|In the early years of the jet era, some visionaries in the American aviation industry were already looking to the day when commercial jets would fly faster than the speed of sound which would allow them to cross the Atlantic in under five hours. These visionaries’ dreams would remain just dreams in the end. Although Congress finally provided funding to Boeing for the creation of the first prototype in late 1965, the funding would be cut by a more environmentally-friendly Congress before the first American SST (Supersonic Transport) would be built.
In the early 1960s, the British and French agreed to produce their own SST called Concorde. The Soviets used their own know-how and the not inconsiderable efforts of the KGB to produce their own version called the Tu-144 which has the distinction of being the first commercial SST flown. The race between them was legendary.
Competition At Home
Talk is cheap but Congress put your money where its collective mouth was when it appropriated $100M in the fiscal 1964 budget toward the development of the American SST and in October of ’63, TWA and Pan Am stepped forward with $2.1M towards the purchase of 21 SSTs. The question then became who is going to build it? North American already had a remarkable military SST known as the Valkyrie, but Boeing beat out the Lockheed L-2000 and the North American NAC-60 (Douglas was too strapped for cash to compete) for the contract. Boeing would one day wish it hadn’t won.
While Boeing had to notice the breakneck pace the Soviets and Anglo/French teams were proceeding at in a race to be the first with a supersonic transport, Boeing proceeded at a more deliberate pace believing that by delivering the biggest, fastest, and most efficient design, they would quickly recapture any market share temporarily lost to the Europeans. It’s also true that they could not actually get innovative design they had won with to work!
Lockheed’s SST team members, which had all moved on to other projects, were none too amused when the “new” SST Boeing came up with in lieu of the failed design looked a lot like the original Lockheed L-2000!
The Air Force conducted a six month experiment with military SSTs in Oklahoma during 1964 to see what the effects of constant sonic boom (created when the aircraft goes faster than the speed of sound) would be. The results? Over 8,000 complaints and 5,000 claims for damages. The Air Force noted that they recieved complaints even on days when they weren’t flying! The plane was starting to get a bad reputation and it wasn’t even off the drawing board yet.
Grumbling at Home
As it turned out, the biggest obstacle to the Boeing turned out to be a bit closer to home: American environmentalists. They saw the SST as a very noisy, gas guzzling polluter. And they had unprecedented power in Washington at a critical time in the development of the SST.
President Nixon proclaimed on September 23, 1969, “The SST is going to be built.” Over $500M in federal funds had been devoted to the project at that point – an unprecedented amount for a single non-military project – and pressure was mounting from Senator Proxmire and others to stop spending taxpayer money on what was a civilian project.
Demise of SST
On May 18 1971, the Senate put the final nail in the coffin by voting to end payments to the various participants in a 58-37 vote. White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler blamed Boeing’s unwillingness to negotiate from its demands of between $500M and $1B to restart the project. Congress’s actions were vindicated by the decision a few years later of almost all airlines to cancel orders for the Concorde.
While this may have been considered a loss of prestige by some Americans and certainly disappointed many at Boeing (who lost their jobs and were part of the biggest economic disaster in the Seattle area since the depression), the airlines yawned. With rising fuel costs and the success of the 747, they were no longer convinced they needed the aircraft (though Boeing had received commitments from 26 airlines for 122 aircraft at one point).
Ask Not What Your Boeing Can Do For You…
Most Americans recall President Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” where he challenged American to put men on the moon by the end of the 1960s. They may not remember his June 5, 1963 speech calling for government and private sector funds to develop “a commercially successful supersonic transport superior to that being built in any other country in the world.” LBJ and Nixon carried on this dream until the US Congress pulled the cord on funding and Boeing did not believe it worth their while to continue the project with their own money.
As the official Soviet airline Aeroflot bailed on their own SST within a two years of taking delivery of them and as both Air France and British Airways have given up Concorde and donated them to museums, the Americans should be glad they didn’t pour any more money into the project than they did.
I’ve Seen the Future and it Works
Airline industry analysts have predicted there will be a market for 300-500 third-generation SSTs by the 2020s. Of course, they’ve been wrong in the past. Rest assured that if the demand is there, Boeing and Airbus will be there too – with or without public funding. In fact, they Boeing recently worked with the Russians to learn what they could about their Tu-144. Read more about the development of High-Speed Transports (HSTs) here.