How the Air Force Could Transport You Across the Atlantic In 90 Minutes

How the Air Force Could Transport You Across the Atlantic In 90 Minutes

The service is trying to jumpstart the civilian high-speed aircraft market, which could have implications for its own warplane fleet.

Science & Tech

A high-speed aviation startup has snagged a major contract with the U.S. Air Force for the development of reusable hypersonic aircraft—and it could lead to significantly faster air travel for civilians.

Hermeus, a Doraville, Georgia-based aircraft development firm, won $60 million to develop three hypersonic technology demonstrators, and has plans for bigger and better planes. If successful, Hermeus could finally snatch the crown for the world's fastest aircraft from the SR-71 Blackbird.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) jointly presented the award to Hermeus in July, according to a press release. The award will fund an "increase of understanding of enabling technologies and mission capabilities for reusable hypersonic aircraft." Translation: the Air Force wants Hermeus to figure out what it could do with a hypersonic plane.

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Another goal is to construct and test a hypersonic engine, and then to build and test three of Hermeus' Quarterhorse concept aircraft (pictured at the top of this story). The company advertises Quarterhorse as autonomous or remotely piloted with a top speed of Mach 5. The SR-71 Blackbird currently holds the record for the fastest jet aircraft, with a record speed of 2,193 miles per hour. If successful, Quarterhorse would fly at approximately 3,836 miles per hour. That's fast enough to go from New York to Paris in 90 minutes.

At the heart of the effort is Hermeus' development of turbine-based combined-cycle engine technology. Combined-cycle engines work like regular turbine engines, which power jet fighters and passenger planes, but at lower speeds. At high-speed, the engine works like a ramjet, ramming increased amounts of air through the engine chamber to create much, much more thrust.

A traditional turbine engine can't generate enough thrust to make a plane go hypersonic, while a ramjet engine can't operate at slower speeds. In the past, this has resulted in hypersonic aircraft concepts that used two different engines—an inefficient and wasteful approach. A combined-cycle engine, meanwhile, can function in both roles, providing thrust the entire time the plane is aloft.

The Air Force says it is funding Quarterhorse to "accelerate the commercial development of hypersonic aircraft and propulsion systems," meaning you could one day benefit from the contract, hopping on a hypersonic plane and reaching your vacation destination in record time.

But there are some clues that the service has future military applications in mind, too. The Air Force wants Hermeus to "provide payload integration for future flight testing with Quarterhorse," for instance. The big question: what kind of payload does it see Hermeus carrying? People? Cargo? Sensors? Jamming pods? Missiles? Bombs?

The Air Force also wants Hermeus to provide "wargaming inputs for use in Air Force strategic analysis tools." How would a reusable hypersonic aircraft change the strategic equation in a wargame? One possible example: if the Air Force models a conflict with China in the 2040 timeframe, how does adding a squadron of 12 hypersonic bombers to the American side affect the course of a conflict?