Hypersonic flight test fails over Pacific

A aircraft built to fly six times the speed of sound plummeted into the Pacific Ocean after being dropped by an adapted B-52bomber in a failed test Tuesday.

The Air Force built the X-51A Waverider to test hypersonic flight, or an aircraft flying more than Mach 5. Air Force officials had hoped the Waverider, which looks like a 25-foot missile, would reach Mach 6, or at least 4,500 miles per hour.

However, the Waverider dropped into the ocean only 15 seconds into its test flight, according to the Air Force. Scientists and engineers had hoped it would fly for 300 seconds. One of the control fins failed causing operators to lose control, the Air Force said in a statement. Investigators will inspect the data collected during the flight and issue a report in about two weeks.

“It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the scramjet engine,” Charlie Brink of the Air Force Research Laboratory at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said in a statement.

The hypersonic aircraft uses scramjet technology to reach such high speeds meaning it doesn’t have moving parts and uses oxygen in the air opposed to liquid fuel.

This was the program’s last budgeted test. Air Force officials will have to fight for Congressional funding to meet its goal of outfitting an operational aircraft with hypersonic technology by 2016.

Service leaders have said they want to develop the hypersonic capability to either deliver a ballistic missile to anywhere in the world in minutes, or a reconnaissance platform that could fly overhead a special operations team undetectable by radar. No surface-to-air missile defense system is equipped to hit an object moving that fast.

The Waverider program started in 2004 with the military already having spent $140 million on it. The Air Force completed two other tests before Tuesday’s in 2010 and 2011. The 2011 test was also considered a failure. In the 2010 test, the Waverider flew for 143 seconds and reached 3,400 miles per hour.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • DGR

    Seriously who is in charge of this program? They hyped it up for weeks, only to have it fail for the 3rd time in a row. It might be time to take the program top secret so you can test and fail without so much negative attention. Good on them to keep trying, but they need to get the program out of the public eye until they have it working.

    • Tim

      Did it… really fail? Since all we hear is ‘inside news’ and no real footage of what really happened.

      Not to start a positive conspiracy theory, but something is not right… considering how the U.S. created the X-15 back in the day (still the world’s fastest) and how we can’t repeat that now.

      • blight_

        I think the days of expecting so much from the military disappeared with the fantasy of the Pentagon being ringed with patriot missile batteries.

        The aerospace industry can do some things, but not others.

      • DGR

        You have to give the X-51 guys some credit, the X-15 was a rocket with a dude strapped in. The scramjet is brand new technology. Also, the X-15 wasnt perfect and they had a failures as well (hypersonic spin killed at least one pilot if I remember correctly). New technology is hard to perfect, and you need to do it in secret. Otherwise your kinda like North Korea, all bark and no bite.

        • Dee

          scram jet isn’t new tech…… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scramjet

          We’re likely not getting the real story. It’s hard to hide news of these tests; however, it’s easy to hide your real experiment by changing the publicly stated #s 300 instead of 30……

      • Ben

        They’d have plastered the success story all over the media had it worked.

      • TLAM Strike

        Unfortunately the guys who designed the X-15 are all retired or dead by now.

        When NASA was working on developing the Orion space capsule they had to go to junk yards and archives to find scraps of information on how they built Apollo back in the 1960’s.

    • Anonymous

      How many different materials did Edison have to experiment with to improve the light bulb? Thousands. This isn’t the light bulb, but it’s a significant scientific achievement.

    • Tiger

      USAF has the “Wrong Stuff” these days.

    • blight_

      The first test didn’t “fail” except that it only flew for ~200 seconds instead of the arbitrary 300. The system worked.

      The second test apparently involved a fuel feed problem.

      The third test involved a failure in control fin.

    • Matt

      The USAF is in charge. They are who we thought they were. We keep letting them off the hook.

  • blight_

    As it looks now, the program began in 2004 and was only tested in an integrated fashion in 2010, 2011 and now 2012.

    I imagine between 2004 and 2010 they did glide testing of the actual shape without the scramjet or fuel just to test the control fins…?

    It’s difficult to judge a program on just three runs. The first run was the greatest success. Perhaps it’s time to step up the testing regime.

    • chris

      the first one wasn’t really a great success. It never really went into scramjet mode. With the speed it was going, it was only in a ramjet/scramjet hybrid.

      • blight_

        I see.

        Not bad for a first test, I suppose. But it’s still better than the latter two tests.

        I just can’t believe they’re only doing testing once a year. I guess simulator-before-testing isn’t delivering on the save-money or the improve-quality departments?

  • Guesr

    …and JFKs brain is on life support at area 51…

  • Ricardo Briozzo

    A descendent from Silverbird, the ramjet of Eugen Sänger in Projekt Amerika Bomber?

    • Floundr

      Eugen Sänger’s forethought was light years ahead of others IMO. He’s way underrated as well. He’s to von Braun what Newton is to Einstein….

