Aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin has confirmed that its mysterious Skunk Works team are preparing to build a hypersonic replacement to the iconic spy plane the SR-71 Blackbird.
Officially unveiled four years ago as the SR-72, the company confirmed that hypersonic technologies have matured enough allowing it to start work on a real prototype.
Unlike the Blackbird, the SR-72 will be an unmanned aircraft that can both operate as a spy plane and also launch offensive weaponry.
Speaking to Aviation Week, Lockheed Martin vice president Rob Weiss said: “We’ve been saying hypersonics is two years away for the last 20 years, but all I can say is the technology is mature and we, along with Darpa and the services, are working hard to get that capability into the hands of our warfighters,”
Despite being first conceived in the late 50′s, the Blackbird still holds the altitude record for a manned aircraft reaching a staggering 85,069ft as well as the speed record at 2,193.2mph.
The SR-72 is expected to blow both those records out of the water thanks to its hybrid engine that combines a conventional jet engine with a revolutionary ramjet.
Using the ramjet engine the SR-72 will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 6 or 4567mph, making it invulnerable to any and all air defence systems.
While technology has moved on, the principle idea behind the SR-72 remains the same as the Blackbird: If you can move fast enough, nothing can hit you.
Back in the 70′s the Blackbird’s way of avoiding missile attacks was simply to speed up and outrun them.
For the SR-72, the idea is that the aircraft will be moving so fast that defence systems on the ground won’t even have time to register the aircraft, let alone start firing at it.
So how does a ramjet engine work? This hypersonic engine works by inhaling air through the forward motion of the aircraft, rather than using the conventional intake fan that we see on commercial aircraft.
The main hurdle with an air-fed engine though is that it requires forward motion, so the aircraft needs to be moving at an extremely high-speed already before it can actually start working.
To get around this the SR-72 will use a hybrid of both a conventional turbine engine that will bring the aircraft up to about Mach 3 and then the ramjet will take over, pushing it to an eye-watering Mach 6.
Considering how much of a closely guarded secret the Blackbird was it’s unlikely that we’ll be getting up close and personal with the world’s first unmanned hypersonic aircraft.
The good news is that Lockheed aren’t the only company working on hypersonic technologies with Boeing confirming that it is already looking at the feasibility of creating a hypersonic passenger aircraft.