August 14th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

Imagine flying from New York to London in under an hour

By Mike Mount, CNN Senior National Security Producer

Perhaps Han Solo said it best in Star Wars when, describing his hyper-fast smuggling spaceship the Millennium Falcon, he said, "It may not look like much, but it's got it where it counts."

While the Air Force might take exception to being likened to the Falcon, in reality the platypus-nosed X-51A Waverider hypersonic flight test vehicle really doesn't look like much. But it definitely has it where it counts.

On Tuesday, the unmanned 25-foot-long vehicle will be dropped off of the wing of a converted B-52 bomber off the California coast and try to fly for 300 seconds at science fiction-like speeds of Mach 6, over 4,500 mph - fast enough to fly from New York to London in less than an hour.

It is the Pentagon's latest test as it studies the possibilities of hypersonic flight, defined as moving at speeds of Mach 5 (about 3,400 mph) and above without leaving the atmosphere. The technology could eventually bring missiles or airplanes to the other side of the planet in minutes instead of hours.

The Air Force and the Pentagon are not saying much about Tuesday's test, but the military could use such technology for reconnaissance aircraft, cruise missile-like weapons or vehicles that could carry people or cargo so fast adversaries would not have time to react, according to military analysts.

The Air Force conceived the X-51A program in 2004 and, according to the military analysis website, the service has spent $140 million on the Waverider system. The Air Force will not disclose the actual cost of the program.

Long like a missile and with just a few fins in the rear, the Boeing-built aircraft is not designed as a bed for a weapon, according to the Air Force, but it is testing the technology to build future weapons around.

Past Waverider flights have come with mixed results. In May 2010, the Waverider made its first flight at 3,500 mph for 143 seconds before a malfunction caused the test to shut down early.

A June 2011 test also was shutdown early but did collect some data for the Air Force.

If all goes as planned, the flight Tuesday will end with a dive into the Pacific; there is no intent to recover the aircraft. The Air Force says the program was designed for each vehicle to be destroyed at the end of its flight test because of the cost that would be involved in recovering them. Data is fed back to evaluators during the test.

The Pentagon considers hypersonic flight the new stealth. The technology could move reconnaissance or bomber aircraft at high altitudes and speeds that put them far out of the reach of surface-to-air missiles or other anti-aircraft fire. The kind of speeds the X-51A is able to reach cannot be achieved with current jet-powered technology.

The aircraft uses "scramjet" technology, an engine with virtually no moving parts. It uses oxygen from the atmosphere for its engines, as opposed to carrying large fuel tanks that rockets require, making it a more efficient vehicle for military or commercial purposes.

Additionally, because of the high speeds the vehicle is also able to ride on the shockwave it creates at six times the speed of sound, increasing efficiency, according to an Air Force factsheet on the X-51A. It says that is also the genesis of the vehicle's nickname, the Waverider.

The Pentagon's high-technology research group, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, says getting aircraft to speeds of Mach 20 - which would enable the military to get anywhere in the world in under an hour - is an area of research where significant scientific advancements have eluded researchers for decades.

The Pentagon says it is studying this technology as countries have made advances in thwarting stealth technologies the U.S military has in its arsenal.

"That strategic advantage is threatened as other nations' abilities in stealth and counter-stealth improve," according to DARPA website. "Restoring that battle space advantage requires advanced speed, reach and range. Hypersonic technologies have the potential to provide the dominance once afforded by stealth to support a range of varied future national security missions."

The military could use it in two realms, according to Dan Wasserbly, the Americas editor of IHS/Jane's, a military analysis publication.

"They could use it to develop cruise missile-like weapons that could reach a target on the other side of the planet in minutes instead of hours, as well as developing aircraft which could put a quick-reaction force on a far-off battleground within hours instead of days," Wasserbly said.

The Air Force has said that by 2016 it would like to have a working weapon flying with hypersonic technology. But with the program budgeted only though this Tuesday's test, it is unclear when anything with hypersonic technology could be fielded, according to Wasserbly.

The Air Force made four of the X-51A test vehicles. Tuesday's test will be the third and possibly last test, according to Air Force spokesman Daryl Mayer.

"The Air Force will review the data from this mission and assess what will come next," he said.

