It's that time of year when some lucky Kiwis jet away from New Zealand's cold southerlies and fly off to warmer climates.

Recent developments in supersonic air travel could potentially bring our beautiful country closer to the world, and reduce the number of tedious hours spent on aircraft trying to get to Europe.

Inspired by a number of recent long air journeys, I set out to investigate the most promising supersonic developments and found three of note: Nasa is developing an extra-quiet supersonic jet; Airbus has filed a patent for a supersonic jet; and Virgin Galactic' s collaboration with Boom Technology promises supersonic flights in the very near future.

The pace of change in aerospace seems relatively slow compared with the seemingly continuous disruptions we experience in other sectors.


It wasn't always the case though - it took only 60 years from Richard Pearse and the Wright Brothers taking flight in the early 1900s to advance to the first supersonic commercial flight through Concorde.

Reaching speeds of up to 2179 km/h - more than twice the speed of sound - Concorde flew twice as fast as the modern jets we use today. Since Concorde's last flight in 2003, however, we have been slow in achieving greater speed.

One of the biggest challenges facing potential supersonic flight offerings is the noise created by the aircraft impacting people on the ground.

In the same way that a boat driving through the water creates a wake, planes flying through the air produce sound waves.

The speed of sound is constant with a given medium, so when a plane approaches the speed of sound, the sound waves in the air are pushed along in front of the plane, compressing against the air that is already there.

Planes flying faster than the sound barrier have highly compacted air in front of them, which radiates around the aeroplane as a shockwave and is heard as a loud "boom" when it reaches the ground.

Supersonic flying also creates huge engineering challenges - air pressure and friction create high surface temperatures outside the hull, for instance. Concorde heated up so much in flight that the walls of the cabin inside were warm to the touch, and the aluminium airframe expanded by up to 17cm in flight.

Advances in engineering and modern technology have helped create solutions for many of the problems that Concorde and other supersonic aircraft once had, and we can hope to see a greater rate of progress.


Upgrades in computational power mean that rather than physically building prototype aircraft components and testing each one in a wind tunnel, new theoretical aircraft shapes can be designed and modelled at low cost using computer simulations.

The heat-expanding aluminium has been replaced in aircraft structures with carbon fibre, the same material used for the America's Cup boats. Easier to shape, lighter, stronger and less conductive to heat, carbon fibre can enable supersonic aircraft can stay cooler and - through more complex shaping of components - produce quieter sonic booms during flight.

Even standard jet engines are now much more efficient and powerful, and no longer need to use an afterburner to create the large amount of thrust needed to propel the aircraft.

With a claim that its proof-of-concept supersonic jet will be flying by late 2018, Boom Technology is leading the commercial supersonic race, giving us hope that the future of flight is changing.

I, for one, would welcome greater speeds - and look forward to spending less time travelling and more time enjoying the places we want to be.