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Sound barrier

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Sound barrier

U.S. Navy F/A-18 within the sound barrier. The white cloud formed by decreased air pressure and temperature around the tail of the aircraft (see Prandtl-Glauert Singularity).[1][2]
  1. Subsonic
  2. Mach 1
  3. Supersonic
  4. Shock wave

The sound barrier or sonic barrier is a popular term for the sudden increase in aerodynamic drag and other effects experienced by an aircraft or other object when it approaches supersonic speed. When aircraft first began to be able to reach close to supersonic speed, these effects were seen as constituting a barrier making supersonic speed very difficult or impossible.[3][4]

In dry air at 20 °C (68 °F), the sound barrier is reached when an object moves at a speed of 343 metres per second (about 767 mph, 1234 km/h or 1,125 ft/s). The term came into use in this sense during World War II, when a number of aircraft started to encounter the effects of compressibility, a number of unrelated aerodynamic effects that "struck" their aircraft, seemingly impeding further acceleration. By the 1950s, new aircraft designs routinely "broke" the sound barrier.[N 1]


  • History 1
    • Early problems 1.1
    • Early claims 1.2
    • Breaking the sound barrier 1.3
    • Sound barrier officially broken in aircraft 1.4
    • The sound barrier fades 1.5
    • Breaking the sound barrier in a land vehicle 1.6
    • Breaking the sound barrier as a human projectile 1.7
      • Felix Baumgartner 1.7.1
      • Alan Eustace 1.7.2
  • References 2
    • Notes 2.1
    • Citations 2.2
    • Bibliography 2.3
  • External links 3


Some common whips such as the bullwhip or sparewhip are able to move faster than sound: the tip of the whip breaks the sound barrier and causes a sharp crack—literally a sonic boom.[5] Firearms since the 19th century have generally had a supersonic muzzle velocity.

The sound barrier may have been first breached by living beings some 150 million years ago. Some paleobiologists report that, based on computer models of their biomechanical capabilities, certain long-tailed dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus and Diplodocus may have possessed the ability to flick their tails at supersonic speeds, possibly used to generate an intimidating booming sound. This finding is theoretical and disputed by others in the field.[6] Meteorites entering the Earth's atmosphere usually, if not always, descend faster than sound.

Early problems

The tip of the propeller on many early aircraft may reach supersonic speeds, producing a noticeable buzz that differentiates such aircraft. This is particularly noticeable on the Stearman, and noticeable on the North American T-6 Texan when it enters a sharp-breaking turn. This is undesirable, as the transonic air movement creates disruptive shock waves and turbulence. It is due to these effects that propellers are known to suffer from dramatically decreased performance as they approach the speed of sound. It is easy to demonstrate that the power needed to improve performance is so great that the weight of the required engine grows faster than the power output of the propeller can compensate. This problem was one that led to early research into jet engines, notably by Frank Whittle in England and Hans von Ohain in Germany, who were led to their research specifically in order to avoid these problems in high-speed flight.

Nevertheless, propeller aircraft were able to approach the speed of sound in a dive. Unfortunately, doing so led to numerous crashes for a variety of reasons. Most infamously, in the Mitsubishi Zero, pilots flew full power into the terrain because the rapidly increasing forces acting on the control surfaces of their aircraft overpowered them.[7] In this case, several attempts to fix it only made the problem worse. Likewise, the flexing caused by the low torsional stiffness of the Supermarine Spitfire's wings caused them, in turn, to counteract aileron control inputs, leading to a condition known as control reversal. This was solved in later models with changes to the wing. Worse still, a particularly dangerous interaction of the airflow between the wings and tail surfaces of diving Lockheed P-38 Lightnings made "pulling out" of dives difficult; however, the problem was later solved by the addition of a "dive flap" that upset the airflow under these circumstances. Flutter due to the formation of shock waves on curved surfaces was another major problem, which led most famously to the breakup of de Havilland Swallow and death of its pilot, Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. in 1946. A similar problem is thought to be the cause of the 1943 crash of the BI-1 rocket aircraft in the Soviet Union.

