What Happened To Boeing’s Proposed Supersonic Jet?
December 18, 2021
By Justin Hayward, Simple Flying
Supersonic travel has been on hold since the retirement of Concorde in 2003. The European-built Concorde and the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 have been the only commercial supersonic aircraft to date. With US companies leading the way for the next supersonic revival, you may wonder where they were the first time around. There was a plan for a US-built supersonic jet – the Boeing 2707 – but it was canceled before any were built.
The first supersonic race
Operating flagship routes with British Airways and Air France from 1976 until 2003, Concorde is undoubtedly the most well-known supersonic commercial aircraft. It was not the only attempt at supersonic flight at that time, though.
Supersonic travel first took place in October 1947, with Chuck Yeager flying the US Air Force Bell X-1 at Mach 1.06. This started the race to develop supersonic aircraft – both for military and commercial use. The United States, Soviet Union, and Europe all began projects during the 1950s and 1960s to develop supersonic commercial aircraft. Two of these resulted in aircraft that flew for many years, though with more limited commercial success than initially hoped for.
Concorde took its first flight in 1969 and entered service in 1976, jointly with British Airways and Air France. Although it only ever flew with these two airlines, this was not the original intention. Before launch, Concorde had around 100 options from 18 airlines. These were all canceled (mostly by 1975).
The Soviet Union launched the Tupolev Tu-144 two months before Concorde. It offered an impressive specification – a slightly higher speed (Mach 2.15 compared to 2.04), higher capacity (140 compared to 100), and a slightly longer range. It was very costly and inefficient to operate, though, mainly as it relied on afterburners for the whole flight. It only ever operated with Aeroflot, and only on one route between Moscow and Almaty. It left passenger service in 1978 but still flew until 1999.
The Boeing 2707
The US also had ambitions for supersonic aircraft. There was a proposal from Lockheed (amongst others) for the L-2000 jet with a delta wing design. This lost out to Boeing’s proposal for the Super Sonic Transport (SST) aircraft, or Boeing 2707.
It was planned as a much larger aircraft than Concorde, with a capacity of 292 in two classes. It also pushed the range further and took speed up to approximately Mach 3.
It was popular too, with 122 orders from 26 airlines. This included plenty of orders from the leading US airlines – Pan American ordered 15 aircraft, TWA ordered 12, United Airlines six, Northwest six, American Airlines six, Continental Airlines, three, and Delta Air Lines three. Several of these airlines also had orders for Concorde. Had it worked out, Boeing’s aircraft would have been much more prevalent in the US, though.
Canceling the 2707 project
As we know, the Boeing 2707 was never to take to the skies, despite its higher order volume. In May 1971, the US House of Representatives voted to stop funding the project. Boeing had not even completed the prototypes it was working on. Concorde, of course, went on to be built, so why was Boeing’s project canceled? Several factors came together to influence the decision.
A significant factor was the ongoing economic crisis and the rising price of oil at the time. The SST (like Concorde and the Tu-144) was fuel-hungry, and there were strong fears about the viability of this. Alongside this, there had also been environmental opposition. The noise pollution and sonic boom also remained a problem. This was never solved and hampered Concorde’s success in the US too. It remains a challenge today with new supersonic developments.
Commercial factors played into it as well. Boeing was also developing the 747 at the time, and this offered a different market proposition of higher capacity and lower fares. Challenges in the design of the 2707, such as the need for lighter materials, did not affect the 747.
Influence on Concorde
Many of these factors also influenced Concorde’s limited success. In the years after the Boeing 2707 was canceled, all options for Concorde apart from those of British Airways and Air France were canceled. Lack of confidence following Boeing’s cancellation certainly influenced this. As did the crash of a Tupolev Tu-144 aircraft while demonstrating at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Airline attention shifted to the high capacity and low fare model, with aircraft like the 747 becoming a huge success.
Concorde was a flagship offering for the two airlines it flew with – something the US airlines never had. It never returned its massive investment cost, so perhaps the US government was right to drop the 2707. Concorde did make a profit for the operating airlines, however. In a good year, British Airways made £30-50m ($37-61m) profit from Concorde; Air France slightly less.