Across the planet in 20 hours is fast enough, thanks
Michael Tomasky wants to know why plane travel hasn’t gotten any faster since the 707 in the late ’60s:
Matthew Yglesias has this right: there were already faster fighter planes in the late ’60s, and by the early ’70s you had the Concorde, but it turned out to be a huge waste of fuel. If you were really obsessed with getting from London to New York as fast as possible they could probably design a reentry vehicle to be placed on top of an ICBM that could get you to splashdown in the Hudson in half an hour; but wasting an entire multi-stage rocket and vast quantities of solid fuel to get a couple of guys to a meeting in Manhattan a little faster is a prospect that would only seem logical to…well, probably to most CEOs, actually, but at least a few of them would probably have trouble getting it past the shareholders.
For that matter it’s notable that fighter planes have actually gotten slower since the ’60s. That’s because back in the ’50s the cutting edge requirement of fighter design was to build jets that would be as fast as possible at intercepting enemy bombers so they didn’t reach your mainland and deliver their nuclear payloads. That led to the development of very fast interceptors like the US’s F-104 Starfighter and F-106 Dinosaurvaporizer (or whatever it was called) that were crap dogfighters but could get to big ol’ bombers very quickly at speeds well over Mach 2. Through the ’60s in the age of the F-4 Phantom and the Russian MiG-21 and MiG-23 any fighter worth its salt had to be able to do well over Mach 2; the Russian pure-interceptor MiG-25 could do Mach 2.8 (Mach 3 if you were willing to risk melting your engines). And the US started work on the prototype YF-12, which could do Mach 3 for sustained periods.
But by the ’60s the ICBM had become routinized as the delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads and everyone realized that super-fast interceptors (and supersonic bombers) were kind of pointless. What turned out to be much more important were maneuverability for dogfighting, excellent avionics (so pilots were more aware of what was going on), and flexibility in air-superiority or ground attack missions. So the US turned the YF-12 into a reconnaissance plane (the amazing SR-71 Blackbird, which remained in service through 1998 and could traverse the US coast to coast in 1 hour). Meanwhile in the 4th generation fighters designed in the ’70s, like the F-15 and F-16 and the Russian Su-24, speeds stayed pretty constant at a little over Mach 2 (the F-15 could still do Mach 2.5 in a pinch). In the last of the 4th generation American jets, the F-18, top speed actually slowed to Mach 1.8. And the next major fighter to come out of America was the F-117 Invisible Bat Tie-Fighter Nightmare (again, not quite sure on that nickname), which wasn’t even supersonic but had the notable advantage that because of newfangled stealth technology, you couldn’t see the damn thing. And the new 5th-generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, have max speeds at altitude of Mach 2.25 (slower than the F-15) and Mach 1.67. Because flying unbelievably fast just isn’t as important as people used to think it was.
Anyway, what I wonder is how come you often see people wondering why jets aren’t getting any faster, but you never see anyone wonder why metals aren’t getting any harder. I mean, from the bronze age up to titanium alloy steel you had all this amazing progress, and since then — nothing.