X-43A Hyper-X Supersonic Combustion Ramjet

First Integrated Vehicle Supersonic Combustion Ramjet Test

March 27, 2004



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X-43A Supersonic Combustion Ramjet testbed flies at mach-7

The second X-43A Hyper-X demonstrated that an air-breathing engine can propel a vehicle at mach-7 on the afternoon of March 27, 2004.  It was the first flight of an integrated supersonic combustion ramjet powered vehicle and shattered all previous records for the speed of a vehicle propelled by an air-breathing engine.  The X-43A accelerated in a climb at a speed more than twice as fast as the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird.

The Hyper-X flight was conducted out of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert.

The weather at Edwards Air Force Base could not have been more perfect for the second flight of the X-43A Hyper-X.  There was almost no wind and the air temperature was in the seventies.

A pair of NASA's Boeing-McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18B Hornet chase planes took off before the NB-52B.  They were piloted by Frank Batteas and James Smolka.

NASA 846 F/A-18B Hornet chase plane NASA 846, Boeing-McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18B Hornet chase plane.

NASA 852 F/A-18B Hornet chase plane NASA photographer Jim Ross rode in the back set of NASA 852, a Boeing-McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18B Hornet, to shoot still photographs.

NASA 852 F/A-18B Hornet chase plane NASA 852.

The Hornets circled and lined up behind the NB-52B to join up with it as it took off.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X Two miles away, NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 emits clouds of smoke as the water injection is applied. 

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 rolling on Runway 04.

The NB-52B was piloted by Dana Purifoy. Former Space Shuttle pilot Gordon Fullerton was in the co-pilot's seat.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 starts to rotate at a much higher airspeed than a standard B-52 because it cannot use its flaps.  They were permanently disabled when it was modified to launch the X-15 in 1959.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 lifts off

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 lifts off. The Pegasus booster has been modified by the removal of 3,300 pounds of excess propellant.  The propellant was machined out, removing the star shaped fins commonly found in solid fuel rockets.  In order to compensate for weight and center of gravity changes, its rocket engine bell was built of steel instead of aluminum to increase its weight.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 retracts its landing gear.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 climbs out on the power of eight J57-P43-WB turbojets.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008.

The NB-52B and its two chase planes flew to a position 50 miles off the California coast.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X
F/A-18B Hornet, NASA 846 flies chase off the wing tip of NB-52B, NASA 008 with the Hyper-X stack on the way to the launch site (NASA Photo EC04-0092-18).

The formation adopted a heading of 270 degrees, due west at an altitude of 40,000 feet.  Shortly before launch the NB-52B entered a shallow dive.  At five seconds before 2:00 P.M., as the NB-52B descended through 38,900 feet, the launch panel operator in the NB-52B triggered the launch of the X-43A.  According to the control room staff, all launch parameters were "within one sigma" of the desired values.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X
The Hyper-X stack falls away from the NB-52B (NASA photo EC04-0092-28).

The Hyper-X glided for five seconds before its Pegasus booster ignited. 

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X
The Pegasus booster ignites (NASA photo EC04-0092-32).

Link to the NASA Dryden X-43A Hyper-X Photo Gallery.

The booster rapidly accelerated through the transonic range and pulled up into a climb.  It pitched downward to level flight at 100,000 feet.  This was the first time that a Pegasus had flown at "negative alpha", pitching the nose down to make the wing generate downward lift.

The Pegasus booster burned out going seven times the speed of sound about ninety seconds after launch.  The separation of the X-43A vehicle was triggered a few seconds later.  Four explosive bolts detonated and a pair of pushrods shoved the vehicle forward at ten feet per second.  The fins of the Pegasus booster were moved to pitch the nose of the booster down to rapidly move it away from the X-43A.  The X-43A was trimmed for slightly positive lift to move it upward and away from the tumbling booster.

When it was established that the research vehicle was in stable flight, the cowl door that protected the inlet to the combustion chamber opened and a hypergolic hydrogen/Silane mixture was injected to initiate combustion.  Then the fuel mixture was switched to pure hydrogen. 

Supersonic combustion was sustained, first at a lean fuel/air ratio.  The fuel/air ratio was adjusted to rich and back to lean during the ten seconds of propulsion data collection.  The vehicle accelerated in a climb as it propelled itself for fifteen miles.

The X-43A continued to transmit telemetry as it glided to the surface of the Pacific Ocean, about 400 miles from the coast.  It impacted and sank in deep water.  Perhaps someday a deep sea submersible will recover it as a historic relic.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X NASA 008, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-0008 flies past the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at the conclusion of a successful mission.  There is only one more mission planned for the NB-52B mothership, the third flight of the X-43A Hyper-X, which is scheduled for this coming fall.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X X-43A Hyper-X vehicle 3 is expected to fly at mach-10.  It will get twice as hot as vehicle 2 did while flying at mach-7. The copper combustion chamber can be seen below and forward of the vertical stabilizer.

NASA NB-52B, 52-0008 with X-43A Hyper-X The Pegasus booster of the third X-43A Hyper-X vehicle will contain the full propellant load of the standard model in order to reach mach-10.  The booster adapter in the background has been manufactured from aluminum instead of steel to reduce the weight of the stack.


