The Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, artists’ concept
Image: NASA

The biggest obstacle for supersonic passenger jets, apart from the cost, is the massively loud and very annoying sonic boom that these ultra-fast planes create as they blast over the landscape. Since the death of the Concorde, endless proposals have been offered over the years with no result. Here’s NASA’s new proposal.

Construction officially begins today on the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator, or LBFD, with a $247.5 million contract awarded to Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks division, according to a NASA press release. The idea is to create an experimental version of a supersonic civil airliner that would reduce (but not eliminate) supersonic booms, so that nobody is particularly annoyed when a New York to Los Angeles supersonic flight overflies the poor denizens of Oklahoma City.

And we need that, thanks to a series of experiments the United States government conducted on the poor denizens of Oklahoma City back in 1964. It’s a bit of a long and crazy story, but in short, the U.S. Air Force bombarded Oklahoma with up to eight sonic booms a day just to see how the population would react.

If they didn’t mind it, the thinking went, then there would be no problem with cross-continental supersonic flights. It all started as reasonably as it could, but because this was the U.S. government back in the 1960s, things rapidly got out of hand, as Gizmodo noted back in 2015:

The FAA rented eleven buildings in and around Oklahoma City, all outfitted with high-tech equipment for measuring the sonic booms. One home that was sitting directly under the flight path contained about $100,000 worth of recording instruments. Mobile van units were also on call and placed throughout the city.

Over the course of those six months the flights would become faster and faster, causing more damage and noise. Just as residents were getting used to the force and semi-regularity of getting blasted eight times per day, the Air Force would hit them with an even harder shock.

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There were more than 4,000 official damage claims. And these weren’t small damage claims, either. Just watch the Brazilian Air Force shatter a whole bunch of windows itself from a few years back:

A similar repair bill for every building in every city in the overflight zone every time an airliner flew over would not be ideal, to say the least.

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NASA says the new plane should make a “thud” or a “a quick series of soft thumps,” while Lockheed Martin says that at an altitude of 55,000 feet and a speed of Mach 1.4 (or approximately 940 mph) it “will generate a gentle, supersonic heartbeat instead of a sonic boom.”

The design of the LBFD should be reminiscent of a plane from a circa-2003 program called the Shaped Sonic Boom Experiment, which sought to design a plane that could significantly reduce the impact of a sonic boom. The result was this ugly modified F-5E Tiger II fighter jet, which was aesthetically burdened with what appears to be Jay Leno’s chin:

Photo: NASA

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But Jay Leno’s chin apparently worked, as the plane’s sonic boom was reduced by about a third, and NASA says that the thing “proved the boom-reducing theory was sound.” NASA says it even used a 150-year-old photographic technique to visually model sonic booms to help it research ways to mitigate the problem.

A schlieren image of a supersonic shockwave
Photo: NASA

Of course, not even good things can be good in this world. The U.S. government isn’t in the business of creating awesome shit you can go buy and experience right now, it’s in the business of creating awesome shit so that maybe an enterprising corporation can take that technology and use it to sell it maybe in a couple of decades or so. So you won’t be boarding an LFBD anytime soon on a flight to Winnipeg.

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Rather, it “will help NASA establish an acceptable commercial supersonic noise standard to overturn current regulations banning commercial supersonic travel over land,” Lockheed Martin says.

Whether or not we ever see it a civilian version is up to said big corporations. But they tend to like canceling these things more than actually building them, as people seem to like flying to LA in six hours just fine and don’t seem to be clamoring for a more expensive ticket just to get there in two.

The new X-plane will start flight tests in 2021. Here’s hoping you don’t notice it at all.

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A conceptual image of the aircraft
Image: Lockheed Martin