The Pentagon has also been studying other hypersonic technology, including 2010 and 2011 flight tests of the Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle (HTV-2) capable of reaching Mach 20, approximately 13,000 mph, according to DARPA.

Both of those tests ended with the aircraft crashing before the tests were complete.

So even after the Air Force evaluates the results of the Tuesday test, it will be hard to know when the military will start launching troops from the U.S. to a far-flung combat zone in minutes.

soundoff (799 Responses)
  1. NYC Fitness Event

    It really is misleading, there are so many more variables to flying to London in under a hour. However i think it's great that we may
    be able to travel that fast one day. I think the sole purpose of this is to deliver missiles to targets in sec's.

    January 31, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Reply
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  5. twaizan

    This is pretty cool tecnology but I'm always a fan of long relaxing plane rides.

    August 21, 2012 at 12:42 am | Reply
  6. Bill Stewart

    Apparently it didn't have it where it counts – the fins broke off and it crashed. So far, of three tests of this boondoggle, two have failed.

    August 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
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    August 16, 2012 at 6:26 am | Reply
  8. Sillygirl

    What ever happened to the small time inventor? It wasn't always huge corporations who came up with these fantastic ideas, or the means to develop said ideas. There used to be everyday dreamers...dreamers who worked on their own terms...who would never allow their project to be dumped into the ocean never to be seen again...
    People with the right capabilities just aren't scientifically motivated anymore. This is one of the reasons Richard Branson is so epic.... at least he's using what he has to dream ... dream big, and then dream some more, for the rest of us. : )

    August 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  9. BD

    This article is so inredibly misleading its rediculous.

    Unless they've created artificial gravity, or commericial passengers are required to endure the same g-forces as fighter pilots, then the numbers their using are rediculous.

    August 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  10. qwerty

    Imagine winning the lottery !

    August 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  11. umadbro?

    took an hour to hit the al qeada training camp... because Osama knew a week before they were going to launch lol!

    August 15, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  12. umadbro?

    It FAILED. wheres the news on the failure.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  13. B. Bittner

    This may have already been caught, but let's get the Han Solo quote right. "She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid." (ref. IMDB). Thanks.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  14. Sam

    This is amazing technology! The one thing I am very upset to read: " the flight Tuesday will end with a dive into the Pacific; there is no intent to recover the aircraft. The Air Force says the program was designed for each vehicle to be destroyed at the end of its flight test because of the cost that would be involved in recovering them". So we are just going to dump a huge amount of trash in the ocean and not clean it up!!! Way to set an example for these developing countries the US loves to bash for the same type of actions

    August 15, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  15. Dead Lenny

    Hey, I'm all for this project on one condition: they have to design an animatronic Slim Pickens to ride on the damn thing - backwards, while waving a cowboy hat - that will survive the trip. (The ability for RoboPickens to keep yelling, "WEEE-HOO! WEEE-HOO!" for the duration of the flight should also be considered.)

    Okay guys, you win. You officially have the biggest war/technology-dick on the planet. Now that's settled, can you start filling in some potholes or funding higher education?
    . . . . .
    Yeah, didn't think so. (And people wonder why I'm voting for Gary Johnson.)

    August 15, 2012 at 3:34 am | Reply
  16. fatblackfrancis

    "Excuse me steward, I can't seem to raise my hands to my face, my tongue is very dry and I don't believe there's any blood left in my face. I think I'm also blind."

    "It's just the mach 6, sir! Now if you'll excuse me, I need to let go of your seat.. AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGH!!" *THUD*

    August 15, 2012 at 2:25 am | Reply
  17. DefyTheGods

    Bring back Buckaroo Bonzai and his "oscillator over thruster"!

    August 15, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  18. laptoprepairdata

    Excellent Feedback

    August 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  19. omarbadkid

    Dont want to know until you have a full working plane ok thanks

    August 14, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  20. Tony

    good grief, if it was for some of you people we'd never accomplish anything like going to the moon or to Mars or develop things like GPS technology, the internet or anything else that has commercial, everyday application. These are the types of experiments that helped us create the technology we humans end up USING EVERY DAY. And so what of Boeing makes $140MLN or $140BLN, who else do you want to develop this technology? Who else can do it other than corporations with the human and financial capital. The companies also create fantastic, well-paying jobs. Get over it.

