An aircraft resembling a large bodyboard detached from a flying B-52 bomber and then shot across the Pacific on Wednesday at more than 3,500 mph, shattering aviation records and reigniting decades-long efforts to develop a vehicle that could travel faster than a speeding bullet.
The unmanned X-51 WaveRider, powered by an air-breathing hypersonic engine that has virtually no moving parts, was launched midair off the coast near Point Mugu. It sped westward for 200 seconds before plunging into the ocean as planned. Previous attempts at hypersonic flights lasted no more than 10 seconds.
“Everything went very well for a first flight,” said Charlie Brink, the X-51 program manager for the Air Force. “For things to go off the way they did, we’re confident this technology has a bright future.”
Since the 1960s, the Air Force has been flirting with hypersonic technology, which can propel vehicles at a velocity that cannot be achieved from traditional turbine-powered jet engines.
But the technology has been exceedingly difficult to perfect. Previous attempts produced very limited results including flights that lasted only a few seconds, said Peter Wilson, senior defense analyst with Rand Corp.
It has held great promise, however. A passenger aircraft powered by hypersonic engines could fly from Los Angeles to New York in 30 minutes. It also could travel faster than existing cruise missiles.
With the technology, the military could strike anywhere on planet within an hour or less, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research.
“The WaveRider represents a major change that could have big implications on today’s weapon systems,” he said. “It can travel great distances at remarkable speeds, showing potential for a long-range cruise missile.”
The aircraft is being developed for the Air Force by engineers at Boeing Co.'s Phantom Works research center in Long Beach and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in Canoga Park. The vehicle has been undergoing tests at Edwards Air Force Base.
“This is truly transformational technology,” Brink said. “This engine can be considered the next step in aviation. It’s as big of leap as it was when we went from propellers to jet engines.”
Like many other test flights of new aircraft, the WaveRider was launched from a B-52 flying at 50,000 feet after it had been carried aloft attached to the bomber’s wing.
About 9 a.m. Wednesday, the WaveRider detached from the wing, falling for about four seconds before its booster rocket engine ignited and propelled the WaveRider to more than 70,000 feet. It then separated from the booster and sped across the sky reaching 3,500 mph.
Although the launch was considered successful, it did not reach a goal that the Air Force had set. It was hoping for the plane to reach 4,200 mph and fly for five minutes.
“We fell a little bit short, but this was the first one out of the gate,” Brink said. “We still have three more of these vehicles to work the kinks out.”
The hypersonic engine’s history has been fraught with setbacks. Initially, the program was headed by NASA, which fueled speculation that hypersonic engines could help propel spacecraft into orbit. But the space agency dropped the program for lack of funding. The Air Force then picked up the development with an eye toward developing super-fast missiles, Pike said.
It’s a technology that is looking for a mission, he said. “It’s very attractive, but it looks like we still have a ways to go before it’s used outside of an experimental flight test.”