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Here Comes Superplane

July 2024
6min read

For a very long time it has been supposed that man could adjust himself to almost anything in the way of speed, noise, or financial outlay, just to get from one place to another in the least possible time. But the giant supersonic transport, the S.S.T., as it is known, is clearly something else again, and though President Nixon and others have said that the nation simply must have the superplane to maintain technological superiority in the skies, a growing number of Americans are questioning whether the plane itself is really necessary and, indeed, whether our national commitment to build it may be the beginning of a historic blunder of phenomenal proportions. In fact, Friends of the Earth, a new national conservation group with headquarters in New York, has singled out the S.S.T. as its first major target.

Promised by 1978, this superplane will carry three hundred passengers and cruise at eighteen hundred miles per hour at a stratospheric altitude of more than sixty thousand feet. The advance publicity indicates that it will be quiet enough inside, but outside it will lay down a continuous wave of sonic boom throughout the entire length of its flight. The total width of one S.S.T.’s wake of noise will be approximately fifty miles. For anyone caught in its path, the loudness of the sonic blast will be about equivalent to having a Boeing 707 roar three hundred feet over your living room, but the boom will come all at once and without warning, since the full impact of it is felt before the plane is seen or heard.

Yet the Air Force has called the boom “the sound of progress,” just as early industrial air polluters announced that “smoke means jobs.” The Boeing Company, manufacturer of the S.S.T. airframe, has described the boom as the sound of the twentieth century. And Major General Jewell C. Maxwell, the Federal Aviation Administration’s former director for S. S.T. development, once predicted that people could learn to live with the boom—and maybe even love it.

Since President Kennedy first advocated the plane’s development in 1963, the U.S. government has clearly committed itself to footing the bill for 78 per cent of a l.65-billion-dollar research and development program. At the request of the Nixon administration Congress authorized eighty-five million dollars in new funds for the program this fiscal year and at the same time cut much-needed funds for urban mass transportation grants. Some economists predict that another three billion dollars will be spent before the first commercial S.S.T.’s are in the air.

Once in production, a single S.S.T. will cost about forty million dollars. An F. A. A. fact sheet projects a five-hundred-plane program by 1990, which means that the United States anticipates twenty billion dollars in sales, or more than enough to recoup its investment. Furthermore, twelve of those billions are anticipated from sales to foreign carriers. “However,” the F.A.A. warns ominously, “if the U.S. S.S.T. is not built, U.S. flag carriers would buy more Concordes [the smaller Anglo-French supersonic jet already flight tested] and a total unfavorable swing of about $16 billion in balance of trade would occur.” General Maxwell put a different twist on the balance-of-payments situation. In a mood reminiscent of George F. Babbitt’s speech to the Rotarians, the general advised a New York City audience that one S.S.T. sold abroad could offset thousands of imported cases of Scotch or virtually hundreds of foreign-made automobiles. But the general had no comment on what effect this same S.S.T. might have on the outflow of U.S. gold as it whisks thousands of Americans— and their dollars—to vacations abroad.

It was last September that President Nixon announced flatly that the superplane was indeed going to be built. For fifty years, he said, the United States has led the world in air transport. “I want to continue to lead …” he added. “After listening to all these arguments, I am convinced technical problems will be solved.” But some of the President’s advisers are not so sure. Mr. Nixon’s own appointees to a special S.S.T. panel generally took the position that the superplane was economically—and environmentally—unsound. Their report, secreted away in the U.S. Department of Transportation, was finally uncovered and made public by Representative Henry S. Reuss, Democrat from Wisconsin, who called the report a “resounding nonendorsement of the S.S.T.”

The panel found, among other things, that “the effects of sonic boom are such as to be considered intolerable by a very high percentage of the people affected.” It also warned that people living within thirteen miles of an S.S.T. airport would be subjected to unacceptable levels of noise. And panelist Hendrik S. Houthakker, a member of Mr. Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, strongly challenged the advisability of going forward with the S.S.T. when budget needs for more down-to-earth programs were so great. “We do not believe,” he wrote in a letter accusing the Transportation Department of distorting the panel’s views in a draft report, “that our prestige abroad will be enhanced by a concentration on white elephants.”

