- Supersonic planes are airplanes that can fly at supersonic speeds. This means they travel faster than the speed of sound, or Mach number 1.
- Supersonic planes were invented in the second half of the twentieth century for military and research purposes.
- The Concorde was the most expensive supersonic plane ever built, at 2.8 billion.
Since the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, humans have been obsessed with the speed of airplanes for travel and defense. The first plane to go supersonic was the Bell X-1 in 1947. There have been many more since then, but what is the cost of this feat?
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that there has been a long gap in the endeavor to build planes that are supersonic. It has been wrought with issues like sonic booms, extremely noisy takeoffs, and high fuel usage. After the retirement of the Concorde in 2003, most supersonic designs have yet to reach production and use.
Let’s take a look at the most expensive supersonic planes ever built.
The Concorde: $2.8 billion
It’s only appropriate to start our list of the most expensive supersonic planes with what is arguably the most popular supersonic plane to hit the skies. The Concorde also stands as only one of the two commercial passenger planes to pass Mach 1.
From 1976 to 2003, the Concorde shuttled passengers across the Atlantic Ocean in just 3.5 hours. In 2022, it takes flights 7 hours to fly from London to New York. So, why, with all the advances in technology, have these travel times remained static for over 20 years?
The short answer is that supersonic planes like the Concorde had some serious issues. Concerns over the Concorde’s effects on the ozone layer, coupled with noise pollution from sonic booms, were just the beginning. After coming in way over budget and being expensive to maintain, the question of the viability of the supersonic Concorde culminated with the 2000 crash of Flight 4590 shortly after takeoff from Paris to New York.
Commercial flights were stopped until 2001, and the Concorde was retired in 2003, following its final flights by Air France and British Airways.
Tupolev TU-144: Total Cost Unknown
Our second supersonic airliner has been called the “Concordski,” due to its similarities to the Franco-British Concorde. Although bigger, faster, and in use months before its Western counterpart, this Russian plane had even more headaches than the Concorde.
During the time period of development of these supersonic planes, the East and the West were competing fiercely in all technological fields. The intense desire for both sides in the Cold War to be “first” led to some rather hurried planning for the Russians and put them ahead of their own flight technology at the time.
The TU-144 first hit supersonic speeds in 1969 and, in 1970, became the first commercial plane to hit Mach-2. In 1973, an unfortunate crash at the Paris Air Show killed the entire crew and many people on the ground. With the crash in France and rising fuel prices, and another crash in 1978, the Tupelov TU-144 ended its passenger service after 55 flights. It was used to move cargo until 1983, when the program was canceled.
The remaining aircraft were used by Russia and NASA to train pilots and for supersonic research until 1999, when the supersonic planes were retired and sent for display around the world.
The Most Expensive Supersonic Planes: Non-Commercial
Like many other advanced technologies, supersonic planes have their roots in the public sectors of the military and space arenas. Now, let’s take a look at some of the most expensive and innovative supersonic non-commercial planes ever built and how they stack up to their passenger-friendly counterparts.
Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor: $350 million
As a fifth-generation air superiority aircraft, the F-22 Raptor can cruise at a supersonic speed of Mach 1.82. The “supercruise” feature of the aircraft allows for these speeds without the use of afterburners.
The first flight of the F-22 Raptor took off in 1997, and the aircraft went into service for the USAF in 2005. With a combination of stealth, speed, and maneuverability, the F-22 Raptor is a vital piece in the U.S. Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program.
Production ceased in 2011, with 187 operational units being produced, well under the 750 original number of aircraft slated for the ATF program. Lockheed Martin was the main manufacturer of the F-22 Raptor, with Boeing playing a role as well.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II: $251 million
The main reason the F-22 Raptor was discontinued was the less expensive and more versatile F-35 model that has taken its place in the U.S. military lineup. Coming in from Lockheed Martin at nearly $100 million cheaper, the highly maneuverable replacement was inevitable.
The F-35 Lightening II also has a more sophisticated landing variability, including a vertical landing model known as the F-35B. The F-35 went into production in 2006 and is still being manufactured by Lockheed Martin today. There are also partnerships with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems.
