The Air Force's New Hypersonic Spy Plane Is Coming Soon

Jared Keller

Key point: Like stealth, hypersonics are a disruptive technology.

The successor to Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird, the Mach 3 long-range recon aircraft that once tore across the skies like a Cold-War era arrowhead before its retirement in 1999, may be inching closer toward reality.

According to Aviation Week, a handful of visitors to the SAE International Aerotech Congress and Exhibition at Fort Worth, Texas, this week reported catching glimpses of a “demonstrator vehicle” believed to be linked to the proposed replacement: the SR-72.

Though the SR-72’s development is (understandably) a tightly-kept secret, Aviation Week reports that: In the early hours of July, an “unmanned subscale aircraft” was seen flying into the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, where Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works division is headquartered.

With an “optionally piloted” flight research vehicle test slated for 2018 by Lockheed back in June, and a test flight anticipated to occur by 2020, the presence of the demonstrator at Palmdale seems to indicate that the SR-72’s progress is in line with Lockheed Martin’s timeline.

“Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed,” Orlando Carvalho, the executive vice president of aeronautics at Lockheed Martin, said at the exhibition, which ran from Sept. 26 to 28. “Simply put, I believe the United States is on the verge of a hypersonics revolution.”

Lockheed Martin has remained tight-lipped on the SR-72 program since announcing the Blackbird successor in 2013, but the aerospace giant wants to up the ante in terms of speed. And that’s saying something: the Blackbird as it's known is not only faster than any other jet-propelled aircraft — it can literally outrun missiles.

“Speed matters, especially when it comes to national security,” as Carvalho put it.

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