Acoustic Terms and Definitions: Sound barrier

The sound barrier or sonic barrier is the sudden increase in aerodynamic drag and other undesirable effects experienced by an aircraft or other object when it approaches the speed of sound. When aircraft first approached the speed of sound, these effects were seen as constituting a barrier making faster speeds very difficult or impossible. The term sound barrier is still sometimes used today to refer to aircraft reaching supersonic flight. Breaking this sound barrier produces a sonic boom.

In dry air at 20 °C (68 °F), the speed of sound is 343 metres per second (about 767 mph, 1234 km/h or 1,125 ft/s). The term came into use during World War II when pilots of high-speed fighter aircraft experienced the effects of compressibility, a number of adverse aerodynamic effects that deterred further acceleration, seemingly impeding flight at speeds close to the speed of sound. These difficulties represented a barrier to flying at faster speeds. In 1947 it was demonstrated that safe flight at the speed of sound was achievable in purpose-designed aircraft, thereby breaking the barrier. By the 1950s, new designs of fighter aircraft routinely reached the speed of sound, and faster.

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