    August 14, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  21. Michael

    They are not TRYING to produce perfect technology...they get $140 billion dollars free money for each one of these they produce that FAIL ... why on Earth would they want to make 1 that actually works???

    August 14, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
    • kirby

      Michael re-read the article. It's 140 MILLION not billion

      August 14, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  22. Victoria

    The government is just rubbing this in our Faces isn't it? Showing us that they will do WHATEVER they want with our money, like it or not, it doesn't matter one bit. They are flexing their muscles and trying to show to us-prove to us-that they can spend our money any which way they so desire, and there's not a danm thing we can do about it!

    August 14, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  23. Tammy

    2 BILLION dollars every couple of years for these cute little projects goes to show what congress thinks of you all and your money

    August 14, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  24. Derrick

    $140 Milllion dollar dump into the Ocean. Boeing couldn't be happier. Keep those $140 Million Dollar Paychecks coming American taxpayers...

    August 14, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  25. Ben Dover

    I want a whole bunch of $140,000,000,000.00 toys too!!!! Please give me just One per year too, and I'll never ask for anything else! I'll even play with you

    August 14, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  26. Andy in Oz

    Hmm flight to end up in the intent to recover the vehicle, can we safely assume on that basis that the flight will fall into the US coastal areas of the Pacific and not fall in a flaming heap over places in the Pacific whether foe or worse yet friend.

    August 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  27. Dan Crocker

    When will we learn. Stop talking about it and just do it. Too much information is leaked to the press and this gives our opponents a heads up on what to expect. A guy who was a clandestine operative said it best. The real pros don't talk about what they do. They just do it.

    August 14, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  28. Fr33th1nk3r

    Words cannot even begin to describe how awesome this is.

    August 14, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  29. The Woof

    So Boeing and other defense contractors are crying about the profits they are losing but here is a case where they've gooten $140 mil of governemnt money to develop a system and will charge the the government billions if they perfect it and make planes from it. And Mitt, they didn't do it on their freaking own!

    August 14, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  30. Portland tony

    The purpose of this vehicle is very simple. The US has only one munition carrying vehicle that can reach any spot in the world within an hour. That is a nuclear armed ICBM. This research project is primarily dedicated to putting a conventional warhead on a target anywhere within that hour timeframe without having to bring relatively slow moving submarines or surface ships into play using cruise missiles. It's like firing a pistol off
    your back porch knowing you will hit some bad guys in less than an hour any where in the world you aim to.

    August 14, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
    • NoN

      We have the AGM-86B air launched cruise missile, submarines and surface ships aren't the only delivery platforms for cruise missiles. Why don't you learn about what we already have before you start spouting off.

      August 14, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  31. Brian Smith

    Typical – we will pay billions of dollars to kill people, but not a penny to save somebody.

    August 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
    • Joe dirt

      They are saving you and your grand kids from the evil Chinese. Good enough for me.

      August 14, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Reply
      • NoN

        Not really, they are jeopardizing their futures because they keep destabilizing the balance of power.

        August 14, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  32. ocinfo

    The X-030 could do mach 30 –

    Why are they making such a big deal about mach 5?

    August 14, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
    • choward5400

      This is on wind aircraft. X-30 top speeds were to be achieved above the stratosphere and it was scrapped for it's lack of successful attempts anyways... .mook point.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • Billy Bob

      @ocinfo....did you even read the link you posted?? It was never put into production so the specs it listed were never proven...It was cancelled in the early 1990s, before a prototype was completed. Besides this was designed for single orbit space travel. The proto type in teh article...It is the Pentagon's latest test as it studies the possibilities of hypersonic flight, defined as moving at speeds of Mach 5 (about 3,400 mph) and above without leaving the atmosphere.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
    • Mortran

      You can't compare the high-tech of the 60s with the junk tech of today. We could also fly to the Moon and there was a supersonic passenger plane (Concorde) in these days. But these days are long gone.
      Today it is indeed an achievement, when the USAF makes something that at least remotely reminds us of the golden age.

      August 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
      • Joe dirt

        Well pardon us if our goal isn't to keep proving over and over we can go to the moon. And have since moved on to sending drones to mars.

