For years, Lockheed Martin Corp. has been developing a successor to one of the fastest aircraft the world has seen, the SR-71 Blackbird, the Cold War reconnaissance craft that the U.S. Air Force retired almost three decades ago. Lockheed officials have said the hypersonic SR-72—dubbed the “Son of Blackbird” by one trade journal—could fly by 2030.
But a rather curious talk last week at an aerospace conference by a Lockheed Skunk Works executive implied that the SR-72 might already exist. Referring to detailed specifics of company design and manufacturing, Jack O’Banion, a Lockheed vice president, said a “digital transformation” arising from recent computing capabilities and design tools had made hypersonic development possible. Then—assuming O’Banion chose his verb tense purposely—came the surprise.
“Without the digital transformation, the aircraft you see there could not have been made,” O’Banion said, standing by an artist’s rendering of the hypersonic aircraft. “In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made.”
Hypersonic applies to speeds above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The SR-71 cruised at Mach 3.2, more than 2,000 mph, around 85,000 feet.
Computer processing power and new tools allow for three-dimensional design of a scramjet engine, O’Banion said at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ annual SciTech Forum near Orlando. (Scramjet refers to engine combustion occurring at supersonic speeds, which adds to the engineering complexity.) Adding a little Hollywood to an engineering presentation, O’Banion likened the digital advances in 3D design to the build process Tony Stark employs in the film “Iron Man.”
“We couldn’t have made the engine itself—it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago,” O’Banion said. “But now we can digitally print that engine with an incredibly sophisticated cooling system integral into the material of the engine itself and have that engine survive for multiple firings for routine operation.” The aircraft is also agile at hypersonic speeds, with reliable engine starts, he said. A half-decade before, he added, developers “could not have even built it even if we conceived of it.”