Supersonic Dive


As was alluded to in a previous question on supersonic dives, the transition to supersonic flight is marked by large increases in pressure forces that most subsonic aircraft are not designed to withstand. While I am not familiar with the exact structural capabilities of the 747, my guess is that it does have a beefy enough structure to survive a brief excursion into supersonic flight. However, the shock waves formed above Mach 1 would likely do damage to critical flight controls making the plane difficult, if not impossible, to control. The plane would then probably enter a fatal dive reaching even higher speeds and encountering forces that would almost surely tear the aircraft apart. Commercial jetliners have been known to reach supersonic speeds in accidents. For example, TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 that exploded off Long Island in 1996, was broken in two by a fuel tank explosion. The aft section of the aircraft still had wings and engines attached and continued to fly even after the nose had been broken off. Once the wings stalled after reaching too high of an angle of attack, the aft portion of the plane began to plummet and reached supersonic speeds. The forces induced by this supersonic dive were so intense that the wings were ripped off and the fuselage disintegrated before hitting the water.

Let me briefly clarify one point. Almost any aircraft could probably surpass Mach 1 if it weighed enough and was in a steep enough dive. The question is whether or not the plane could survive the trip. Most propeller-powered aircraft or subsonic jets would not because they are not built to survive the stresses of supersonic flight.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 18 November 2001


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