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Hypersonic Flight

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The day is Thursday, February 24, 1949; the pens on the automatic plotting boards at South Station are busy tracking the altitude and course of a rocket, which just moments before had been launched from a site three miles away on the test range of the White Sands Proving Ground. The rocket is a V-2, one of many brought to the United States from Germany after World War II. By this time launching V-2s had become almost routine for the crews at White Sands, but on this day neither the launch nor the rocket are “routine.” Mounted on top of this V-2 is a slender, needle-like rocket called the WAC Corporal, which serves as a second stage to the V-2. This test firing of the combination V-2/WAC Corporal is the first meaningful attempt to demonstrate the use of a multi-stage rocket for achieving high velocities and high altitudes and is part of a larger program labeled “Bumper” by the U.S. Army. All previous rocket launchings of any importance, both in the United States and in Europe, had utilized the single stage V-2 by itself. On this clear February day, the pen plotters track the V-2 to an altitude of 100 miles at a velocity of 3500 mph, at which point the WAC Corporal is ignited. The slender upper stage accelerates to a maximum velocity of 5150 mph and reaches an altitude of 244 miles, exceeding by a healthy 130 miles the previous record set by a V-2 alone. After reaching this peak, the WAC Corporal noses over and careers back into the atmosphere at over 5000 mph.  In so doing, it becomes the first object of human origin to achieve hypersonic flight – the first time that any vehicle has flown faster than five times the speed of sound.*

Since that time, numerous vehicles have flown at hypersonic speeds – the nose cones of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and with humans aboard the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules, the space shuttle, and the X-15 hypersonic research vehicle. All of these vehicles share the same feature – after initial boost to altitude, they essentially glide back through the atmosphere with only gravity for a propelling force (they fall back to the earth’s surface). The Mach number ranges from Mach 7 for the X-15 to Mach 36 for the Apollo capsule.

Indeed, the hypersonic flight regime is defined as flight at Mach 5 or higher. This is, however, just a rule of thumb. As a vehicle accelerates from Mach 4.99 to 5.01, the flow does not change from green to red, and there is no clap of thunder, unlike what happens when a vehicle accelerates from Mach 0.99 to 1.01 entering the supersonic flight regime. Here, the physics of the flow does change dramatically when going from subsonic to supersonic flight, and there is a clap of thunder (the sonic boom). Rather, a better definition of hypersonic flight is that high-speed part of the flight spectrum where certain physical phenomena become more important that are not so important at lower speeds. One of those physical phenomena is intense aerodynamic heating of the surface due to skin friction and shock wave heating. Protection against aerodynamic heating is the dominant feature that drives the design of hypersonic vehicles.


Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV-2). Credit: DARPA.

A recent example of the effect of aerodynamic heating on a  hypersonic vehicle is the test of the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), very recently announced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In August 2011, this unmanned vehicle was powered by rockets to Mach 20, after which it spent about 200 seconds flying within the atmosphere before the intense aerodynamic heating resulted in the skin peeling away from the internal structure. The flight was finally aborted and was sent plunging into the Pacific Ocean.


X-43. Credit: NASA.


X-51. Credit: US Air Force.

Today there is a great deal of interest in sustained flight within the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. The only propulsion system that would be practical for this application is a specialized ramjet engine that would have supersonic flow completely throughout the engine – a supersonic combustion ramjet (Scramjet). This is, however, a massive technical challenge, and after years of research and technical development two test vehicles have recently flown with operating scramjets, the X-43, which achieved about 10 seconds of sustained thrust in flight at Mach 9.6, and the X-51, which operated for about 200 seconds at Mach 5. These are but baby steps in the direction of what might be the first missions for such an air breathing hypersonic vehicle for the military. Moreover, there has been a long standing dream of a hypersonic transport – the dream of flying from London to Tokyo in 90 minutes. A recent article in Aerospace America published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics** examined again the status of this dream and ended with the following: “The question is, after over a half a century of development are we any closer to that childhood dream of the hypersonic passenger aircraft, or is it still 30 years away?” Nobody knows the answer to this question, but in historical perspective the advancement of the airplane since the Wright brothers has been driven by the desire to fly faster and higher. Although today there are many other considerations that drive the technology of the airplane, there will always be that ultimate dream of faster and higher, and that means hypersonic flight.


*Anderson, John D. Jr., Hypersonic and High Temperature Gasdynamics, 2nd edition, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Reston, Virginia, 2006.