All of these effects, although unrelated in most ways, led to the concept of a "barrier" that makes it difficult for an aircraft to exceed the speed of sound.[N 2]

Early claims

During WWII and immediately thereafter a number of claims were made that the sound barrier had been broken in a dive. However, the majority of these can be dismissed as instrumentation error. The typical airspeed indicator (ASI) uses air pressure differences between two or more points on the aircraft, typically near the nose and at the side of the fuselage, to produce a speed figure. At high speed the various compression effects that lead to the sound barrier also cause the ASI to go non-linear, and produce inaccurately high or low readings, depending on the specifics of the installation. This effect became known as "Mach jump".[9] Before the introduction of Mach meters, accurate measurements of supersonic speeds could only be made externally, normally using ground-based instruments. Many claims of supersonic speeds were found to be far below this speed when measured in this fashion.

In 1942, Republic Aviation issued a press release stating that Lts. Harold E. Comstock and Roger Dyar had exceeded the speed of sound during test dives in the P-47 Thunderbolt. It is widely agreed that this was due to inaccurate ASI readings. In similar tests, the North American P-51 Mustang, a higher performance aircraft, demonstrated limits at Mach 0.85, with every flight over M0.84 causing the aircraft to be damaged by vibration.[10]

A Spitfire PR Mk XI (PL965) of the type used in the 1944 RAE Farnborough dive tests during which a highest Mach Number of 0.92 was obtained

One of the highest recorded instrumented Mach Numbers attained for a propeller aircraft is the Mach 0.891 for a Spitfire PR XI, flown during dive tests at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough in April 1944. The Spitfire, a photo-reconnaissance variant, the Mark XI, fitted with an extended 'rake type' multiple pitot system, was flown by Squadron Leader J. R. Tobin to this speed, corresponding to a corrected true airspeed (TAS) of 606 mph.[11] In a subsequent flight, Squadron Leader Anthony Martindale achieved Mach 0.92, but it ended in a forced landing after over- revving damaged the engine.[12]

In the 1990s, Hans Guido Mutke claimed to have broken the sound barrier on 9 April 1945 in the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet aircraft. He states that his ASI pegged itself at 1,100 kilometres per hour (680 mph). Mutke reported not just transonic buffeting but the resumption of normal control once a certain speed was exceeded, then a resumption of severe buffeting once the Me 262 slowed again. He also reported engine flame out.[13]

This claim is widely disputed, even by pilots in his unit.[14] All of the effects he reported are known to occur on the Me 262 at much lower speeds, and the ASI reading is simply not reliable in the transonic. Further, a series of tests made by Karl Doetsch at the behest of Willy Messerschmitt found that the plane became uncontrollable above Mach 0.86, and at Mach 0.9 would nose over into a dive that could not be recovered from. Post-war tests by the RAF confirmed these results, with the slight modification that the maximum speed using new instruments was found to be Mach 0.84, rather than Mach 0.86.[15]

In 1999, Mutke enlisted the help of Professor Otto Wagner of the Munich Technical University to run computational tests to determine whether the aircraft could break the sound barrier. These tests do not rule out the possibility, but are lacking accurate data on the coefficient of drag that would be needed to make accurate simulations.[16][17] Wagner stated "I don't want to exclude the possibility, but I can imagine he may also have been just below the speed of sound and felt the buffeting, but did not go above Mach-1."[14]

One bit of evidence presented by Mutke is on page 13 of the "Me 262 A-1 Pilot's Handbook" issued by Headquarters Air Materiel Command, Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio as Report No. F-SU-1111-ND on January 10, 1946:

Speeds of 950 km/h (590 mph) are reported to have been attained in a shallow dive 20° to 30° from the horizontal. No vertical dives were made. At speeds of 950 to 1,000 km/h (590 to 620 mph) the air flow around the aircraft reaches the speed of sound, and it is reported that the control surfaces no longer affect the direction of flight. The results vary with different airplanes: some wing over and dive while others dive gradually. It is also reported that once the speed of sound is exceeded, this condition disappears and normal control is restored.

