A biplane may be the quietest way to break the sound barrier

For 27 years, the Concorde provided its passengers with a rare luxury: time saved. For a pricey fare, the sleek supersonic jet ferried its ticketholders from New York to Paris in a mere three-and-a-half hours — just enough time for a nap and an aperitif. Over the years, expensive tickets, high fuel costs, limited seating and noise disruption from the jet’s sonic boom slowed interest and ticket sales. On Nov. 26, 2003, the Concorde — and commercial supersonic travel — retired from service.

Since then, a number of groups have been working on designs for the next generation of supersonic jets. Now an MIT researcher has come up with a concept that may solve many of the problems that grounded the Concorde. Qiqi Wang, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, says the solution, in principle, is simple: Instead of flying with one wing to a side, why not two?

Wang and his colleagues Rui Hu, a postdoc in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Antony Jameson, a professor of engineering at Stanford University, have shown through a computer model that a modified biplane can, in fact, produce significantly less drag than a conventional single-wing aircraft at supersonic cruise speeds…

This decreased drag, according to Wang, means the plane would require less fuel to fly. It also means the plane would produce less of a sonic boom…

With Wang’s design, a jet with two wings — one positioned above the other — would cancel out the shock waves produced from either wing alone. Wang credits German engineer Adolf Busemann for the original concept. In the 1950s, Busemann came up with a biplane design that essentially eliminates shock waves at supersonic speeds…

The team’s next step is to design a three-dimensional model to account for other factors affecting flight. While the MIT researchers are looking for a single optimal design for supersonic flight, Wang points out that a group in Japan has made progress in designing a Busemann-like biplane with moving parts: The wings would essentially change shape in mid-flight to attain supersonic speeds.

Between fuel savings and quiet transition to supersonic speed it would be terrific to have a plane capable of Concorde-level service once again. Not that I’m interested in ever flying again until we rid that transportation mode of governance by paranoids.

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