      • blight_

        Bear in mind that the cruise missile vs ballistic missile schools competed in the ’50s and the BM school of nuclear deterrence won. If the former had won or eked out survival, Sanger would be somewhat better known than he is today. But because BM comprehensively demonstrated superiority in the ’50s, CMs became niches.

        Today we take CM’s for granted and give them great prominence because we don’t actually fire BM’s in anger…

  • Prodozul


    Once we figure out the kinks and stuff will this be launched from a silo? or from jets?

    • Chris

      From runways…

      • blight_

        It would be a nice replacement for GLCM, le sigh….

    • Rod

      The idea behind a scram jet is that the aircraft is moving at such high velocities, expensive supersonic compressors or storage tanks are no longer needed to provide the engine with oxygen. You use the air the aircraft “rams” into as it zips through the atmosphere to drive combustion instead.

      This means there is a minimum speed at which a scram jet can operate. I imagine the easiest way launch it is by piggy backing it to a rocket, like they did here, or have it launched from an aircraft already traveling at supersonic speeds. If you want to launch one from a runway, you’d need to design the aircraft to operate in both supersonic and subsonic regimes- which go together like general relativity and quantum mechanics.

      • blight_

        Flying from a B-52 suggests a need to operate, however briefly, from a subsonic regime.

        However, at least from 50,000 feet you don’t have to fight gravity just to gain height.

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          The rear half of the vehicle seen in the photo above is a rocket booster intended to accelerate the test scramjet to operating speed.

          And what exactly do you mean by “However, at least from 50,000 feet you don’t have to fight gravity just to gain height.”? I’m guessing that I misunderstand your comment since you always have to fight gravity to gain height. Even in orbit.

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

          • blight_

            I meant more that energy is not wasted getting to operating altitude.

          • Prodozul

            Thanks for the answers!

  • Tad

    What a disappointment. I always root for anyone out there trying to achieve hypersonic flight. Not only for the sheer excitement of pushing the engineering boundaries, but also because I hate long flights and long for the day when long flights are a thing of the past.

    • reader

      Huh ? If you are tired of long flights, maybe you should be interested in the new SUPERsonic business jet projects ? Like the SAI Quiet Supersonic transport ? Which have nada to do with sc(r)amjets.

      Or commercial suborbital point-to-point transportation, as the next step. Because hypersonic sc(r)amjets like waverider here will never make any sense for passenger transports. Its a munitions delivery system with no practical application to passenger transport, or often attributed space launch application.

      • Tad

        I knew someone would reply that a missile has nothing to do with passenger jets. The way I see it, any advancement in hypersonic technology will have spin-offs that translate into other areas of high-speed flight. That’s all I was getting at.

        • reader

          And my point was, that hypersonic atmospheric flight could very well be a dead end APART from munitions delivery applications. You wanna get anywhere fast, you get outside of the atmosphere.

  • Marcellus Hambrick

    Maybe the Chinese can be brought in as consultants. Chances are they’ve stolen part of the technology already.

    • majr0d

      Funny but won’t help unless we need expertise on copying. They can’t do it until we show them how and then they steal it.

    • reader

      Try Indians. At least BrahMos already goes at nearly Mach 3.

      • blight_

        Brahmos’ range is <300 km to comply with MTCR. The first test of this weapon delivered a Mach 6 missile that flew for 200 seconds. The latter two tests failed.

        The intent for Waverider is to be an intercontinental weapon with enough precision to strike a target at the end without resorting to powerful warheads.

        • Mr. AAA

          But the final product after 32 successful test does have Mach 3.2 capability. Also underdevelopment is Mach 5-7 BrahMos II, to be tested in 2017. As for long rage see the Nirbhay missile(Mach 2-3) being developed.
          Well it is way ahead of stolen/copied tech of China.

          • blight_

            Sure, but the Russians already have fairly nasty cruise missiles capable of superior speed, but not the fairly decent range of the BrahMos. Additionally, Tomahawks deliver larger effective payload…but are subsonic. And longer-ranged.

            The Navy is satisfied with its arrangement, especially because it’s unlikely they will fund a next-gen missile any time soon…

  • Jason

    Could it be that we have already mastered this tech and these failures are a false flag?

    • TrustButVerify

      An expensive false flag, if that’s the case. That would imply a bigger budget.

    • tiger

      Yes, it a cover for the Stargate program.

  • ltfunk2

    3 failures in a row – sounds like it’s ready for low rate production then.

    They can just bolt on a fix if they work out how hypersonic flight actually works… perhaps a strap on ballistic missile.

    But you just got to laugh and the hastily copied PR…

    >Service leaders have said they want to develop the hypersonic capability to either deliver a ballistic missile to anywhere in the world in minutes, or a reconnaissance platform that could fly overhead a special operations team undetectable by radar. No surface-to-air missile defense system is equipped to hit an object moving that fast.

