USA — New Air Force Scramjet Makes Historic Flight

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory’s X-51A Waverid­er, a hyper­son­ic flight test demon­stra­tor, broke avi­a­tion records dur­ing its ini­tial launch last week.

The Waverid­er flew for over 200 sec­onds and reached a speed of approx­i­mate­ly Mach 5 – near­ly 4,000 miles per hour — on May 26 dur­ing a flight from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Dur­ing the test the team was able to receive between 140 and 170 sec­onds of clean engine data and it was the longest-ever hyper­son­ic flight pow­ered by a super­son­ic com­bus­tion ram­jet engine.

“It’s been about a six-year effort,” Char­lie Brink, Air Force Research Laboratory’s X-51A Scram­jet Engine Demon­stra­tor pro­gram man­ag­er said dur­ing a “DoDLive” blog­gers round­table June 1. “We’ve been design­ing and ana­lyz­ing this and get­ting pre­pared for the flight test pro­gram.”

The Waverid­er, a hyper­son­ic scram­jet-pow­ered vehi­cle, was cre­at­ed as part of a joint col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Boe­ing and Pratt & Whit­ney Rock­et­dyne, NASA and the Navy. The pro­gram, Brink said, demon­strates the via­bil­i­ty of scram­jet engine tech­nol­o­gy in pro­pelling an aero­space vehi­cle.

“This is a pret­ty-sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone for us, hav­ing flight data now,” said George Thum, X-51A pro­gram man­ag­er for Pratt & Whit­ney Rock­et­dyne, which built the SJY61 super­son­ic com­bus­tion ram­jet engine that is the heart of the cruis­er.

“From a stand­point of the objec­tives of the pro­gram, I think that we’re real­ly pleased with the results,” Brink said.

Joseph Vogel, of Boe­ing Phan­tom Works/Defense, Space and Secu­ri­ty direc­tor of the Hyper­son­ic X-51A pro­gram, observed that the ram­jet cruis­er met near­ly all of the test para­me­ters until the mis­sion was ter­mi­nat­ed.

“The fact that we were suc­cess­ful says that we will move for­ward and [will] like­ly build more of these at some point in time,” Vogel said. He added that although there is no com­mit­ment from the gov­ern­ment, that based on what they’ve accom­plished there is a great like­li­hood for future devel­op­ment.

There are three remain­ing X-51A vehi­cles that the pro­gram intends to fly lat­er this fall, depend­ing on the data review the team is going through and avail­able fund­ing, Brink said.

With the data col­lect­ed from this pro­gram, he said, hyper­son­ic air breath­ing propul­sion tech­nol­o­gy could have a future in such things like hyper­son­ic weapons that fly 600 nau­ti­cal miles in 10 min­utes, pro­vid­ing the abil­i­ty to engage long-dis­tance tar­get very quick­ly.

Brink also sees a use for scram­jet engine tech­nol­o­gy in future space lift sys­tems, get­ting rid of oxi­diz­er tanks, and mak­ing flights to orbit more effi­cient.

“If the gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to invest in this tech­nol­o­gy … I would say that with­in the next 15-to-30 [years] you could start to see this tech­nol­o­gy being expand­ed to the point where you could get air­craft into out­er space,” Vogel said.

“We’re excit­ed about the future of this tech­nol­o­gy, Thum added. “Fun­da­men­tal­ly, it’s an effi­cient sys­tem that has a lot of future poten­tial appli­ca­tion.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)