The comments about restoration of flight control and cessation of buffeting above Mach 1 are very significant in a 1946 document. However, it is not clear where these terms came from, as it does not appear the US pilots carried out such tests.[16]

In his1990 book Me-163, former Messerschmitt Me 163 "Komet" pilot Mano Ziegler claims that his friend, test pilot Heini Dittmar, broke the sound barrier while diving the rocket plane, and that several people on the ground heard the sonic booms. He claims that on 6 July 1944, Dittmar flying Me 163 B V18 VA + SP, was measured traveling at a speed of 1,130 km/h (702 mph).[18] However, no evidence of such a flight exists in any of the materials from that period, which were captured by Allied forces and extensively studied.[19] Dittmar had been officially recorded at 1,004.5 km/h (623.8 mph) in level flight on 2 October 1941 in the prototype Me 163 V4. He reached this speed at less than full throttle, as he was concerned by the transonic buffeting. Dittmar himself does not make a claim that he broke the sound barrier on that flight, and notes that the speed was recorded only on the AIS. He does, however, take credit for being the first pilot to "knock on the sound barrier."[14]

The Luftwaffe test pilot Lothar Sieber (April 7, 1922 - March 1, 1945) may have inadvertently became the first man to break the sound barrier on 1 March 1945. This occurred while he was piloting a Bachem Ba 349 "Natter" for the first manned vertical takeoff of a rocket in history. In 55 seconds, he traveled a total of 14 km (8.7 miles). Unfortunately, there was a crash and he perished violently in this endeavor. Very little of his remains were found in the 15 ft deep crater, but he did receive a funeral with full military honors.[20]

There are a number of unmanned vehicles that flew at supersonic speeds during this period, but they generally do not meet the definition. In 1933, Soviet designers working on ramjet concepts fired phosphorus-powered engines out of artillery guns to get them to operational speeds. It is possible that this produced supersonic performance as high as Mach 2,[21] but this was not due to the engine itself. Likewise, the German V-2 ballistic missile routinely broke the sound barrier in flight, for the first time on 3 October 1942. By September 1944, the V-2s routinely achieved Mach 4 (1,200 m/s, or 3044 mph) during terminal descent.

Breaking the sound barrier

The prototype Miles M.52 turbojet powered aircraft, designed to achieve supersonic level flight.

In 1942, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Aviation began a top secret project with Miles Aircraft to develop the world's first aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier. The project resulted in the development of the prototype Miles M.52 turbojet powered aircraft, which was designed to reach 1,000 mph (417 m/s; 1,600 km/h) (over twice the existing speed record) in level flight, and to climb to an altitude of 36,000 ft (11 km) in 1 minute 30 sec.

A huge number of advanced features were incorporated into the resulting M.52 design, many of which hint at a detailed knowledge of supersonic aerodynamics. In particular, the design featured a conical nose and sharp wing leading edges, as it was known that round-nosed projectiles could not be stabilised at supersonic speeds. The design used very thin wings of biconvex section proposed by Jakob Ackeret for low drag. The wing tips were "clipped" to keep them clear of the conical shock wave generated by the nose of the aircraft. The fuselage had the minimum cross-section allowable around the centrifugal engine with fuel tanks in a saddle over the top.

One of the Vickers models undergoing supersonic wind-tunnel testing at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) c.1946

Another critical addition was the use of a power operated stabilator, also known as the all-moving tail or flying tail, a key to supersonic flight control which contrasted with traditional hinged tailplanes (horizontal stabilizers) connected mechanically to the pilots control column. Conventional control surfaces became ineffective at the high subsonic speeds then being achieved by fighters in dives, due to the aerodynamic forces caused by the formation of shockwaves at the hinge and the rearward movement of the centre of pressure, which together could override the control forces that could be applied mechanically by the pilot, hindering recovery from the dive.[22][23] A major impediment to early transonic flight was control reversal, the phenomenon which caused flight inputs (stick, rudder) to switch direction at high speed; it was the cause of many accidents and near-accidents. An all-flying tail is considered to be a minimum condition of enabling aircraft to break the transonic barrier safely, without losing pilot control. The Miles M.52 was the first instance of this solution, and has since been universally applied.