Yet the S.S.T. seems to have its own momentum, and Mr. Nixon is not the only President to be scooped up in its path. Lyndon Johnson also ignored the report of his own study group, which advised that “there is absolutely no justification for building this plane.” Since Mr. Nixon’s inexplicable decision, the outcry against the S.S.T. has grown in volume. “The administration talks about saving money,” said Senator J. W. Fulbright of Arkansas, “and then decides to allocate huge sums for this plane.” Representative Bertram Podell of Brooklyn wondered publicly how the administration could “torpedo” the proposed urban mass-transit trust fund, yet subsidize a vehicle that will “allow us to cross the ocean in two hours so we may be stuck in traffic jams for three.” But perhaps the most telling commentary to date was delivered by a Stanford University law professor, William F. Baxter, who observed in a recent issue of the Stanford Law Review:

Present governmental generosity toward the SST program is a discouraging comment on our sense of national priorities: It may soon be possible to fly from Watts to Harlem in two hours and to disrupt the lives of everyone in between.

Superplane enthusiasts discount the latter possibility. John Volpe, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has pledged that there will be no overland flights by S.S.T.’s until the sonic boom has been brought within “acceptable limits.” But at this writing Volpe has yet to define what he means by acceptable limits. Moreover, there is no foreseeable technological solution to the sonic-boom problem. A National Academy of Sciences committee reported after two years of study that “prospects for dramatic reduction in the intensities of sonic boom … are not readily apparent.” It is the inevitable result of propelling a heavy object through the air at such a speed (faster than the typical air molecule travels) that the air in front of the object is thrust aside in a few millionths of a second instead of flowing around the plane in the usual manner. The result is a sudden shock wave, a hurtling wall of compressed air, and there seems no way to avoid it.

The second fallacy of the pro-S.S.T. argument is that supersonic flights will necessarily be restricted to over-water routes. Who, including Mr. Volpe, will enforce such a restriction when (and there is only a negligible “if”) the carriers begin to complain that they are losing not only their shirts, but the taxpayers’ as well? Many observers believe the superplane will be incapable of turning a profit unless it flies over land. And finally, there is the curious assumption that people on ships at sea, or on islands, will somehow suffer less from the boom simply because there are fewer of them. An S.S.T. flight across the North Atlantic would “boom” some four thousand persons, which, of course, in terms of numbers would be preferable to the ten million Americans who might expect to be boomed by a coast-to-coast flight.

A sampling of past sonic-boom incidents suggests what may be expected when the superplane begins upholding the nation’s aeronautical superiority:

May, 1968: Fifty thousand dollars’ worth of windows shattered—appropriately enough during graduation exercises at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Injured: fifteen persons. The culprit: an F-105 flying at an altitude of five hundred feet.

August, 1967: Three persons killed in the collapse of a barn in Mauran, France. The culprit: a sonic boom of unknown origin.

August, 1966: In Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, eighty tons of rock loosened on ancient Indian cliff dwellings; many caves damaged irreparably. More damage recorded in the time since then. The culprit: Strategic Air Command supersonic bombers.

January, 1965: Gordon Bains, then director of the S.S.T. program, is at White Sands Missile Range explaining to reporters that persons who claimed their property was damaged by sonic booms often were victims of their own imaginations. “I believe,” he is saying, “that there’s a great deal of psychology in this.” Suddenly, five hundred feet overhead, an F-104 punctures the sound barrier. Two plate-glass windows blow out, cancelling Bains’s banter.

But Professor Baxter of Stanford may have come even closer to the representative situation when he observed:

All the cracked $5 windowpanes, all the dinner dishes dropped on kitchen floors as a consequence of startled reactions, all the millions of hours of sleep lost while comforting frightened children, the razor-nicked chins, the interrupted concerts, the hammered thumbs, the crest-fallen cakes and omelets— all these will produce not litigation but at most a silent curse at the industry, at the FAA, or at a society that seems to many to have confused technology with civilization.

By some accounts the damage claims against the industry may run to two million dollars a day in the United States alone. And there will also be the as yet immeasurable, unlitigable effects upon man himself, be he ever so adaptable.

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