The U.S. military launched an experimental hypersonic aircraft on its swan song test flight Wednesday (May 1), accelerating the craft to more than five times the speed of sound in the longest-ever mission for a vehicle of its kind.
The Air Force’s X-51A Waverider reached a top speed of Mach 5.1 during the test flight, traveling more than 230 nautical miles in just over six minutes before crashing into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast as planne
The X-51A took off Wednesday morning from Edwards Air Force Base in California under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress. The Waverider was released at an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) and used a solid rocket booster to accelerate to Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds.
The Waverider then separated from the rocket and sped up to Mach 5.1 at an altitutde of 60,000 feet (18,300 m), powered by its air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engine, officials said.
The X-51A burned up the scramjet’s four-minute fuel supply and was destroyed as expected upon impacting the Pacific Ocean. All told, the vehicle returned 370 seconds of flight data.
While there is no plan to build any more X-51A vehicles, officials said the $300 million technology demonstration program, which began in 2004, leaves a valuable legacy.
“I believe all we have learned from the X-51A Waverider will serve as the bedrock for future hypersonics research and ultimately the practical application of hypersonic flight,” Brink said.