Unmanned aircraft reaches 3,500 mph
LOS ANGELES – 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 jet engines. But the technology has been exceedingly difficult to perfect. Previous attempts produced limited results, including flights that lasted only a few seconds.
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. It has been undergoing tests at Edwards Air Force Base.
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.”
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