Initially, the aircraft was to use Frank Whittle's latest engine, the Power Jets W.2/700, which would only reach supersonic speed in a shallow dive. To develop a fully supersonic version of the aircraft a new innovation was incorporated; a reheat jetpipe - also known as an afterburner. Extra fuel was to be burned in the tailpipe to avoid overheating the turbine blades, making use of unused oxygen in the exhaust.[24] Finally the design included another critical element, the use of a shock cone in the nose to slow the incoming air to the subsonic speeds needed by the engine.

Although the project was eventually cancelled, the research was used to construct an unmanned missile that went on to achieve a speed of Mach 1.38 in a successful, controlled transonic and supersonic level test flight; a unique achievement at that time which validated the aerodynamics of the M.52.

Sound barrier officially broken in aircraft

The British Air Ministry signed an agreement with the United States to exchange all its high-speed research, data and designs and Bell Aircraft company was given access to the drawings and research on the M.52,[25] but the U.S. reneged on the agreement and no data was forthcoming in return.[26] Bell's supersonic design was still using a conventional tail and they were battling the problem of control.[27]

Chuck Yeager in front of the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight.

They utilized the information to initiate work on the Sabre. He also claimed to have repeated his supersonic flight on October 14, 1947, 30 minutes before Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. Although evidence from witnesses and instruments strongly imply that Welch achieved supersonic speed, the flights were not properly monitored and are not officially recognized. The XP-86 officially achieved supersonic speed on April 26, 1948.[28]

On 14 October 1947, just under a month after the United States Air Force had been created as a separate service, the tests culminated in the first manned supersonic flight, piloted by Air Force Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager in aircraft #46-062, which he had christened Glamorous Glennis. The rocket-powered aircraft was launched from the bomb bay of a specially modified B-29 and glided to a landing on a runway. XS-1 flight number 50 is the first one where the X-1 recorded supersonic flight, at Mach 1.06 (361 m/s, 1,299 km/h, 807.2 mph) peak speed; however, Yeager and many other personnel believe Flight #49 (also with Yeager piloting), which reached a top recorded speed of Mach 0.997 (339 m/s, 1,221 km/h), may have, in fact, exceeded Mach 1. (The measurements were not accurate to three significant figures and no sonic boom was recorded for that flight.)

As a result of the X-1's initial supersonic flight, the National Aeronautics Association voted its 1948 Collier Trophy to be shared by the three main participants in the program. Honored at the White House by President Harry S. Truman were Larry Bell for Bell Aircraft, Captain Yeager for piloting the flights, and John Stack for the NACA contributions.

Jackie Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier on May 18, 1953, in a Canadair Sabre, with Yeager as her wingman.

The sound barrier fades

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947 in the Bell X-1, as shown in this newsreel.

As the science of high-speed flight became more widely understood, a number of changes led to the eventual disappearance of the "sound barrier". Among these were the introduction of swept wings, the area rule, and engines of ever-increasing performance. By the 1950s many combat aircraft could routinely break the sound barrier in level flight, although they often suffered from control problems when doing so, such as Mach tuck. Modern aircraft can transit the "barrier" without it even being noticeable.[29]

By the late 1950s the issue was so well understood that many companies started investing in the development of supersonic airliners, or SSTs, believing that to be the next "natural" step in airliner evolution. History has proven this yet to be the case. Although the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 entered service in the 1970s, both have since been retired. The last flight of a Concorde in service was in 2003.