NASA X-43: $230 million
With only 3 of these hypersonic Mach-10 experimental aircraft built before the program was canceled, they are certainly an interesting part of the supersonic flight picture as a whole.
The unmanned rocket plane was launched in an amazing fashion. A booster rocket with the X-43 “stacked” on top was then attached under the wing of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and drop-launched, much like Virgin Galactic’s Unity.
After the drop, the winged rocket would take the X-43 to the desired speed and then be discarded as the plane’s own engine took over. The first of the three flights of the X-43 malfunctioned in flight and was annihilated as a consequence. The last two flights flew successfully for 10 seconds of engine power and then a 10-minute glide setting speed records before being intentionally crashed into the ocean.
The X-43 program was canceled in 2006 and replaced with a slower Boeing X-51 Waverider coming in at Mach 5.
SR-71 Blackbird: $34 million
First taken to the air in 1964, the SR-71 is a testament to the fact that military considerations are always ahead of civilian and commercial endeavors. This Mach 3 “black project” is an amazing aircraft that was ahead of its time. In addition to the SR-71 traveling at supersonic speeds, it also operated at high altitudes of 85,000 feet, making it a much more difficult target for enemy missiles.
Not only was this twin-engine surveillance aircraft capable of outrunning threats from other aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, but as of 2022, the SR-71 holds the world’s record for a manned air-breathing plane.
Beyond the technical flight capabilities and useful defense service of the SR-71, the look and stealth design of this aircraft is something to see. Its appearance, resembling a sci-fi black bat, would likely give an enemy pause before it ever blasted off out of their reach in a split second.
The SR-71 was built by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division. And no, that’s not a mistake. This aircraft is almost 30 years older than Lockheed Martin, which is what makes its design and abilities so amazing. Lockheed Martin is set to release the futuristic SR-72 in 2025, dubbed the “Son of Blackbird.”
Expensive Supersonic Planes: A New Generation
As military contractors and space agencies around the world continue to push the limits of flight speeds, the commercial side of supersonic/hypersonic air transport has been on hold for some 20+ years. According to our research, that’s about to change. And it appears that the design and speed of this next generation of commercial planes are going to make the Concorde look like an airborne snail.
Another interesting thing in this new generation of supersonic flight is the fact that, like space exploration, the ball seems to be back in the court of the private sector.
Companies like Boom, Venus, Hermeus, and Spike are working on designs for supersonic people movers to get passengers around the globe in record times. The hypersonic speeds these companies are projecting, with travelers on board, push the boundaries of the impossible. It’s important to remember that is what they said about the Concorde in the early days, and the supersonic airliner shuttled passengers to key destinations for 27 years.
Boom, for example, has already made deals with American Airlines for 20 of its supersonic Mach 2.2 planes and another with United Airlines for 15 more and an option for an additional 35. It’s highly unlikely that these huge companies would be placing orders if they didn’t see the possibility in these designs.
Summary of the Most Expensive Supersonic Planes Every Built
|RANKPLANEPRICE#1Concorde2.8 Billion#2Tupolev TU-144Price Unknown#3Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor350 Million#4Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II251 Million#5Nasa X-43230 Million#6SR-71 Blackbird34 MillionThis chart shows the most expensive supersonic planes ever built.|
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The image featured at the top of this post is ©iStock.com/David Schulz.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does supersonic mean?
Supersonic means “beyond the speed of sound.” It is commonly referred to using the term, “Mach.” Mach 1 is the speed of sound, whereas Mach 2 is twice the speed of sound, and so on.
What's the difference between supersonic and hypersonic?
Hypersonic refers to any speeds of Mach 5 and beyond.
Was the Concorde actually supersonic?
Yes. The Concorde flew at cruising speeds of Mach 2.04, or 1,354 mph.
What are the reasons for the discontinuation of Concorde's production?
The Concorde lost its commercial viability due to noise pollution, expensive repairs, high fuel usage, and the sonic booms created by its power. A crash in July of 2000 also helped to seal its fate.
Are there any non-military supersonic planes still made today?
There are a group of private companies designing and testing supersonic models in 2022, but none are in full production as of yet.