AF Seeks Partnership with DARPA to Pursue Hypersonic Flight

After funding on the demonstration program has run dry, Air Force leaders plan to work with DARPA to keep the program alive.

The Air Force has partnered with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, to advance hypersonic flight and launch a new joint developmental effort, service officials said.

The initiative, now being finalized, is designed to build upon the heels of a successful May 1 flight 60,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean wherein the X-51A Waverider demonstrator aircraft accelerated to Mach 5.1.

The new program is designed to advance the research and capabilities of hypersonic flight following the May 1 demonstration or test flight, said Air Force Chief Scientists Dr. Mica Endsley.

Air Force officials have said hypersonic flight could revolutionize future aircraft to include the next generation bomber the service plans to keep developing. Service leaders don’t intend to incorporate scramjet engines on the first iterations, but hypersonic flight is being considered for future versions.

“We had a very successful flight with X-51, showing hypersonic speeds. We’re currently setting up a follow-on program on that with DARPA that will be a joint Memorandum of Understanding,” Endsley told Military.com in an interview.

Endsley praised the May 1 flight and said the new Air Force-DARPA effort would examine what potential next-steps could advance the capability and bring it closer to something, ultimately, with operational potential.

The May 1 test flight, which wound up being the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever, wrapped up a $300 million technology demonstration program going back to 2004, according to an Air Force statement.

The X-51A took off from the Air Force Test Center at Edwards AFB, Calif., under the wing of B-52H Stratofortress. It was released at approximately 50,000 feet and accelerated to Mach 4.8 in about 26 seconds powered by a solid rocket booster. After separating from the booster, the cruiser’s supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, engine then lit and accelerated the aircraft to Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet, according to the Air Force.

The vehicle continued to send back data even after it rand out of fuel and splashed down into the ocean. About 370 seconds of data was collected from the experiment.