B y the late 1950s, the aerospace industry considered development of a supersonic aircraft to be a logical next step in aviation technology. The United States was determined to maintain its global leadership in commercial aviation, while other countries were equally determined to challenge US dominance. During the 1960s, the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union all committed large sums of money and technological effort to put a supersonic transport in the air. The results were decidedly mixed.


The Concorde, the product of an Anglo-French consortium, was the only commercial supersonic aircraft to achieve any success. Political considerations, including a formal treaty and national pride, made financial considerations less important than they would have been otherwise; conscious decisions were made to proceed even when it became apparent that neither development nor production costs would be recovered. Those costs were shared by two countries, lessening the financial burden for both. Good technical choices were made regarding speed, materials and wing shape. Proponents effectively defended the SST project during hearings on environmental concerns, although the Concorde was restricted to flying very limited routes, none of them over land. In early 2003, British Airways and Air France, citing declining passenger revenues and increased maintenance costs, announced they would retire their fleets of Concordes in October 2003.

Although the Soviets developed and flew a prototype, the Soviet Tupelovs failed for several reasons. A politicized development process focused on being the first to launch rather than on research into wing design and how to make the plane cleaner, quieter and more appealing to commercial customers. The SST also required almost all of its technology to be custom-built, a concept alien to the "design inheritance" approach of the Soviet aviation establishment. The Soviets could not make the necessary turbine blades or cooling systems at production levels and they lacked computers to do sophisticated modeling. It was the most expensive Soviet aircraft ever produced, and the enormous cost contributed to its failure. A spectacular crash of a prototype at the Paris Air Show in 1973 delivered the final blow.

The Boeing SST, on the other hand, was doomed by environmental, cost and technical concerns. Wing design problems plagued the program from the start, and the titanium specified for the airframe was both experimental and too expensive. The financial viability of an extremely expensive aircraft aimed at a small, affluent segment of the flying public was the subject of much debate. The SST consumed enormous amounts of jet fuel and fuel costs, exacerbated by the growing oil supply crisis, were climbing. Perhaps the most important factor was that the public at large, and environmentalists in particular, had become alarmed about sonic booms during flights, high levels of noise during take-offs and landings, and ozone depletion, and they effectively made their case to politicians who cut off funding in 1971.

Although some research into commercial supersonic aircraft continues, no solution is in sight to ongoing cost, noise and pollution problems.