Although Concorde and the Tu-144 were the first aircraft to carry commercial passengers at supersonic speeds, they were not the first or only commercial airliners to break the sound barrier. On 21 August 1961, a Douglas DC-8 broke the sound barrier at Mach 1.012 or 1,240 km/h (776.2 mph) while in a controlled dive through 41,088 feet (12,510 m). The purpose of the flight was to collect data on a new leading-edge design for the wing.[30] A China Airlines 747 may have broken the sound barrier in an unplanned descent from 41,000 ft (12,500 m) to 9,500 ft (2,900 m) after an in-flight upset on 19 February 1985. It also reached over 5g.[31]

Breaking the sound barrier in a land vehicle

On January 12, 1948, a Northrop unmanned rocket sled became the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier. At a military test facility at Muroc Air Force Base (now Edwards AFB), California, it reached a peak speed of 1,019 mph (1,640 km/h) before jumping the rails. [32][33]

On October 15, 1997, in a vehicle designed and built by a team led by Richard Noble, Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green became the first person to break the sound barrier in a land vehicle in compliance with Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile rules. The vehicle, called the ThrustSSC ("Super Sonic Car"), captured the record 50 years and one day after Yeager's first supersonic flight.

Breaking the sound barrier as a human projectile

Felix Baumgartner

In January 2010, it was reported that Felix Baumgartner was working with a team of scientists and sponsor Red Bull to attempt the highest sky-dive on record. The project would see Baumgartner attempt to jump 120,000 ft (36,580 m) from a helium balloon and become the first parachutist to break the sound barrier. The launch was scheduled for October 9, 2012, but was aborted due to adverse weather; subsequently the capsule was launched instead on October 14. Baumgartner's feat also marked the 65th anniversary of U.S. test pilot Chuck Yeager's successful attempt to become the first man to officially break the sound barrier in an aircraft.[34]

Baumgartner landed in eastern New Mexico after jumping from a world record 128,100 feet (39,045 m), or 24.26 miles, and broke the sound barrier as he traveled at speeds up to 833.9 mph (1342 km/h or Mach 1.26). In the press conference after his jump, it was announced he was in freefall for 4 minutes, 18 seconds, the second longest freefall after the 1960 jump of Joseph Kittinger for 4 minutes, 36 seconds.[34]

Alan Eustace

In October 2014, Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, broke Baumgartner's record for highest sky-dive and also broke the sound barrier in the process.[35]



  1. ^ See "Speed of sound" for the science behind the velocity called the sound barrier, and to "Sonic boom" for information on the sound associated with supersonic flight.
  2. ^ Quote: "For various reasons it is fairly certain that the maximum attainable speed under self-propelled conditions will be that of sound in air," i.e., 750 mph (1,210 km/h).[8]


  1. ^ "APOD: 19 August 2007 – A Sonic Boom." NASA. Retrieved: August 30, 2010.
  2. ^ "F-14 Condensation cloud in action." Retrieved: August 30, 2010.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ May, Mike. "Crackin' good mathematics." American Scientist, Volume 90, Issue 5, September–October 2002. p. 1.
  6. ^ Wilford, John Noble. "Did Dinosaurs Break the Sound Barrier?" The New York Times, December 2, 1997. Retrieved: January 15, 2009.
  7. ^ Yoshimura 1996, p. 108.
  8. ^ Portway 1940, p. 18.
  9. ^ Jordan, Corey C. "The Amazing George Welch, Part Two, First Through the Sonic Wall." Planes and Pilots Of World War Two, 1998–2000. Retrieved: June 12, 2011.
  10. ^ Compressibility Dive Tests on the North American P-51D Airplane, (‘Mustang IV’) AAF No.44-14134 (Technical report). Wright Field. 9 October 1944. 
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^
  13. ^ Mutke, Hans Guido. Archived from the original on . 
  14. ^ a b c "Nazi-era pilot says he broke sound barrier first". news24. 12 August 2001. 
  15. ^ "Me 262 and the Sound Barrier." Retrieved: August 30, 2010.
  16. ^ a b Schulz, Matthias (19 February 2001). "Flammenritt über dem Moor". Der Spiegel. 
  17. ^ "Pilot claims he broke sound barrier first". USA Today. 19 June 2001. 
  18. ^ Käsmann 1999, pp. 17, 122.
  19. ^ Dunning, Brian. [9 May 2009 "Was Chuck Yeager the First to Break the Sound Barrier?"] . 
  20. ^ "Historical Footnote: On March 1st 1945, did Lothar Sieber become the first person to break the sound barrier?" Doug's Darkworld: War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World, November 25, 2008. Retrieved: November 18, 2012.
  21. ^ Durant, Frederick C. and George S. James. "Early Experiments with Ramjet Engines in Flight." First Steps Toward Space: Proceedings of the First and Second History Symposia of the International Academy of Astronautics at Belgrade, Yugoslavia, September 26, 1967. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974.
  22. ^ Brown 1970.
  23. ^ Beamont, Roland. Testing Early Jets. London: Airlife, 1990. ISBN 1-85310-158-3.
  24. ^ "Miles on Supersonic Flight" Flight 3 October 1946 p355
  25. ^ Wood 1975, p. 36.
  26. ^ Bancroft, Dennis. "Faster Than Sound." NOVA Transcripts, PBS, air date: 14 October 1997. Retrieved: 26 April 2009.
  27. ^ Miller, Jay. The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45. Hinckley, UK: Midland, 2001. ISBN 1-85780-109-1.
  28. ^ Wagner 1963, p. 17.
  29. ^ barrier/source.html "Sound Barrier." Science and Engineering Encyclopedia. Retrieved: October 14, 2012.
  30. ^ "Douglas Passenger Jet Breaks Sound Barrier." Retrieved: August 30, 2010.
  31. ^ "China Airlines Flight 006." Retrieved: August 30, 2010.
  32. ^ "A rocket powered sled runs along the ground on the rails in Muroc." Universal International News, January 22, 1948. Retrieved: September 9, 2011.
  33. ^ "NASA Timeline." NASA. Retrieved: September 9, 2011.
  34. ^ a b Sunseri, Gina and Kevin Doak. "Felix Baumgartner: Daredevil Lands on Earth After Record Breaking Supersonic Leap." ABC News, October 14, 2012.
  35. ^ John Markoff. "Alan Eustace Jumps From Stratosphere, Breaking Felix Baumgartner’s World Record" New York Times October 24, 2014.


