Air Force awards $1.5M contract to develop hypersonic Mach 5 plane

Air Force awards $1.5 million contract to develop hypersonic Mach 5 plane for potential use in presidential fleet

  • Atlanta-based Hermeus announced the Air Force investment on Thursday
  • Company has a prototype hypersonic jet engine that can reach Mach 5
  • Reaches deal to develop concept for an executive jet seating 9 to 19
  • If successful, the plan could one day be used for VIP government travel 

The Air Force has reached a deal to fund the development of a hypersonic plane that could one day be used to carry top government officials in the executive branch.

The contract, announced by aerospace firm Hermeus on Thursday, will fund the development of a small passenger jet that could replace the Gulfstream-based planes currently in the presidential fleet.

Though the current aircraft under consideration would be too small to replace Air Force One, it could conceivably someday be used to transport Cabinet members, Congressional delegations, and other officials whose transport is overseen by the Special Air Mission.

The Air Force investment, awarded through AFWERX, is worth $1.5 million and will be used to evaluate potential hypersonic military transports for an aircraft seating nine to 19 people, according to Aviation Week Defense Editor Steve Trimble.

Concept art from aerospace firm Hermeus shows a planned Mach 5 passenger jet. The Air Force is working with the firm to develop technology for the presidential fleet

The defense contract comes after Hermeus successfully tested a Mach 5 engine prototype (Above) in February 2020

At Mach 5, which is over 3000mph, flight times from New York to London would be 90 minutes rather than seven hours. 

 ‘Leaps in capability are vital as we work to complicate the calculus of our adversaries,’ said Brigadier General Ryan Britton, Program Executive Officer for Presidential and Executive Airlift in a statement on the program.

‘By leveraging commercial investment to drive new technologies into the Air Force, we are able to maximize our payback on Department of Defense investments,’ he continued.

‘The Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate is proud to support Hermeus in making this game-changing capability a reality as we look to recapitalize the fleet in the future.’ 

The defense contract comes after Hermeus successfully tested a Mach 5 engine prototype in February 2020.

The hypersonic plane could eventually replace the Gulfstream-based planes in the Special Air Mission that are used to ferry Cabinet members and Congressional delegations 

Hermeus’ engine (above) uses a turbine-based combined cycle propulsion that can take off and land like a normal plane, but then be switched into ramjet mode

The engine uses a turbine-based combined cycle propulsion that can take off and land like a normal plane, but then be switched into ramjet mode for the middle portion of flight to achieve hypersonic speed.

‘Using our pre-cooler technology, we’ve taken an off-the-shelf gas turbine engine and operated it at flight speed conditions faster than the famed SR-71,’ said Glenn Case, Hermeus’ CTO.

‘In addition, we’ve pushed the ramjet mode to Mach 4-5 conditions, demonstrating full-range hypersonic air-breathing propulsion capability,’ he said.

The current Air Force One fleet used for presidential transport consists of two heavily modified Boeing 747s, using the military designation VC-25.

Two new aircraft, designated VC-25B and based on the Boeing 747-8, have been ordered by the Air Force and are due to be delivered by 2024.

WHAT ARE HYPERSONIC AIRCRAFT AND WHO IS DEVELOPING THEM?

Hypersonic aircraft are those capable of a hitting speeds five times the speed of sound or more.

The vehicles could be used to deliver missiles, including nuclear weapons, to targets around the world in a fraction of the time achieved by current craft.

Hypersonic vehicles travel so rapidly and unpredictably they could provide an almost-immediate threat to nations across the globe.

Once developed, the gap between identifying a military threat and launching an attack on it will drop from hours to minutes, even at long distances. 

Since 2013, China has conducted seven successful test flights of its hypersonic glider DF-ZF.

The vehicle will be capable of speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or five to 10 times the speed of sound.

US officials tested tested HTV-2 in 2011, an unmanned aircraft capable of Mach 20, but the hypersonic flight lasted just a few minutes before the vehicle crashed.

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