The United States Air Force (USAF) constantly explores new designs and new technologies for increased speed, performance and maneuverability. The results of such ongoing research are seen in planes as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter attack bomber and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. So what’s next from the depths of the Air Force’s top-secret facilities?
Although it is not possible to know true top-secret research (because then it wouldn’t be secret), some “educated conjecture” based on what’s trending in the aviation industry makes such speculation more probable. Engine technology is certainly going into area beyond the well-known turbo jet designs. The most talked about is scramjet research. These rather simple yet extraordinary power plants supply tremendous thrust by allowing airflows through the engine at supersonic speeds.
Previous engines (even those on planes flying above Mach 1) had to slow down the airflow before it could be compressed in the engine to produce thrust. Not so with the Scramjet. The supersonic flow-through will propel the pilot to speeds in the hypersonic range and result in a whole new range of aviation designs.
There has been continuous speculation for two decades concerning a high-altitude plane to replace the 50-year now-retired SR-71 Blackbird. Often called the “Aurora” (without any official acknowledgment), many in the aviation industry believe it will be a hypersonic plane with scramjet engines.
The Aurora (or possible other suborbital aircraft) will take the pilot to 120,000 feet at Mach 6 and could circle the Earth in six hours. This type of plane could use reconnaissance equipment to supply analysts with photographic and electronic information in a matter of minutes in some instances. Satellites would still be used but with this hypersonic plane the Air Force can put eyes in the sky almost immediately over a trouble spot.
The Air Force is also continuing to research more practical and reliable jets to supply a varied number of applications. Ongoing research is being pursued into newer vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that can be faster and more versatile than helicopters or the U.S. Navy’s V-22 Osprey. The Air Force is also going full speed into replacing the pilot with more advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Without the pilot or the need to supply any pilot accommodation, planes can go faster, pull more “G” forces through turns and be more maneuverable all while controlled from the ground. A possible scramjet-powered UAV would be closer to a guided missile with landing gear than an airplane.