    – anywhere is minutes ? yep minutes that stretch into hours
    – undetectable by radar – funny it dosent look stealthy to me, and with a heat signature the size of the sun it hardly matters.
    – presumably it would be used mainly in africa because it cant be hit by anyhting except a 1960s era ABM system

    • Dfens

      They mean minutes, if you don’t count the hours they spend as parasites on prepositioned, subsonic tanker aircraft. Of course, we wouldn’t want to spend a dime on a Mach 3+ bomber that could get anywhere in the world without tanking.

  • Dfens

    Who designed this piece of crap? Oh yeah, it was a nameless, faceless committee, just like the one that designs everything else today. But we won the Cold War, didn’t we, comrades?

    • tiger

      I guess We need to find some Ex Nazi’s again to run things like the good old days…..

      • blight_

        You capture some ex-Nazi scientists.

        Gain +6 research for fifty turns.

        • Dfens

          Yeah, it sucked back in the 1960s when we could go to the Moon. Funny how when Rockwell designed the space shuttle that was supposed to carry 150,000 lbs to low earth orbit but could only actually carry 40,000 lbs and could only do that every year or so after being completely refurbished between flights that, oh by the way, cost twice what the Saturn V expendable cost to launch we all the sudden got all kinds of NASA spin that the combination of the low weight capacity and long turn-around times would keep us from ever going to the moon again, but that’s ok because there was nothing there to see anyway. The F’ing Soviet Union couldn’t do to us what Rockwell and their subcontractors could.

          And even destroying our manned space exploration program wasn’t enough for those dicks. They had to tear down a national hero too. Yeah, now there’s something we can all be proud of.

          • blight_

            Which hero?

          • tiger

            We need Dr. Strangelove back!

  • Stan

    The US is having rotten luck with hypersonics research. Nothing else left to do but try again and again; this is the future.

  • Pappa51

    I was hoping for some good news on the Hypersonic Aircraft. Looks like all we got was the HYPE. . . If the other guys ever figure out that we really have something that will do what they have said this would have done. Well we will see. . .WINK
    Seems we are saving the other guys lots of money on R&D so they won’t have to try developing a system like this that we couldn’t shoot down. . .
    Does anyone really believe all this (Creative Research and Public) denial; or CRAP. . .Cheers

  • SirSapo

    Flying hypersonic is not merely going faster than normal, it is an entirely different regime that is characterized by some extremely difficult aerodynamic and thermodynamic problems. The regime is so exotic that it is almost impossible to simulate on the ground in wind tunnels, meaning you must rely on a whole lot of modelling and guesswork until you can get something that actually flies. Even predicting something relatively simple like whether the boundary layer is laminar or turbulent becomes an extremely difficult proposition, and the results can have profound effects on the performance of the vehicle.

    Add onto that the fact that the scramjet is an extremely complex and new design, and its not hard to see why projects like these fail so often.

    • blight_

      Seems that our experience with objects going faster than Mach 3 is the X-15 from waybackwhen and objects re-entering the atmosphere, be they space shuttle or ICBMs.

    • SirSapo

      Exactly, the X-15 is pretty much one of the only successful hypersonic research programs we’ve ever attempted, and that was 50 years ago and it killed a test pilot. This stuff is really hard, and interest (and therefore funding) in it ebs and flows over time, so we tend to start over every decade or so.

      The reality is though, that we obtained more hypersonic data over the single successful X-51 flight than we did in the entire 299 flight X-15 program, which is a true testament to the data collection efforts with these modern programs.

  • Hunter76

    Those fins look too flimsy for Mach 6. Back to the drawing board.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      So they should redesign the fins because you think they “look too flimsy for Mach 6” in a low-res online photo? Seriously?

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

      • TrustButVerify

        Be nice, Thomas. Clearly this Hunter76 has an aeronautical engineering background and is qualified to make such unsupported statements.

    • Tiger

      Were you expecting a X craft or a 1960 Cadilac Eldorado?

  • blight_

    They should’ve tested the scramjet with the Air Force’s space plane.

    I wonder what the terminal velocity of the Waverider shape would be…

    • benny

      Once the motor drops off it would depend on the CG of the Waverider. Might even tumble or flop all around.

    • tiger

      Skip the Waverider. Start working on Stargates……

      • UAVGeek

        Please tell me where I can get several hundred tons of Superconducting material. Oh wait, you can’t maybe that’s why they call it “Unobtainum”

        • blight_

          Naqadah, please…

  • RCDC

    It must be lost in signal during Mack 5 speed flight. It probably need a robotic mind and radar to carry out its pin point targets.



  • gt350jr

    So what happened with what we learned in the X-15 program , and the SR-71 , also if i remember those pilots didn’t have breathing problems. Sometimes new tech is not better its just new.

  • Josh

    Chuck Yeager would have landed it safely :)