Edwards Air Force Base   Right Corner Banner
Join the Air Force

News > X-51A conducts flight test
Previous ImageNext Image
X-51 WaveRider
X-51 WaveRider
Download HiRes
X-51A conducts flight test

Posted 5/26/2010   Updated 5/26/2010 Email story   Print story


by Air Force Flight Test Center Public Affairs

5/26/2010 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- An X-51A Waverider flight test vehicle successfully made the longest ever supersonic combustion ramjet-powered hypersonic flight today off the Southern California coast.

The more than 200-second burn by the X-51's Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne-built air breathing scramjet engine accelerated the vehicle to Mach 5. The previous longest scramjet burn in a flight test was 12 seconds in a NASA X-43.

Even before sifting through volumes of telemetry data transmitted by the X-51, Air Force officials called the test, the first of four planned, an unqualified success. The flight is considered the first use of a practical hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet in flight.

"We are ecstatic to have accomplished the most significant of our test points on the X-51A's very first hypersonic mission," said Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. "We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines."

The X-51 departed about 10 a.m. from Edwards Air Force Base, carried aloft under the left wing of an Air Force Flight Test Center B-52H Stratofortress. Then, flying at 50,000 feet over the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range, the Waverider was released. Four seconds later an Army Tactical Missile solid rocket booster accelerated the X-51 to about Mach 4.8 before it and a connecting interstage were jettisoned. The launch and separation were normal, Mr. Brink said.

Then the X-51's SJY61 engine ignited, initially on a mix of ethylene, similar to lighter fluid, and JP-7 jet fuel then exclusively on JP-7, the same fuel that once powered the SR-71 Blackbird before its retirement. The flight reached an altitude of about 70,000 feet and a peak speed of Mach 5.

"Onboard sensors transmitted data to an airborne U.S. Navy P-3, as well as ground systems at Point Mugu, Vandenberg and Edwards Air Force Bases," Mr. Brink said. "After about 200 seconds of engine operation a vehicle anomaly occurred and the flight was terminated. Engineers are busily examining the data to identify the cause of the anomaly. However because of the overwhelming success of the test, this will be one of the key points to examine in the analysis of several months' worth of data derived from today's flight."

A NASA Dryden Research Center F-18 Hornet flying photo and safety chase captured the X-51A's release from the B-52 on video before it shot out of sight in a blast of smoke from the solid rocket booster motor.

Four X-51A cruisers have been built for the Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by industry partners Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and Boeing. The Air Force intends to fly the three remaining X-51A flight test vehicles this fall, Mr. Brink said. The Air Force currently plans to fly each on virtually identical flight profiles, building knowledge from each successive flight.

Mr. Brink said the heart of this aircraft is its SJY61 Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne scramjet engine, which is capable of producing between 400 to 1000 lbs of thrust. Like a conventional jet engine, the SJY61 is capable of adjusting thrust throughout the X-51's flight envelope.

Hypersonic flight, normally defined as beginning at Mach 5-five times the speed of sound- presents unique technical challenges with heat and pressure, which make conventional turbine engines impractical. Program officials said producing thrust with a scramjet has been compared to lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it burning.

George Thum, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne X-51 program manager, said the key technical challenge for X-51 has been integrating a fuel-cooled scramjet, where the JP-7 fuel runs through the walls of the engine, cooling it in flight, into a compact flight vehicle capable of hypersonic flight. The X-51's fuel-cooled engine design serves to both heat the JP-7 to an optimum combustion temperature and help the engine itself endure extremely high operating temperatures during the long burn.

Boeing's Phantom Works in Palmdale, Calif. oversaw vehicle systems integration and assembly. Beyond scalable scramjet propulsion, other key technologies the X-51A will demonstrate include thermal protection systems materials, airframe and engine integration, and high-speed stability and control, said Joe Vogel, Boeing's X-51A program manager.

"This first flight was the culmination of a six-year effort by a small, but very talented AFRL, DARPA, and industry development team," Mr. Brink said. "Now we will go back and really scrutinize our data. No test is perfect, and I'm sure we will find anomalies that we will need to address before the next flight. But anyone will tell you that we learn just as much, if not more, when we encounter a glitch."

