When I say American Concorde, you think of the Boeing 2707. But another design almost won the government contract, the Lockheed L-2000.
It was cheaper and easier to build, and had it been put into production, it’s possible it would have made it to the market and still be flying today. Let’s explore the could have been world of the L-2000.
In 1961, in retaliation to the Concorde and the soviet endeavor to build a supersonic transport, President Kennedy authorized a contest to build an American equivalent. The prize would be 75% subsidizing cost of the research and production of the aircraft but there would be a important condition attached to the entry.
Whatever design proposed would have to be significantly more technologically advanced over the Concorde, have to carry at least 250 passengers, double that of the Concorde, and fly faster and further than the European counterpart. Essentially, the US wanted a Concorde killer that would have dominated the 500 SST market and cemented American dominance in aerospace for decades to come.
North American aviation, Boeing and Lockheed answered the call, with only the latter two making it through to the next round. While the Boeing 2707 has been well covered by many on this platform, the Lockheed l-2000 has fallen into history as a major could-have-been.
Lockheed had been working on a SST design since 1958, before the contest, with a creation that could fly cruise speeds of around 2,000 miles per hour (3,200 km/h) with takeoff and landing speeds just like a normal plane as to avoid the noise landing problem. The plane originally had a straight wing like of the F-104 starfighter, but during wind tunnel tests, it ended up causing issues with drag and the planes center of pressure.
The next stage was to change the aircraft’s design into a delta shape, but then this became a crutch when it came to aircraft landings and take-off. Lockheed considered a swing wing like Boeing 2707 design, but they believed that the joint mechanism would be too heavy – which we know Boeing ultimately abandoned it for the same reason. The plane would also need canards at the front to control the plane as it flew sub sonically.
By 1963 and five years of research, Lockheed had shifted the leading edge of the wing forward, removing the canards and moving the engines from within the plane to under the wing – resembling the final design that would be pitched to the contest.
This final design was called the L-2000-1 and was 223 feet (70 meters) long, and a narrow body fuselage of only 132 inches wide, or 335 cm. This would mean that the passengers would sit in a 2-3 configuration in economy, or 2-2- in first class, for a total of 170 passengers, or up to 200 if all economy.
To help reduce the production time and cost, Lockheed looked to its other projects for engines. and it had the perfect one. The Pratt & Whitney J58, famously used on the Lockheed SR-71 blackbird, could be slung under the wing and provide the supersonic thrusts. As it was a turbofan would be quieter than a then modern turbojet on take-off, and require no afterburner to get into the sky.
The plane would also try to tackle the problem of sonic booms. The L-2000-1 would break the barrier at 42,000 feet (12,800 m) altitude, rather than 30,000 feet (9,144 m), making the effect less noticeable on the ground. The plane would then climb to a shockingly high cruising altitude of 76,500 feet (23,317 m) at Mach 3.0 for the journey. This would make it perfect for a domestic route of New York to Miami over the ocean, or competing against the Concorde to Europe.
By 1964, there were two major changes. the US government changed the requirements to improve performance, and engine manufacturers, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric who were doing their own contest for the engine at the same time, designed more powerful supersonic engines. As Lockheed didn’t know who would win the contest for the engine, the L-2000-2 as it was called, would need engine pods that could fit either.
The silver lining was these new powerful engines allowed supersonic penetration to occur as late as 45,000 feet (13,716 m) for the L-2000, meaning an even quieter boom. Lockheed was ready to pitch the aircraft against rival Boeing!
Submitting a new supersonic transport concept is risky, and Lockheed decided to bring two to the meeting.
The first was the L-2000-7A. It was longer than the initial designs, and could carry up to 230 passengers. Lockheed also had a bigger version called the L-2000-7B that could be used domestically over land, and could carry up to 273 domestic passengers and plenty of cargo at nearly 300 feet long. With the hard work done, Lockheed sat back and crossed their fingers.
Unfortunately, it seems that the selection committee had other ideas, and on December 31st, 1966, chose the Boeing 2707 moving forward.
It seems that compared to the Boeing 2707, the Lockheed design was deemed too simple and close to the Concorde, high fuel burning and loud on take-off and landing. The Boeing 2707 was such an imaginary leap forward with technology that the Lockheed plane was deemed too safe.
But here’s the thing, the Lockheed designs with all their flaws were much simpler, cheaper and easier to build. Unlike the Boeing 2707 which used titanium throughout, the L-2000 used much-easier to produce and cheaper stainless steel and restricted titanium use to only specific areas where it offered a clear advantage over stainless steel.
As we know now, Boeing would actually abandon many of the advanced features that had made them a winner and even go back to what worked – the Lockheed delta wing design. If Lockheed had won the contest, perhaps they would have been able to make a series of prototypes, or even better, a production model for an airline like Delta by the time congress was considering pulling the funding in 1971.
Perhaps I could even say, that with an aircraft flying and orders being delivered, those minds in Washington would have not have been so eager to close the program and we would have seen funding well to the oil crisis of 1973 – enough to make a substantial impact on the world of aviation.
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