Dreams of long-haul flights taking a fraction of the current time crashed and burned along with the hypersonic plane itself on Tuesday as a test flight of the WaveRider aircraft ended in failure.
The plan had been to send the unmanned jet on a five-minute flight above the Pacific at speeds of up to 4,500 mph.
However, as the LA Times reported, some 15 seconds into the flight – before the WaveRider’s hypersonic scramjet engine even had a chance to fire up – a problem with one of the aircraft’s control fins was spotted. Before anything could be done, the plane lost control and ended up in the ocean.
The failed test will come as a bitter disappointment to those behind WaveRider’s development, including the US Air Force, Boeing and engine maker Pratt and Whitney. The project is financed by NASA and the Pentagon.
Charlie Brink, program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory, said in a statement on Wednesday: “It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the scramjet engine. All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives.”
Following take-off from Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert, a B-52 aircraft carried WaveRider to a height of 50,000 feet beneath one of its wings. After detaching from the B-52, a booster rocket engine was to have powered the aircraft across the sky, before separating to allow the hypersonic scramjet engine to fire up. But unfortunately it never happened.
It’s not the first time a WaveRider test flight has failed to go to plan – in June last year, the aircraft’s engine was forced to shut down due to an airflow problem.
Engineers working on WaveRider say the aircraft’s technology could be used in next-generation space aircraft, military aircraft, missiles, and passenger jets too – but first they need to make it actually work.
Following Tuesday’s failure, the future of the WaveRider program isn’t clear. What is certain, however, is that the reality of passenger flights between North America and Europe taking an hour seems as far away as ever.