maintain, and since then, no commercial planes have gone supersonic.

But times have changed, and technology is finally catching up to speed. Today, Virgin Galactic debuted the preliminary design for a supersonic passenger jet — one that looks more like a spacecraft from the Jetsons than an airplane (appropriate, given that Virgin Galactic is primarily a spaceflight company). The sleek aircraft shares with Concorde not only a sweeping delta-wing design, but also an engine manufacturer. For the aircraft’s propulsion system, Virgin Galactic will partner with Rolls-Royce, who also developed the engines for Concorde.

Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Galactic
Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

The aircrafts’ similarities, however, end there. Virgin Galactic’s supersonic plane is expected to fly at Mach 3, or roughly 2,300 miles per hour — far faster than Concorde’s Mach 2, or approximately 1,500 miles per hour — at a cruising altitude of 60,000 feet. At that speed, the plane could fly between New York and London in under two hours. It will also carry far fewer passengers than Concorde did: somewhere between nine and 19, compared to Concorde’s 92 to 128, depending on the configuration. But while Concorde only had one cabin class, Virgin Galactic’s plane will be able to accommodate business- or first-class seats.

Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

The new supersonic aircraft will be developed by Virgin Galactic’s The Spaceship Company (TSC), which also designed the company’s SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-powered spaceplane that is scheduled to carry passengers to space as soon as the end of this year. While that vehicle is in its final testing phase, the supersonic passenger jet has years of development to go before it can even be considered for commercial use. But there’s certainly strong movement in the right direction. With the release of the aircraft’s design, Virgin Galactic announced that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the company’s Mission Concept Review (MCR), allowing the development of the aircraft to proceed to the next phase.

Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

“We are pleased to collaborate with the innovative team at Rolls-Royce as we strive to develop sustainable, cutting-edge propulsion systems for the aircraft, and we are pleased to be working with the FAA to ensure our designs can make a practical impact from the start,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief space officer, said in a statement. “We have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high-speed travel.”