The X-51 was carried aloft for the first time by the same B-52 from Edwards Air Force Base for a captive carry mission on Dec. 9, 2009. That flight verified B-52 aircraft performance, handling qualities with the X-51A attached to the B-52, control room displays, software integration and communication with the X-51A.

The X-51A briefly flew again Feb. 3, 2010, again remaining safely tucked under the B-52's wing, for what was planned as a full dress rehearsal for the hypersonic flight. Maintenance issues with the B-52 and chase aircraft cut the flight short before all dress rehearsal tasks were completed, so program officials decided to fly one more rehearsal mission April 2. During that "Delta-Dress Rehearsal," the B-52 and two NASA F-18s ran through the entire hypersonic mission profile, but without the X-51 onboard.

The launch of the X-51A took place at 50,000 feet, near the limits of the B-52's capabilities, said project pilot Lt. Col. Daniel Millman.

"Seeing the X-51 come off the rail and streak away was immensely satisfying," Colonel Millman said.

More than 35 people inside the control room at Edwards' Ridley Mission Control Center, monitored the X-51A's engine performance and various telemetry. Among those was Mr. Johnny Armstrong, a senior technical advisor with the Air Force Flight Test Center's Hypersonics Combined Test Force. Mr. Armstrong began his Air Force career some 50 years earlier with another test article carried by the B-52-the rocket-powered X-15.

Mr. Armstrong said it's been a long wait seeing the first proof of concept in a practical, reusable, air-breathing hypersonic scramjet, but he's found the journey very satisfying.

"As we've often said in the flight test community, there will be no test before its time. This one was most definitely worth waiting for," he said.

Brig. Gen. William J. Thornton, 412th Test Wing commander, said, "The X-51 has demonstrated an entirely new engine capable of operating higher and faster than previous technology allowed. This engine, called a scramjet, operates hypersonically at speeds greater than mach 5 and has no moving parts."

"Significant advances of the X-51 over previous hypersonic tests are the capability to achieve over 4 minutes of engine burn duration (previous tests had only 12 seconds), the acceleration of the vehicle through a range of speeds, and the fact that the engine will burn a hydrocarbon jet fuel instead of the more exotic fuels that previous tests have used," General Thornton said.

General Thornton concluded that, " This test opens the door for hypersonic weapons capable of prompt global strike, hypersonic air transport, and may someday lead to more economical access to space. This is another game changer from the 412th TW and Edwards - this one in the hypersonics field - with potential broad applications across the global strike, ISR and weapons spectrum."

Program officials said the scramjet motor's great advantage is the ability to capture and burn oxygen in the thin atmosphere, rather than having to carry it in a large tank like the space shuttle or other rockets. Not having to carry the oxidizer needed for combustion means more payload capability.

Mr. Brink said that while development of the X-51A's engine and the test program are complex, controlling costs has been a key objective, the team has incorporated or adapted existing proven technologies, and elected from the outset not to build recovery systems in the flight test vehicles in an effort to control costs and focus funding on the vehicle's fuel-cooled scramjet engine.

Mr. Brink said he believes the X-51A program will provide knowledge required to develop the game-changing technologies needed for future access to space and hypersonic weapon applications.

Note: This was approximately the 261st first flight that has originated from Edwards AFB since its inception. This flight may also be considered a world record, bringing that total to over 360.

7/27/2010 10:24:11 PM ET
I would like to take time to thank all involved with this project. Knowledge gained from experimental projects like these opens the door for more affordable and safer access to space. I wasn't around in the sixties to see the incredible advances in flight and rocket technology but perhaps my son and I will look back and remember these days as the second great space age. God bless and may your funding not fail due to short sighted politics.Chevis
Chevis White, Buford Ga
Add a comment

 Inside Edwards

ima cornerSearch

Site Map      Contact Us     Questions     USA.gov     Security and Privacy notice     E-publishing  
Suicide Prevention    SAPR   IG   EEO   Accessibility/Section 508   No FEAR Act