US Air Force Plans to Develop the Fastest Reusable Aircraft in the World

Hermeus' hypersonic aircraft will be able to fly from New York to London in 90 minutes.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the QuarterhorseHermeus

The U.S. Air Force joins a group of venture capital firms in making a $60 million investment in Hermeus, a Georgia-based startup that is striving to make the world's first reusable hypersonic aircraft, a press statement reveals. 

The new contract, awarded on July 30, sets ambitious objectives for Hermeus, to be accomplished over the next three years. These include the building of three prototypes of the company's Quarterhorse aircraft and the testing of its full-scale reusable hypersonic propulsion system. 

If all goes to plan, the Quarterhorse passenger aircraft will be capable of flying at a staggering Mach 5 speeds, starting at 3836 mph (6174 km/h). By comparison, NASA's new supersonic jet, the X-59, will fly at Mach 1.5 and reach top speeds of 990 mph.

US Air Force Plans to Develop the Fastest Reusable Aircraft in the World
A cross-section illustration of Hermeus' proprietary TBCC engine. Source: Hermeus

As Hermeus' aircraft will eventually be able to fly five times the speed of sound, it will be capable of traveling from New York to London in only 90 minutes — instead of seven hours it typically takes today's commercial airliners. 

In order to reach those speeds, Hermeus is developing a proprietary turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) engine, based on the GE J85 turbojet engine used for a variety of high-speed aircraft including Virgin Galactic's White Knight carrier aircraft and Boom Supersonic's prototype XB-1 aircraft.

Building 'the fastest reusable aircraft in the world' 

The first Quarterhorse prototype is set to be unmanned — much in the same way that Virgin Galactic's first space plane missions were uncrewed, the earliest flight tests will not be piloted so as to eliminate the risk to human life and to allow the company to start its flight testing earlier. According to a 2020 report by Aviation International News, Hermeus has already built and tested a small-scale hypersonic engine prototype and it is now working on a full-scale engine demonstrator of its TBCC engine.

US Air Force Plans to Develop the Fastest Reusable Aircraft in the World
One of Hermeus' Mach 5 engine prototypes. Source: Hermeus

"By the end of the flight test campaign, Quarterhorse will be the fastest reusable aircraft in the world and the first of its kind to fly a TBCC engine," Hermeus stated in its press release. According to the company, the Quarterhorse places it in the dual-use space for hypersonic technology, meaning its technologies can be utilized for commercial passenger aircraft as well as for military uses. In March this year, Hermeus also announced the signing of a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA for R&D on its high-speed aircraft. 

While terms such as game-changing and disruptive are often thrown around in the technological space, the successful development of an aircraft that would reach long-haul destinations at less than a quarter of the travel time would undeniably be worthy of the hype. If hypersonic flight and eVTOL air taxis deliver on their promise in the coming years, we will be living in an immensely more connected world.

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