**Williamson, Mark, “Hypersonic Transport … 30 Years and Holding?”, Aerospace America, Vol. 50, No. 5, May 2012, pp 40-45.


John D. Anderson, Jr. is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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8 thoughts on “Hypersonic Flight

  1. Excellent article. I believe mankind is at the cusp of hypersonic breakthrough. This is the next holy grail of manned space flight.

  2. This is a very interesting and well written article. I’ve often wondered why Mach 5 and up is called hypersonic and this article explains it well. My comments: Shouldn’t there be a model of the X-43 in the Milestones of Flight gallery for its Mach 9.6 achievment? Isn’t it the fastest aircraft ever now? The Apollo capsules traveled Mach 36, but that was in the vacuum of space where there would not be the problem of heating – correct? Lastly, speaking of speed, isn’t the Voyageaur spacecraft the fastes vehicles ever created by man? I visited the NASM earlier this month and was reading the sign regarding that spacecraft. I was looking some info relating to the velocity of the craft now that it is exiting the solar system. Does anybody have any info on its speed? Thank you.

  3. Good article, couple of minor gripes. Although a common misconception, it’s not really “skin friction” that causes aerodynamic heating at high speeds, but rather the kinetic energy of the vehicle being transferred to the air upon impact. This is why it’s the leading edges of the vehicle that heat up, and not the sides, which is where you’d expect heating if it were caused by “friction”. Also, the article indicates that there is a sudden “clap of thunder” when going from subsonic to supersonic flight; the reality is there is nothing more than the formation of a shock wave off the nose (and other parts) of the airplane. The airplane feels nothing and the pilot hears nothing; any “thunderclap” is only apparent to a static observer as the shockwave passes overhead.

  4. Good introduction to hypersonic flight, but necessarily leaves out a lot. For Richard’s questions: Model of the X-43 in the Smithsonian–that would be a worthy addition. The Apollo capsules were going Mach 36 upon entering the atmosphere, not before, because in the vacuum of space there is no speed of sound, so no Mach number. Of course the Apollo capsule decelerated pretty quickly as soon as it entered the atmosphere!

    One more quibble on the heating of high-speed aircraft: The great majority of heating is due to the compression (adiabatically) of the air at the leading edges. At these speeds the air is compressed a lot (40:1 or more), and that hot air transfers heat to the aircraft, mostly at the leading edges, since that’s where compression is highest. You can personally experience this effect when you pump up a bicycle tire with a hand pump. It gets hot at the compression end of the pump due to the same effect.

    Can’t help on the speed of the Voyager, but it makes sense it would be the fastest vehicle, since it has enough speed to escape the Solar System.

  5. Pingback: Oct. 3 marks 70 years since the V-2 rocket was first launched

  6. Felix Baumgartner’s 24-mile jump from edge of space.
    How could he break the speed of sound when
    there is a vacuum in space, I.e. no air and therefore
    no Mach No. How does the Mach No. Vary
    with height & air density.

  7. LD,

    Thanks for your question!

    Baumgartner did not really jump from the “edge of space.” There is still atmosphere (somewhat thin) at the altitude from which he jumped, hence there is a speed of sound and Mach number. There is no sign out there that says “you are now leaving the atmosphere.” The atmospheric density and pressure simply drops off exponentially with altitude. As my rule of thumb I use 400,000 ft. as the meaningful edge of the atmosphere for aerospace engineering purposes, but that is just a rule of thumb.

    – John D. Anderson, Jr.

  8. I have always wondered why a different approach isn’t used that would eliminate a lot of these problems. How about building a craft that leaves the ground and flies up at a 60 degree angle to an altitude of 50 miles to 75 miles then accelerates to 6.000 miles per hour and them slows down by reversing the engines to drop into dense atmosphere at mock 1.

    You would not need the exotic materials that much. The old XB70 was the beginning of such a plane. A new plane made of titanium and carbon fiber could do it. The engines have been research already to do it. It is a turbine jet inside a large shell that works normally for takeoff.

    The jet it lights off the mains. They are a detonation confined engine where the pressure and heat plasma is magnetically confined away from the plane. This is a continuous detonation producing a hypersonic blast.that drives the jet mock 6 or 8 then idles for the rest of the ride. It would run at 30% until shutoff. The plane would glide down at a shallow angle. The jets will turn on at 120,000 feet. It would land at a regular airport.
    This is efficient because the jet rides on the hypersonic shock wave “rails” giving full support in a three point stability. It takes the weight off of the wings and gives a quiet ride anywhere.

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