NASA yesterday chose Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Skunk Works in Palmdale to build the next X-plane to serve as a low-sonic boom demonstrator test vehicle. The Skunk Works facility is where aircraft such as the famous Blackbird, the U-2 and the F-117 first took shape. The contract translates into $247.5 million for Lockheed to build the first new X-plane research aircraft in a generation. The Skunk Works recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.
The new, as yet un-designated X-plane, will stretch 94 feet in length and be capable of speeds up to Mach 1.4 at altitudes up to 51,000 feet. The Department of Defense will eventually decide what number the X-plane will eventually carry. Although the aircraft design Lockheed signed on for was finalized a year and a half ago, a NASA spokesman said there have been very few changes to the product since then. One goal of this X-plane program was to make the aircraft as affordable as possible. In order to keep that promise, Lockheed plans to use the landing gear from an F-16, a canopy from a T-38 and a GE 414-400 turbofan powerplant similar to the one on board the F/A-18 E-F Super Hornet.
NASA’s associate administrator for Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Jaiwon Shin said yesterday that the purpose of the new research aircraft is to test a variety of theories that may lead to approval for aircraft to fly over land at speeds faster than sound. Civilian aircraft are currently banned from such flights over the Continental U.S. and many other land masses around the globe.
Shin said the test aircraft will “fly at supersonic speeds over select U.S. cities and then survey people living below those flight paths as to what they heard, if anything. The flights will generate data to the FAA and ICAO to change the rule that bans supersonic flight over land. When the rule is changed, the door will open to an aviation industry ready to enter the supersonic market in this country and around the world.” Opening remarks at a NASA press conference yesterday however confirmed the agency is not building a new supersonic airliner.
Work on the building the X-Plane will begin immediately with a contract kick-off meeting scheduled for next month. The test period for the low-boom aircraft will commence with an acoustic valuation phase expected to last until the fall of 2022 to ensure the new machine actually will operate as quietly as called for in the design. NASA said between four and six communities will be tested with flights exceeding Mach 1 beginning in 2023. That testing phase is expected to run though 2026.
Aerion, already teamed up with Lockheed Martin to build the AS2 SST business jet announced in 2014, said it will closely follow the results of the NASA program and evaluate how it might incorporate some of that technology in future aircraft beyond the AS2. The AS2 will not, however, incorporate low-boom technology in the design scheduled for a first flight in 2023.
Shin believes NASA’s X-planes have over the years solved some of the toughest problems in flight. “One day, when people are enjoying comfortable commercial supersonic flight, they will look back and say April 3, 2018 was the day it all began,” he said.