Upcoming Exhibition | Supersonic Transport
The First Generation
In October 1947, United States Air Force test pilot Charles "Chuck" Elwood Yeager achieved what many had long thought impossible. Flying the jet-powered Bell X-1, he became the first human to travel faster than the speed of sound, henceforth called Mach 1. A little over a decade later, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States began exploring the viability of commercial supersonic transports (SST). In 1962, Britain and France joined forces on the Concorde SST project. The next year, President John F. Kennedy announced an American equivalent, and design concepts from North American, Boeing, and Lockheed were chosen.
After winning the government contract, Boeing reconfigured and refined its design, which was designated the 2707-300. Yet in 1971, the United States Congress cancelled funding before a prototype could be produced. Amid the height of the Cold War, the Soviets also rushed forward their SST design, the Tupolev Tu-144, and it became the first SST to fly supersonic in 1969. Passenger service was launched in 1977, yet with little market for high-priced supersonic travel in the Soviet Union, these operations were intermittent and brief, and ended in the early 1980s.
After two Concorde prototypes achieved supersonic flight in 1969, major airlines began placing purchasing options totaling over one hundred of the SST. However, with concerns about its profitability, ultimately only Air France and British Airways purchased the aircraft and, in 1976, both airlines launched Concorde service. Yet, because of the noise pollution caused over populated areas by the aircraft’s extremely loud sonic boom, ultimately these airlines could only fly supersonic over transoceanic routes. In spite of this limitation, Concorde supersonic passenger service was very successful and remained a highly compelling flight experience for those who could afford the premium-priced fares. Traveling at twice the speed of sound, the Concorde would take less than half the time to reach its destination compared to subsonic airliners. Service continued uninterrupted, primarily on transatlantic routes, up until 2000, and then again from 2001 to 2003, when the SST was retired. This exhibition presents the legacy of these first-generation SSTs through aircraft models, airline flight attendant uniforms, meal service sets, photographs, posters, and video excerpts from the 1976 British Airways promotional motion picture Transatlantic Supersonic.
British Airways Concorde poster 1980s
Collection of SFO Museum
Gift of the William Hough Collection