16 Comments

Summary:

Barring snafus, an X-51A WaveRider “Scramjet” could hit speeds of nearly 4,000 mph in a test flight on Tuesday. Such hypersonic flight, if proven viable, would cut the time of a cross-country trip from five hours plus to a mere 46 minutes.

5896162983_a8e0b14d8d_z

On Tuesday, a test flight over the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles could pave the way for hypersonic commercial air travel that would cut the time of a cross-country flight from over five hours to less than one.

A B-52 will carry the the X-51A WaveRider “scramjet” unmanned test craft on its wing from Edwards Air Force Base out over Point Mugu.  At about 50,000 feet over the ocean, the B-52 will drop the craft which, if all goes well, will reach speeds of about 3,600 mph (or Mach 6)  if only for about 300 seconds, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, DARPA, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and Boeing are collaborating on the project to show the feasibility of hypersonic flight. Obviously, the military would love to have hypersonic missiles and other fast-and-stealthy hardware.

But hypersonic commercial flights are not outside the realm of possibility over time. EADS has been working on its own vision of hypersonic commercial flights promising Paris-to-Tokyo journeys of under 3 hours.  But they’re not expected any time soon. The European Commission has set aside $6.15 million  to test out high-speed planes.

Commercial supersonic flight is not unprecedented. The Concorde aircraft flown by Air France and British Airways hit speeds of up to Mach 2 or about 1,350 mph, and could fly from New York to London in about 3 hours. But they were notoriously inefficient and expensive — and cramped.  The program was not economically sustainable and was discontinued a decade ago.  Cost and efficiency will be factors to consider for airlines evaluating hypersonic flight going forward as well.

Still, I’d be willing to bet there’s a market for high-cost but extremely fast cross-country flights. As The Times reported, a coast-to-coast trip at X-51 speeds would take 46 minutes. And, at that clip, who cares about airline food or if the Wi-Fi works?

Check out the video simulation of WaveRider

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user MultiplyLeadership

  1. Guess they would do the inverted flight/booster separation before meal service…

    Share
    1. one can only hope so

      Share
  2. How does it land?

    Share
    1. good question. this prototype will crash — hopefully into the ocean — blech. Landing is obviously something for another phase of the project.

      Share
  3. In college in the middle 50′s, one of my early aeronautical engineering classes included a survey of propulsion systems; one of the featured systems was a scramjet.

    60 years later, there has been maybe one or two successful flights. “Successful” meaning the flight actually reached hypersonic speed for a minute or so.

    At that rate, I’m not holding my breath waiting for commercial flights.

    Share
    1. Thanks for your comment. Agreed that this is very speculative at this point. Still i think there’s a lot of interest in faster, faster flight…be interesting to follow this.

      Share
  4. Commercial operation is an interesting idea, but given the furor the US put up when Supersonic flight by Concord was planned and the subsequent restrictions placed on faster than sound flight (because of the supersonic bangs) I very much doubt 46 minutes would be achievable as most of the 46 minutes would be spent in getting far enough out to sea to accelerate and then slowing to subsonic before entering a populated area again.

    Share
    1. Yup i remember all the hue and cry over concord. I still wish i’d taken it…I remember seeing one take off in london…amazing.

      Share
    2. I’m not 100% sure of this, but I believe that if the supersonic portion of the flight were confined to very high altitudes, the effect of the sonic boom will be reduced due to the low density of air molecules.

      Share
  5. I’m sure it would be a good thing for the atmosphere, right?

    Share
  6. Sigh. The X-51 is not paving the way for hypersonic travel. It is paving the way for Prompt Global Strike, the ability to put a non-nuclear warhead anywhere in the world in 60 mins.

    Share
  7. Nope. we won’t be able to get from LAX to SFO in an hour (because it takes AT LEAST that long to get through TSA security.) TSA security will get proportionately slower, in relation to the speed of flight. (That should become some sort of principle or law of science?)
    The LAX to SFO flight is a similar distance as TPA to Havana, Cuba. NASA and the DoD (our government) can experiment with the future of flight. But, they can’t befriend one of our closest neighboring countries.
    Heck, Russia has been cruising a nuclear sub in the Gulf of Mexico for a full month (undetected.) So, they don’t need missiles in Cuba anymore. Isn’t it time to stop punishing a people/culture, for the errors of their political leaders? Or, maybe it’s time to start holding OUR country’s leaders more-accountable for their own errors?…

    Share
  8. With less than a hour in the air at top speed what would be the elapsed time from the Transamerica Building to the Empire State Building?
    This will include:
    Travel time to and from airports
    Time between ground transport vheicles and airplane
    Times waiting for airplane to take off and land as well as time waiting to leave aircraft

    Finally, what would be the fractional reduction in total travel time?

    Share
    1. all excellent points. right now it takes less time to take the train from boston to nyc when you factor in airport security etc etc….

      total travel time is probably a more useful metric than air time.

      Share
  9. “Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies” (ET3)tm will reach the same speed using a small fraction of the energy (and without the sonic boom issue).

    Share
  10. Hey how about this as an idea for faster travel? You rock up at the airport, leave all your bags at check in, change into a sleeper suit, get put into a deep sleep and then are wheeled through a body scanner and stacked into tubes on the plane. Then we would have no issues about security, upgrades, no complaints about AA in flight service and food, no stress as even if there was an air accident you would no nothing about it and you would be woken up at the destination fully rested. It’s the future of air travel…. Not.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post