  • "Breaking the Sound Barrier." Modern Marvels (TV program). July 16, 2003.
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  • Hallion, Dr. Richard P. "Saga of the Rocket Ships." AirEnthusiast Five, November 1977 – February 1978. Bromley, Kent, UK: Pilot Press Ltd., 1977.
  • Käsmann, Ferdinand C.W. Die schnellsten Jets der Welt (in German). Berlin: Aviatic-Verlag GmbH, 1999. ISBN 3-925505-26-1.
  • Miller, Jay. The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45, Hinckley, UK: Midland, 2001. ISBN 1-85780-109-1.
  • Pisano, Dominick A., R. Robert van der Linden and Frank H. Winter. Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1: Breaking the Sound Barrier. Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (in association with Abrams, New York), 2006. ISBN 0-8109-5535-0.
  • Portway, Donald. Military Science Today. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.
  • Radinger, Willy and Walter Schick. Me 262 (in German). Berlin: Avantic Verlag GmbH, 1996. ISBN 3-925505-21-0.
  • Wagner, Ray. The North American Sabre. London: Macdonald, 1963.
  • Winchester, Jim. "Bell X-1." Concept Aircraft: Prototypes, X-Planes and Experimental Aircraft (The Aviation Factfile). Kent, UK: Grange Books plc, 2005. ISBN 978-1-84013-809-2.
  • Wolfe. Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-25033-2.
  • Yeager, Chuck, Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover, Jack Russell and James Young. The Quest for Mach One: A First-Person Account of Breaking the Sound Barrier. New York: Penguin Studio, 1997. ISBN 0-670-87460-4.
  • Yeager, Chuck and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam, 1986. ISBN 0-553-25674-2.
  • Yoshimura, Akira, translated by Retsu Kaiho and Michael Gregson. Zero! Fighter. Westport, Connecticut, USA: Praeger Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0-275-95355-6.

External links

  • Fluid Mechanics, a collection of tutorials by Dr. Mark S. Cramer, Ph.D
  • Breaking the Sound Barrier with an Aircraft by Carl Rod Nave, Ph.D
  • a video of a Concorde reaching Mach 1 at intersection TESGO taken from below
  • An interactive Java applet, illustrating the sound barrier.
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