Mach 6 aircraft gets B-52 test ride

X-51 Waverider tests out flight with B-52 mothership

b-52 and x-51
In preparation for its first flight early next year, the US Air Force said it successfully married and flew in tandem the Mach 6 capable test aircraft, known as the X-51A WaveRider and a venerable B-52.

When it finally flies the X-51A flight tests are intended to demonstrate the engines can achieve their desired speed without disintegrating.  While the X-51 looks like a large rocket now, its applications could change the way aircraft or spaceships are designed,  fly into space, support reconnaissance missions and handle long-distance flight operations.

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At the heart of the test is the aircraft's air-breathing hypersonic scramjet system.

During the actual flight test now set for mid-February, the B-52 will carry the X-51A to 50,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean and release it. A solid rocket booster on the X-51 will then ignite and accelerate the X-51 to about Mach 4.5. Then the fun starts.  That's because after that, the supersonic combustion scramjet will blast the vehicle for five minutes to more than Mach 6.  The longest-ever previous scramjet test, lasted only about 10 seconds, the Air Force stated.

 Hypersonic combustion generates intense heat and routing of the engine's own JP-7 fuel will help keep the engine at the desired operating temperature, the Air Force stated. As the scramjet engine ignites it will initially burn a mix of ethylene and JP-7 jet fuel before switching exclusively to JP-7. Once the test is over the X-51 will splash into the Pacific. 

For the Dec. 9 test, the B-52 carrying the X-51 flew for about an hour and a half. They flew to 50,000 feet and verified B-52 aircraft performance, handling qualities with the X-51A attached to the B-52, control room displays and software integration with the X-51A, the Air Force stated. 

Previous tests verified the X-51 and B-52 could communicate and that X-51A can be safely and successfully uploaded and downloaded on the modified B-52H pylon, the Air Force stated. Wind tunnel tests and modeling to ensure safe separation from the aircraft were other tests. 

One more dress rehearsal is set for January where the B-52/X-51 tandem will fly over the Pacific to Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range. Both airborne and multiple ground test assets will monitor all X-51A systems, but it will not be released from the B-52 and its engine will not ignite. 

Four X-51A's have been built as part of a joint effort by the Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and Boeing. 

The X-51 ISN'T the only hypersonic research going on.  Until it was cancelled earlier this year,  DARPA was working on the Blackswift reusable hypersonic aircraft . The Blackswift was to take off on its own, climb and accelerate to a Mach 6+ cruise speed, sustain this Mach 6+ cruise speed in level flight for at least 60 seconds, and demonstrate maneuverability by executing an aileron roll and land under its own power. 

Last year NASA and the Air Force said it would be offering up to $35 million to help fund research that could ultimately develop aircraft that can fly at over five-times the speed of sound or faster. Such hypersonic aircraft face myriad trajectory control, propulsion and heat-related issues akin to what a spacecraft would endure, experts say.

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