How Can Passenger Jets Reach Supersonic Speeds?

Supersonic commercial flight isn’t quite the norm, but it’s recent happened with some lucky transatlantic flights. The boost in speed isn’t a result of the jet’s structure, fuel, or propulsion, but some fortunate weather. 

Weather is a notorious and frustrating cause of many flight delays, but thanks to an especially powerful jet steam and the resulting tailwinds, some transatlantic flights have traveled near supersonic speeds–the fastest at about 745 mph. 

The British Airways Boeing 777-200 made the New York-London route in five hours, 16 minutes last Wednesday, and reached ground speeds of up to 1200 km/h (745 mph), riding a powerful jet stream of up to 322 km/h (200 mph) tailwinds. The sonic barrier is broken at 1224 km/h (761 mph).

While these super speedy flights are simply happy happenstance for some pilots and passengers, they show what’s possible when jets get a little more of a boost. It’s also something to think about in designing aircraft that are more aerodynamic and responsive.

While favorable winds aren’t always reliable, jet structures that allow for lighter and speedier flying should be essential in designing passenger aircraft of the future. It shows that near-supersonic flight isn’t always about the engines propelling the plane, but how well planes respond to what the air has to offer.