NASA aims to end a 50-year old ban on supersonic civilian aircraft in the US

The agency's Quesst mission aims to develop a quieter Mach+ experience, devoid of supersonic booms.
Jijo Malayil
An illustration of NASA’s X-59
An illustration of NASA’s X-59


NASA is inching close to a solution that could help end the ban on all civilian supersonic flights over land in the United States. The agency's Quesst mission, which intends to develop a more silent supersonic airplane for commercial operations, is nearing its final developmental stages, the results of which will be submitted to regulators to reconsider the prohibition order. 

“It’s a rule that many people today aren’t aware of, yet it’s at the heart of what our Quesst mission with its quiet supersonic X-59 airplane is all about,” said Peter Coen, mission integration manager, said in a blog post. The aircraft is designed to fly Mach 1.4 with quieter booms, and the agency last December had finished the integration of its 13-foot-long engine with 22,000 pounds of thrust, sourced from General Electric Aviation.

The development comes as April 27, 2023, marked the 50th anniversary of a federal order that prohibited non-military aircraft from flying faster than the speed of sound and carrying out commercial operations. The ban was implemented after people complained of the excessive noise pollution and vibration, especially in cities, caused by the supersonic boom that occurred as such jets broke the sound barrier. 

According to NASA, during the period, various research projects had the potential to soften the impact of sonic booms, but "aeronautical technology during the 1960s and early 1970s wasn’t sophisticated enough to fully solve the problem in time to prevent the rule from being enacted." 

How the ban came into effect?

The supersonic era in the U.S. started after the XS-1 airplane broke the sound barrier in 1947, and with such experimental flights becoming common in the coming decade, the Air Force, Navy, NASA, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employed resources to study the effects of sonic booms in various conditions, and how the public in different locations reacted to such frequent disturbances. 

The U.S. federal government also initiated a plan to develop a Supersonic Transport or SST. The program was initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the proposal intended to develop a new commercial supersonic aircraft with a capacity of 300 passengers, carrying them at a pace exceeding three times the speed of sound.

In a major setback to such developments, in 1968, a supersonic flight by an F-105 Thunderchief passing 50 feet over school premises in Colorado blew out 200 windows and injured a dozen people. Public outcry in the subsequent years led to the SST program getting scrapped in 1971 and a blanket ban on civil supersonic flights over land in 1973. 

A supersonic experience without sonic booms

NASA is hoping that new standards with respect to supersonic flights will force lawmakers to reconsider the age-old ban as newer technologies can now ensure such flights without sonic booms that could affect anyone below. 

"Instead of a rule-based solely on speed, we are proposing the rule be based on sound. If the sound of a supersonic flight isn’t loud enough to bother anyone below, there’s no reason why the airplane can’t be flying supersonic," said Coen. 

NASA with its Quesst mission, is on the path of proving that the technology works, and plans to conduct community overflights and public surveys to change perceptions against such aircraft. 

More than public acceptance of supersonic flights, NASA is keeping an eye out to solve the issue related to airport noise, emissions, and climate impact, for such a mission to become a reality. According to the agency, the first item to tick off is lifting the half-century-old ban on supersonic flight over land. 

“We are very excited to be making this big step forward, but we recognize that more needs to be done,” said Coen. 

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