Boeing has recently unveiled a concept for the potential successor of the Blackbird SR-71 spy plane, called the ‘Son of Blackbird’. The plane is set to fly at 5 times the speed of sound. The plane can be a high-speed strike and reconnaissance aircraft in warfare of the future. With a plane flying at this high speed the opponent won’t get enough time to react or hide when hit. The plane is designed to carry out spy missions in the same way as the Blackbird SR-71 used to do. Blackbird SR-71 was the world’s highest-flying operational manned aircraft of its time.
In 1979 the Blackbird SR-71 set a speed record of 2193.2mph (3529kmh) and it is a record that is still held by the plane. The concept of Son of Blackbird was revealed at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech forum. It is a direct competitor to Lockheed Martin’s design which is expected to be flying in the late 2020s.
The speed of sound called the Mash 1, is approximately 767mph (1235kmh) and if the aircraft hit Mash 5, it will be flying at an astonishing speed of 3836mph (6174kmh). Boeing’s chief scientist for hypersonic, Kevin Bowcutt, said, “‘It’s a really hard problem to develop an aircraft that takes off and accelerates through Mach 1 all the way to Mach 5 and beyond.” The SR-71’s successor will be taking off, accelerating and slowing down on its own. Just like its ancestors in 1964.
Hypersonic technology, which includes a combined cycle propulsion system that mixes the rocket engine and a supersonic jet engine, are now developed enough to allow the SR-72 project to begin. The company plans to perform a two-step process. The first step will be to have some test flights with an F-16 single-engine design and the second step will be to do the test flights with a twin-engine, full-scale operational vehicle. The full-scale operational vehicle is expected to be around 107 foot long. The design for the vehicle has not yet been approved for development but it shows a twin-tail and a highly swept delta wing configuration.
Mr. Bowcutt said, “The specific impulse of an air-breathing engine goes down with increasing velocity, so you have to make the engine bigger to get to Mach 5. But doing that means a bigger inlet and a bigger nozzle, and trying to get that through Mach 1 is harder.”
If a surface-to-air missile is detected, the standard procedure is to simply accelerate and fly away from the missile speedingly. The plane flies very high above the Earth’s surface so there is no sense of speed relative to the clouds that are far below. The total number of aircrafts that were built from 1964 to 1999 was 32. Among these, 12 were lost in accidents, however, none were shot down by enemies.
In 1957, the defense contractor was approached by CIA to build a spy plane that will be undetected by any radars. After the request was put forward, it only took them 10 months to come up with the design of Blackbird. As the plane flies over 80,000 feet that means that the crew cannot use standard masks since it does not provide enough oxygen after crossing the height of 43,000 feet. Seeing the situation, special protective pressurized suits were made for the crew. The plane is made up of titanium skin and can survive temperatures that are up to 482-degree Celcius. In September 2017, it was announced that Lockheed Martin was testing a radical hypersonic update of its Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
The SR-72 hypersonic plane will be a hit plane that can top at Mach 6. The company has also confirmed that they are working on the project since the early 2000s. The executive vise president of aeronautics at Lockheed Martin, Orlando Carvalho, said, “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed. Simply put, I believe the United States is on the verge of a hypersonic revolution.”
Rob Weiss, Lockheed Martin’s executive vise president and general manager for Advanced Development Programs said, “‘We’ve been saying hypersonics is two years away for the last 20 years, but all I can say is the technology is mature and we, along with Darpa and the services, are working hard to get that capability into the hands of our warfighters as soon as possible.” The plane is expected to be of the same size as the size of an F-22 and will be powered by a full-scale, combined cycle engine.
Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin’s program manager said, “Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour. Speed is the next aviation advancement to counter emerging threats in the next several decades. The technology would be a game-changer in theater, similar to how stealth is changing the battlespace today.”
Hypersonic jets that can fly up to Mach 5, also cuts journey time for passengers and can reach the destination way earlier than expected. For instance, a regular flight today from New York to Shanghai takes about 15 hours, however, in a hypersonic jet, it will take only two hours. NASA said that it is taking proposals for the development of its supersonic X-plane and has plans to begin working on the project as early as next year. The Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) low-boom flight demonstrator is aiming to produce a much-reduced boom as compared to other supersonic aircrafts. NASA is hoping to see the first flight test of the plane in 2021. Lockheed Martin has been developing the preliminary design and hopes to build the demonstrator, however, NASA has decided to take design proposals from other companies as well.