NY to London in 90 Minutes? Air Force Invests in Hypersonic Passenger Plane

Hypersonic Passenger Plane Supersonic Airliner Air Force
The Air Force partly funded a $60 million contract for the development of a hypersonic passenger aircraft last week. This undated file photo shows a glass of champagne next to a first class seat on board an unidentified airplane. Panmaule/Getty

The U.S. Air Force and venture capital partners are heavily investing in the development of a hypersonic passenger plane that could make journeys across the Atlantic at breakneck speed.

A jointly-funded $60 million contract for development of the "Quarterhorse" airplane was awarded to aerospace company the Hermeus Corporation last week, the company announced on Thursday. The Quarterhorse is expected to be capable of making transatlantic flights in about 90 minutes, about one fifth of the time it takes in a current commercial airliner. The Air Force hopes that its investment will eventually result in a supercharged version of Air Force One.

"One of our goals in supporting companies like Hermeus, is to expand the Defense Industrial Base for both aircraft manufacture, and hypersonic propulsion development," Brig. Gen. Jason Lindsey, program executive officer for the Air Force's Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, said in a release.

"Ultimately we want to have options within the commercial aircraft marketplace for platforms that can be modified for enduring Air Force missions such as senior leader transport, as well as mobility, ISR, and possibly other mission sets," Lindsey added.

The Air Force awarded Hermes a $1.5 million contract to work on the project last year. The new contract includes specific goals like building at least three unmanned protype planes. After a period of three years, the Air Force will evaluate the progress of the project. The company says it hopes to eventually produce planes that could be used for both military and civilian purposes.

The proposed plane would travel at speeds of up to Mach 5, more than 3,000 miles per hour. Mach numbers indicate the speed of an aircraft in relation to the speed of sound—which is 760 miles per hour, or Mach 1. Aircraft that operate between Mach 1 and Mach 5 are said to be supersonic, while those capable of flying at Mach 5 or above are hypersonic.

If Hermeus builds a version of the plane that enters service, it would be, by far, the fastest passenger plane to fly since the supersonic Concorde was retired in 2003. Concorde reached speeds of up to Mach 2, moving deep-pocketed passengers from New York to London or Paris in approximately three and a half hours.

Multiple companies are currently working to build the next generation of supersonic commercial airplanes. Boom Supersonic's Overture airliner, with a top speed of Mach 1.7, is expected to enter service by the end of the decade.

Airlines like United have already placed advance orders for dozens of the planes. The Overture could also be used as a new version of Air Force One, with Boom Supersonic and the Air Force having signed a contract last year.

There have been few planes of any type that have eclipsed supersonic speeds. The only hypersonic aircraft to be made so far have been experimental airplanes or spaceplanes, only some of which have had a crew. Hermeus is working on a plane that would be the first to be fully reusable.

Hermeus is not the only company working to develop a hypersonic passenger plane. Boeing, the manufacturer of the current Air Force One, is also working on the development of a hypersonic airliner concept, while China is working on a hypersonic plane that it says will be capable of flying at Mach 6.

Newsweek reached out to Hermeus Corporation for comment.