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July 3, 2018

Fly New York to Tokyo in 2 hrs in Boeing’s Hypersonic Jet

As the company that creates a critical fastener for Boeing’s anticipated KC-46 Pegasus tanker, we like to stay up to date with everything coming out of Boeing. Which is why we couldn’t overlook Boeing’s first-ever concept for a hypersonic passenger plane, one that may, in 20 or 30 years, take you from New York City to Tokyo in just 2 hours.

The hypersonic race is on. Apart from China and Russia, other US companies (and Aerospace Manufacturing customers) like Lockheed Martin are racing to see who can create the first viable hypersonic passenger jet. Boeing has been breaking speed records for decades, but they haven’t won this race just yet.

Travelling at Mach 5 presents unique problems that even the best aeronautical engineers are struggling to overcome. Here’s a primer.

How Boeing’s hypersonic jet would work

The first problem with hypersonic air travel is the engine. Traveling at Mach 5 — about 3,800 miles per hour — normal engine fans would disintegrate. Still Boeing’s design includes traditional engine fan blades. Why?

According to the design, the jet will take off like an ordinary aircraft, carried to higher altitude at traditional speeds with a turbine engine before being propelled to Mach 5 by a ramjet. A ramjet is a jet engine in which the air drawn in for combustion is compressed solely by the forward motion of the aircraft. When the ramjet is activated, air will be valved such that it bypases the turbofan engine and goes straight into the ramjet.

The other hurdle? The laws of aerodynamics. The faster an airplane goes, the lower the ratio of lift-to-drag must be to stay airborne. Hence the dramatically shallow angles and sweptback leading edges. At such speeds, wings create very-low-pressure zones that hinder the function of the tail — that is, stabilization and steerage. Therefore, the tail of Boeing’s hypersonic jet is split in two so it can catch high-pressure air.

The other major challenge has to do with altitude. To travel safely, Boeing’s hypersonic jet would need to travel at around 95,000 feet. A hypersonic jet would disintegrate from the high air density and dynamic pressure of the typical cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. To safely travel at 95,000 feet, new rules will have to be created regarding tolerances, new materials will need to be developed and selected. It’s even been suggested that the first hypersonic jets will not have windows, and that the passengers and pilots would experience the outside world through digital screens.

Boeing’s Nevada-Based Competitor

At the moment, Aerion Corporation, a company backed by Airbus and located in Nevada, is Boeing’s primary competitor. Their AS2 supersonic business jet is farther along in development, but it would travel at just Mach 1.5 and carry just 12 passengers. As Kevin Bowcutt, Senior Technical Fellow of hypersonics in Boeing Research & Technology said, “There is an inherent value in speed.”

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