Skunked


Sweet ride. Somebody should write a book about it…

In the “it’s about @#$&! time” department, Aviation Leak & Classified Technology reminds us that the Skunk Works has still got it:

In a detailed report in the Nov. 4 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Editor Guy Norris lifts the wraps on the SR-72’s cutting-edge design, including a propulsion breakthrough that would allow the aircraft to fly twice as fast as the Blackbird — six times the speed of sound — but still take off from and land on a runway like a conventional aircraft. Lockheed Martin and partner Aerojet-Rocketdyne have been working in secret for seven years on the concept, which centers on integrating an off-the-shelf turbine with a scramjet to power the aircraft from standstill to Mach 6. 

To which I say: AWW YEAH!

It remains to be seen if they can actually get the funding to build this thing. According to the linked article, LockMart has done about all they can do without securing a contract to start cutting metal. Or baking plastic. Whatev…

Now if past history is any indicator, this story could just as easily be a red herring and they’re much further along than indicated. The U-2, SR-71, and F-117 had all been flying for several years before there was any public acknowledgment of their existence.

They also seem to believe we’re at the end of the road for low-observable technology, so “speed is the new stealth.”

There were a lot of rumors about stealth development back in the ’80s and a great deal of speculation as to what a “stealth fighter” might look like. Anybody remember this?

The F-19 “Stealth Fighter”, by the top-secret Testors Skunk Works.

But as is often the case, fantasy looked a lot better than reality:

The real Stealth Fighter, brought to you by the geniuses at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.

The F-117s became public knowledge after a couple of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents in the late ’80s. At the time, I remember it being reported that they were part of a test and evaluation squadron of 50 to 60 aircraft. And that’s when I knew they were operational: 50-odd aircraft isn’t a squadron, it’s an air group. Nobody buys that many airplanes for “test and eval.”

My hope (and that’s all it is, blind hope) is that LockMart’s tossing this out there as cover for a more mature program. The real breakthrough for this is the turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) propulsion, in which a jet turbine and ramjet share common inlets and exhaust. That’s not as simple as it sounds, thanks to the complexities of managing the shockwaves that want to bounce around inside the inlets and the rapidly rising temperatures as it passes Mach 3. Jet engines don’t generally take well to superheated air, and cooling that hot air rapidly enough to feed the compressor stage without icing up at the same time is a real trick. This is the same phenomenon that Reaction Engines UK has been working on for the SABRE rocket-based combined cycle engine. They’ve likewise claimed a major breakthrough recently, but whatever the Skunk Works came up with for heat exchangers, they’re keeping it close.

As to this fantastic machine being flown by an actual person? Sounds like that ship has sailed:

The path to the SR-72 would begin with an optionally piloted flight research vehicle (FRV), measuring around 60 ft. long and powered by a single, but full-scale, propulsion flowpath. “The demonstrator is about the size of the F-22, single-engined and could fly for several minutes at Mach 6,” says Leland. The outline plan for the operational vehicle, the SR-72, is a twin-engine unmanned aircraft over 100 ft. long…

There’s a lot of talk that the next generation of fighters will be essentially be flown by gamers sitting in an air-conditioned van. I can only imagine how the current crop of up-and-coming military pilots feel about that. Even though I’d never have a snowball’s chance in hell of flying it, a part of me shares in their presumed impotent frustration. If I ever have the privilege of seeing such an aircraft in service, it’ll be a lot less exciting knowing that there isn’t someone inside of it experiencing the ride of a lifetime.

 

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2 comments

  1. J

    I would love for this to be real… But it seems like all the really cool tech is leaving the government behind and going to a much smaller scale in private sector. My read on the “SR-72″ is that it’s still vapor, and “pretty, pretty please give us money?” Unfortunately, it feels like we’re beyond engineers and well into committees designing everything – something that’s patently obvious in the Navy’s (and Air Force’s) latest acquisitions. Spec growth and politics are killing initiative and purpose-built systems.

    • Pat Chiles

      Kind of my thoughts as well. The SR-72 really needs to happen (preferably with an actual *pilot* aboard) if only to advance the technology.
      Our government as a whole has gotten too big to accomplish much anymore. It’s all about perpetuating the bureaucracy.

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