In 1903, the Wright Brothers’ first successful airplane stayed aloft for 12 seconds and reached a breakneck speed of 30 miles per hour. This summer, aerospace giant Boeing revealed plans for another aviation first—a hypersonic passenger plane.
Hypersonics is the technology to fly faster than Mach 5. Mach refers to an object’s speed compared to the speed of sound, or Mach 1. So a plane flying at Mach 5 would be traveling five times faster than the speed of sound. Several spaceplanes and unmanned spacecraft have already achieved Mach 5 speeds and higher. But such a passenger plane would be a new frontier.
Currently, a flight from New York to Tokyo takes almost 14 hours. A hypersonic plane could fly that distance in about two hours. That’s approaching 4,000 miles per hour.
Hypersonic flight is fast. But it’s not so fast as a blink. God controls both time and space. He promises to change His believers’ earthly bodies for bodies with no pain, no aging, and no disease “in the twinkling of an eye.” (1 Corinthians 15:52)
Hypersonics expert Kevin Bowcutt works at Boeing. He says there’s “inherent value in speed.” What is that value? Think about being able to deliver a vital medical package quickly. Or imagine a politician zipping around the globe for important meetings—and being back home for dinner.
What makes a hypersonic plane different?
—Turboramjet engine: This high-powered engine combines a conventional turbofan engine for lower speeds—needed for takeoffs and landings—with a ramjet that bypasses the turbofan engine when it’s time for the airplane to kick into overdrive.
—Body design: There’s a reason for such sleek bullet-shaped planes: drag. Drag is air pushing against an object and resisting its forward motion. The faster planes go, the worse the drag. Every part of the plane—wings, tail, engines—creates drag. “We have to do a lot of work to keep the drag low,” Bowcutt says of designing hypersonic planes. Engineers make sloping curves and eliminate windows to cut down on drag.
—Skin: Because of air friction, an airplane’s skin, or outer layer, can rise to about 1,100 degrees F during flight. A hypersonic plane’s skin will likely be made of titanium, a metal that can withstand high temperatures.
—Altitude: Hypersonic airplanes will probably fly at about 95,000 feet. That reduces pressure and friction since the thinner air at that height doesn’t “push against” the plane as much.
Boeing faces several competitors for these high-speed passenger planes, including Chinese, Russian, and other American businesses. The race to Mach 5 is on, but the race itself is not so fast. It could take 20 to 30 years to develop the technology.