The Perfect Airplane
Fast, green, and quiet. Come on, brainiacs, you can do it.
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
Reaction Engines Ltd/Adrian Mann
(Page 4 of 4)
The airliner of the future, then, is a combination of design studies that may or may not result in practical devices and vehicles, chancy schemes for reducing sonic booms, and alternative fuels that may be too expensive to produce on a mass scale. In light of which, one has to wonder if the prospect of propelling thousands of people daily across vast distances at tremendous speeds while bothering no one and leaving the environment no worse off is anything more than a dream. While such a goal doesn’t seem to violate any known law of nature, there are other laws that need to be considered: Murphy’s Law, Hofstadter’s Law (“It always takes longer than you expect, even if you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”), and the Almost-Law-of-Nature, which states that research-and-development costs are always far greater in the end than they were expected to be in the beginning. (The Concorde supersonic transport, for example, was six times more costly to develop than it was initially projected to be.)
Even so, hypersonics might be inching toward reality. David M. Van Wie of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory was an organizer of a 2008 international conference on hypersonic systems and technologies, from which emerged a distinct message. “The big takeaway we’re able to observe right now is that these hypersonic technologies are moving out of laboratories and into flight test demonstration,” says Van Wie. “Technologies that have been for years and years studied in wind tunnels, and by people doing analysis, are now being explored in flight experiments. Not at the level of airplanes yet, but in drones and rocket-propelled test vehicles.”
So when will we be flying the airliner of the future? The Europeans already have the answer: by the year 20XX.
Ed Regis is the author of seven science books, most recently What Is Life? Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology (Oxford University Press, 2008).