Supersonic Combustion Ramjet

The X-43A Hyper-X Supersonic Combustion Ramjet testbed is designed to demonstrate a new air-breathing engine technology that will allow flight in the atmosphere at speeds several times faster than the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird. All current jet engines slow the air moving through the combustion chamber to subsonic velocity by compressing it into a much smaller volume. As the air is compressed, it gets hotter.

As airspeed increases to 3,000 miles per hour and above, the air entering the inlet has to be compressed so much that it is heated to temperatures that will melt the engine. The solution is to allow the air to go through the combustion chamber at supersonic velocity. That way, it does not need to be compressed as much and its temperature isn't as high.

The Supersonic Combustion Ramjet gets its oxygen from the atmosphere, allowing great savings in propellant weight compared to rocket engines. SCRamjet propelled vehicles could serve as the first stage of satellite launching boosters. They could transport passengers, packages, or other payloads halfway around Earth in just a few hours.


More NB-52B Displays

Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress dislays Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership.


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Balls Eight: History of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership

Balls Eight: History of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership

Balls Eight: History of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership

It has been asserted that the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, carrying Air Force serial 52-0008, can lay claim to being the airplane that has seen and participated in more history than any other single airplane. For forty-five years, the NB-52B was a fixture at Edwards Air Force Base. While the NB-52B is most famous for launching the three North American X-15 rocket planes, it continued to serve in the role of launch platform for a multitude of programs until its final mission on November 16, 2004. It was the oldest flying B-52 by nearly ten years.
The NB-52B launched the three X-15 hypersonic rocket planes.
It launched the Northrop HL-10, Northrop M2-F2/F3, Martin Marietta X-24A and Martin Marietta X-24B lifting bodies.
It simulated the steep, power off approach to landing used by the Space Shuttles.
It assisted in the collection of data about wake turbulence from large aircraft.
It served as an air-to-air gunnery target.
It launched 3/8-scale F-15 Remotely Piloted Research Vehicles (RPRV) and Spin Research Vehicles (SRV).
It launched a Ryan Firebee II drone and the Ryan Firebee based Drones for Aeroelastic Structures Testing (DAST).
It launched the Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology (HiMAT) RPRVs.
It dropped the 48,000-pound Space Shuttle Reusable Booster Drop Test Vehicle (SRB/DTV).
It released a simulated F-111 crew module from its bomb bay to evaluate new parachute recovery systems.
It was the first airplane to launch a satellite into orbit on the Orbital Sciences Pegasus booster.
It tested the drag chute used to decelerate space shuttle orbiters.
It tested pollution reducing fuel additives with a pair of jet engines mounted under its bomb bay.
It launched the X-38 Space Station Crew Return Vehicles.
It launched the X-43A Hyper-X Supersonic Combustion Ramjets.

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Balls Eight: Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership

2018 calendar

You can buy a 2018 calendar featuring photographs of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership that launched the X-15s in the 1960s and continued launching research vehicles until 2004.

Lockett Books Calendar Catalog: Balls Eight: Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership

Lockett Books Calendar Catalog: Balls Eight: Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress Mothership

It has been asserted that the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, carrying Air Force serial 52-0008, can lay claim to being the airplane that has seen and participated in more history than any other single airplane. This calendar features a dozen pictures of the NB-52B carrying some of the research vehicles that it launched over the years. Photo sources: Air Force, NASA, Richard Lockett, Brian Lockett:

North American X-15-1, 1960
North American X-15-3, 1963
North American X-15A-2, 1967
Northrop HL-10, 1969
Martin-Mariettta X-24A, 1970
Northrop M2-F3, 1972
Martin-Mariettta X-24B, 1973
Orbital Sciences Pegasus, 1989
Supersonic Supercruise, 1995
X-38 V-131R, 2000
X-43A Hyper-X, 2004

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Books about Lifting Bodies, Edwards Air Force Base, and the X-43 available from

The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45: 3rd Edition by Jay Miller The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45: 3rd Edition by Jay Miller

Flying Without Wings : Nasa Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle by Milton O. Thompson Flying Without Wings : Nasa Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle by Milton O. Thompson

Test Colors: The Aircraft of Muroc Army Airfield and Edwards Air Force Base by Rene Francillon Test Colors: The Aircraft of Muroc Army Airfield and Edwards Air Force Base by Rene Francillon

X-Planes at Edwards by Steve Pace X-Planes at Edwards (Enthusiast Color Series) by Steve Pace

Edwards Air Force Base : Open House at the USAF Flight Test Center 1957-1966 by Robert D. Archer Edwards Air Force Base : Open House at the USAF Flight Test Center 1957-1966 : A Photo Chronicle of Aircraft Displayed (Schiffer Military History) by Robert D. Archer

Angle of Attack : Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon by Mike Gray. The biography of Harrison Storms, who was instrumental in the development and operation of the X-15.

At the Edge of Space : The X-15 Flight Program by Milton O. Thompson. The story of test flying the X-15 from the point of view of the pilot.


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