        August 14, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
      • Cheese Wonton

        There have never been, nor are there currently, any Mach 6 air breathing missiles or aircraft in operation by the US or any other nation. Likewise no nation has made an operational scramjet. .

        August 14, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  33. peckbag

    What's the baggage fee?

    August 14, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • Busted


      August 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  34. VicB

    scramjet? what the heck for? big boys with tiny weeny like to play with speed, we don't need it. I'm more interested in nanotech and decoding the dna, that something that matters.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
    • Schmedley

      Oh, so because something is of interest to you, we should just drop everything and do that... Hey folks, we've just discovered the center of the universe!

      August 14, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
      • NoN

        Unlocking the mysteries of DNA holds far more promise for improving the lot of mankind than building more weapons. If you can't understand that then please move on.

        August 14, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  35. Thomas E. Shafovaloff

    Not all events can be anaticipated, Black Swan, so intelligence "failures" like 911 have to be planned for. Probably it is better to hire better "intelligence" workers so that the possibility of having to depend on such a weapon will not be necessary. fFnding those workers is becoming more and more difficult. It is a wonder that "scram jet", looking like the product of technology forcing the moving body through the atmosphere, is used. Isn't there a way to move the atmosphere out of the way? Isn't that what a lightening bolt does? I am far from a science geek but it looks like this flying machine could be the topping out of what will soon be old technology. And the uncertainty about it, whether or not the thing actually works, might be just enough valuable deterrent, in the mean time, to justify the expense. Looks like an enjoyable effort though.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  36. mike

    If they are showing this to us now, they already have something much more impressive, and it's probably already in operation. This is a red herring project.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  37. tez07

    Firing the weapon from the bomber????…..thats what the military thinks. In reality Val Kilmer and Gabriel Jarret hacked the system and changed the protocol. The system will instead fill the inventor and conniving professor’s house with popcorn.

    August 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Busted

      Old school... nice

      August 14, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  38. allenwoll

    The Military-Industrial Complex operating at its "finest" pitch ! ! !

    This is ALL gross B-S, NOT to mention pure fantasy / insanity ! ! !

    It needs to be stopped in its tracks and its proponents escorted to and permanently ensconced in one of our fine Arizona Hard-Rock, Desert-Tent prisons ! ! !

    August 14, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  39. TXJew

    Does the Navy know about this? At two hours to cross the globe, that's the end of aircraft carriers. Don't need 'em. That's 12 multi-billion dollar systems carrying multi-billion dollar system that will be redundant. I like it!

    August 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • Cheese Wonton

      Speed doesn't always work in favor of an anti ship missile. Moving that fast, it has almost no time to find a moving target and maneuver to hit it. I think there is a reason no western navy uses supersonic cruise missiles. You have no idea how difficult it is to find a ship at sea, especially if there is any kind of weather. Remember that Admiral Ace Lyons managed to sneak the whole Eisenhower battle group from Norfolk to the Russian coast off Murmansk without the Soviets detecting them, using weather systems to hide the carrier and it's escorts from detection by Soviet satelliites and recon aircraft. The first time the Soviets realized they had a US aircraft carrier in their back yard was when a Bear bomber being refuled by another aircraft was buzzed by two F-14s doing about Mach 2. Surprise. Don't assume China or any other nation will even know where US aircraft carriers are operating, much less be able to target them.

      August 14, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
      • Mike from PA

        It will only be a matter of time before the Russians and the Chinese make our stealth tech less useful. If it's important enough to them, they will find a way to make using stealth more difficult. Also the American taxpayer's wallet isn't bottomless and neither is the rest of the world that buys our debt.

        August 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
      • Joe dirt

        The Chinese are big on talking. And copying. BUt not much else.

        August 14, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
      • NoN

        Really? There seems to be quite a large inventory of supersonic ASM cruise missiles out there to refute your hypothesis. And as a matter of fact, the threat was considered to be so great that ship production was threatened to be stopped until the Navy could demonstrate having a credible defense against them not too many years ago.

        August 14, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  40. mayanah

    This technology wer already been used since ancient time.. Wake up people the technology is under control by the Elite.!

    August 14, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  41. silk161

    Then you see why the U.S. is in debt because they want to keep spending/wasting money on dumb things....smh!

    August 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
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