Boeing’s Push for Hypersonic Flight

One of the biggest drags to travel is the sheer amount of time it takes to get to your destination.

But if Boeing has anything to do with it, that may one day be a thing of the past.

The aircraft manufacturing giant unveiled its concept for a hypersonic passenger plane at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in Atlanta on Wednesday. It’s the latest development of a vision that the company’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg first shared with the world back in February.

The plane could, in theory, get passengers from Los Angeles to Tokyo in three hours, or from New York to London in as little as two. Those flights currently take 11 and 7 hours, respectively.

So how is Boeing’s design going to be able to reach these speeds? As Boeing’s Senior Technical Fellow of Hypersonics Kevin Bowcutt told Popular Mechanics, the craft uses a specific type of engine known as a ramjet, a staple of many hypersonic vehicle designs. He also explained how the hypersonic jet’s sharp front-end design would produce minimal drag while its split tail would help to stabilize and steer the vehicle.

The top sides of the wings generate expansion waves that distribute the flow away from the airplane. This creates very-low-pressure zones that hinder a tail in doing its job of stabilizing and steering.

“A tail doesn’t work in low pressure air—it needs that pressure to be effective,” Bowcutt says. “So you have to design a hypersonic aircraft so the tail is always grabbing high pressure flow.” Boeing’s solution is to split the tail, splay them, and put them in areas that can capture higher air pressure.

While Boeing has been working on hypersonics research since the mid-’50s, the company will still face numerous hurdles before it can actually build this hypersonic jet. The plane will need to have a more advanced cooling system than normal airplanes, and the company will need to develop materials that are lightweight enough to actually allow the jet to reach Mach 5 speeds.

Boeing is the 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to hypersonics, the technology to fly faster than Mach 5. The company has been working on this research since 1956, breaking speed records with the X-15 and moving on to other experiential planes like the X-43 and X-51. Boeing is pulling knowhow from those decades of testing, which could be the company’s ace in the hole as it competes with not only American firms like Lockheed Martin but also with Chinese and Russian engineers in this new hypersonic race.

But as anyone who’s been following NASA’s ambitions for supersonic plane travel can tell you, this concept is wildly expensive — we’re talking $247.5 million-contract expensive. And that’s just for a Mach 1.4 craft. Developing and building a Mach 5 hypersonic jet would likely cost billions, but is the payoff worth it?

For now, anyway, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg thinks so. “I think in the next decade or two you’re going to see them become a reality,” he told CNBC last year. “We see future innovations where you could connect around the world in about two hours.”

Boeing is still trying to figure out how any of this will all actually happen, but the aircraft manufacturing company does have its eye on a launch date. If the company has its way, it’ll get these hypersonic jets in the air in about 20 to 30 years from now — which, coincidentally, is about as long as every layover in Chicago O’Hare feels.

(Fortune, Mashable, Popular Mechanics)


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