It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: A Boeing 747 with an internal hanger loaded with 10 specially designed fighter jets. An on board crew to launch, recover, refuel and rearm the jets while in mid-flight. Sleeping quarters and a crew lounge to ensure that a squadron of 14 fighter pilots and 18 mission specialists stay rested. All of it hurtling forward at Mach 0.85, 35 thousand feet above sea-level. That’s asking a lot from a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet. But a once classified feasible study prepared for the U.S. Air Force details how it could be done.
Until the mid 1950’s, small short-range airliners like the twin engine IL-14 were really the only type the Soviet Union produced. And that meant flying across the country’s vast territory required multiple stops for refueling. The exhausting flight could take could take over 24 hours and require multiple stops for refueling. That all changed with the Tu-116. First taking flight in 1957, the propeller driven airliner is most notable for its incredible maximum speed of 880 km/h (550 mph), which is comparable to modern-day jet-powered airliners. It also boasted a very impressive (for it’s day) range of 10,900 km (6,800 mi). Early versions were configured in a three-class layout, which was rather unconventional for a Soviet Airliner. Features included, large tables, private sleeping cabins and a dining lounge served by a full-size kitchen in the lower deck .
In 1964, Japan unveiled the Shinkansen - a new high speed railway connecting the country’s two largest cities (in the 1960's), Tokyo and Osaka. Travelling at speeds in excess of 120 mph (200 km/h), the new specially designed Shinkansen trains had the highest service speeds in the world. But the Shinkansen project’s success had been anything but assured…..
In 1971, McDonnell Douglas introduced their first airliner wide-body airliner, the DC-10. But few months later, rival aircraft builder Lockheed introduced their new wide body airliner, the L-1011. The DC-10 and L-1011 were similar aircraft aimed at similar segments of the market. But after just a few years in service, the DC-10 would go from being pride of airlines, to a plane some people thought twice about flying. A series of accidents during the 1970’s, some of which were attributed to the plane’s design, shrouded the DC-10 in controversy.
The Cold War locked the United States and Soviet Union into a tense struggle for global influence and control. The first purpose-built American spy plane to fly over the Soviet Union was the Lockheed U-2. Neither fast nor stealthy, the U-2’s tactical advantage was that it could supposedly fly above soviet radar and air defenses. Yet even before the U-2 began surveillance missions, there were already plans for the next generation of spy plane. The need for a U-2 successor became more pressing as Soviet radars had tracked the U-2 since the very first reconnaissance flight. In 1960, a Soviet surface to air missile downed a U-2 deep within soviet airspace, heightening tensions between the two Cold War rivals. If America was to continue vital reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union, it would need an aircraft with a combination of incredible speed, altitude and stealth.
With a wingspan greater than a Boeing 747, The Bristol Brabazon was the largest aircraft ever built by Britain. More a flying oceanliner than plane, it featured sleeping cabins, a dining room, a cocktail bar and lounge, and even a 23 seat movie theater. Despite introducing new innovations, many of which influenced the future of aviation, the Brabazon’s driving philosophy was outdated. After a massive design and development effort, Britain found itself stuck with a plane nobody actually wanted, designed for an era that no longer existed.The program was cancelled and the Brabazon, and half finished turboprop successor were sold for their weight in scrap.
Before Concorde defined what it meant to fly fast, there was another airliner that tried to push the speed of air travel. With outside the box engineering, the Convair 990A cruised faster than any airliner before it. The Convair 990A is still the fastest non-supersonic commercial transport to have ever been produced.
In 1974, a French train sets a speed record, exceeding 250 miles per hour. But this train is unlike any other before it. Instead of rolling on train wheels, it hovers on a cushion of air. In the 1970’s hovertrains were seriously being considered the solution to slow, antiquated railways, which increasingly had to compete with new superhighways and even intercity air travel.
It was to fly even faster than the Concorde, at speeds approaching Mach 3. And even carry more passengers. It would have flown the distance from Los Angeles to New York in under two hours. America’s effort to build a supersonic airliner was an ambitious project spanning a decade and costing a billion in government funding. But even an army of aerospace engineers and the latest in aviation technology was not enough to get America’s Supersonic Transport (SST) off the ground.
In the late 1960s, French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation made a huge bet. The company designed its first commercial airliner, the Mercure 100, to do one thing fantastically well; fly short routes more efficiently than any other airliner. With ambitions to take on rival giants like Boeing and Douglas, Dassault invested huge sums into developing an airliner with unprecedented short-range performance. Anticipating demand for hundreds of aircraft, the company even built several factories across France.