Across the planet in 20 hours is fast enough, thanks by mattsteinglass
October 6, 2009, 10:16 am
Filed under: Technology

Michael Tomasky wants to know why plane travel hasn’t gotten any faster since the 707 in the late ’60s:

Off-topic post on transatlantic travel | Michael Tomasky | Comment is free | .

Matthew Yglesias has this right: there were already faster fighter planes in the late ’60s, and by the early ’70s you had the Concorde, but it turned out to be a huge waste of fuel. If you were really obsessed with getting from London to New York as fast as possible they could probably design a reentry vehicle to be placed on top of an ICBM that could get you to splashdown in the Hudson in half an hour; but wasting an entire multi-stage rocket and vast quantities of solid fuel to get a couple of guys to a meeting in Manhattan a little faster is a prospect that would only seem logical to…well, probably to most CEOs, actually, but at least a few of them would probably have trouble getting it past the shareholders.

For that matter it’s notable that fighter planes have actually gotten slower since the ’60s. That’s because back in the ’50s the cutting edge requirement of fighter design was to build jets that would be as fast as possible at intercepting enemy bombers so they didn’t reach your mainland and deliver their nuclear payloads. That led to the development of very fast interceptors like the US’s F-104 Starfighter and F-106 Dinosaurvaporizer (or whatever it was called) that were crap dogfighters but could get to big ol’ bombers very quickly at speeds well over Mach 2. Through the ’60s in the age of the F-4 Phantom and the Russian MiG-21 and MiG-23 any fighter worth its salt had to be able to do well over Mach 2; the Russian pure-interceptor MiG-25 could do Mach 2.8 (Mach 3 if you were willing to risk melting your engines). And the US started work on the prototype YF-12, which could do Mach 3 for sustained periods.

But by the ’60s the ICBM had become routinized as the delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads and everyone realized that super-fast interceptors (and supersonic bombers) were kind of pointless. What turned out to be much more important were maneuverability for dogfighting, excellent avionics (so pilots were more aware of what was going on), and flexibility in air-superiority or ground attack missions. So the US turned the YF-12 into a reconnaissance plane (the amazing SR-71 Blackbird, which remained in service through 1998 and could traverse the US coast to coast in 1 hour). Meanwhile in the 4th generation fighters designed in the ’70s, like the F-15 and F-16 and the Russian Su-24, speeds stayed pretty constant at a little over Mach 2 (the F-15 could still do Mach 2.5 in a pinch). In the last of the 4th generation American jets, the F-18, top speed actually slowed to Mach 1.8. And the next major fighter to come out of America was the F-117 Invisible Bat Tie-Fighter Nightmare (again, not quite sure on that nickname), which wasn’t even supersonic but had the notable advantage that because of newfangled stealth technology, you couldn’t see the damn thing. And the new 5th-generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, have max speeds at altitude of Mach 2.25 (slower than the F-15) and Mach 1.67. Because flying unbelievably fast just isn’t as important as people used to think it was.

Anyway, what I wonder is how come you often see people wondering why jets aren’t getting any faster, but you never see anyone wonder why metals aren’t getting any harder. I mean, from the bronze age up to titanium alloy steel you had all this amazing progress, and since then — nothing.


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I’d bet there are physical principals weight/thrust efficiencies of jet engines that also semi-limit speed.

Look at CPU clock speed. Why did the rate of increase dramatically slow down recently?
1971 100kHz processor 4004
1994 66MHz pentium 660X
2003 2-4 GHz Intel chips 60X

The fastest clock speeds you’ll see now are still 3-4 GHz. Why is a good question, but there is a lot of physics explaining it.

There are real limits to any technology and it’s useful to outline what they might be.

Comment by jimcaserta

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Jim mentions the physics as a limiting factor, most certainly physical chemistry limitations play a big part in this slowdown of moving humans through the ionosphere just as it does in slowing down the rate of microprocessing information. Due to the limitations of metal alloys, the SR-71 Blackbird is clothed in ceramic tiles that are able to dissipate the enormous heat built up from friction with the atmosphere. It is interesting that the plane must be refueled after take-off on every flight, not just because of the fuel requirement to get airborne but because the ceramic tile skin has not expanded from heat thoroughly, closing the tiles interstitial spaces, enough to hold fuel in the wing tanks. War aviation’s technological paradigm now is whether humans should even be in airplanes; faster responses versus in-situ decision making.

Progress is being made with other materials, considering the huge technological shift required to accommodate this transition, it is not a mystery that the progress in certain areas slows down for a period of time. Metals are giving way in their use to cloth, plastics, ceramics and specifically tailored organic and inorganic compounds depending on the specific physical/chemical requirements and needs. Within each of these developments we see a slowdown as the new application/technology is researched and developed. In computers, heat build up is the current limiting factor on processing speeds. The latest research exploring growing diamonds for chips, if successful, should witness a huge leap in computer processing speeds. Or perhaps people just need to catch their breathe.

Comment by kwautlizard

The Concorde (and the Soviet Concorde-ski) were basically 1960s technology. A lot of that tech turned out to be pretty good once the bugs were worked out, but as we discovered in the Vietnam War, a lot of that tech was unreliable in the 1960s. NASA canceled the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) a few years ago, but with supercruise technology and all that, sooner or later we’ll develop a fuel-efficient hypersonic transport.

Come to think of it, if oil prices didn’t spike after 1973, would supersonic airliners have taken off?

Comment by Michael Peck

Materials science is definitely not what’s holding back faster in-atmosphere propulsion. With reliable over-the-horizon tactical weapons (e.g., guided missiles, cruise missiles, etc.) you just need to get within 20-1000 miles of a target to have a good chance of taking it out. Similar to what you said, technological changes made it unnecessary to prioritize getting a pair of human eyeballs to a specific spot at breakneck speeds.

It’s taken the edge off needing it, and the margin for error/distance makes it so you’re willing to trade an extra .5 Mach for something else. It doesn’t mean people don’t want a Mach 10 fighter. Work continues on such things because it would still be cool and have a relative margin of value. There’s just no rush for it. scramjet tech is coming along nicely – we broke Mach 10 in 2004 in an unmanned vehicle. We’d probably find more value in having that kind of speed on a UAV.

Comment by dreamking

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