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Meet ‘Quarterhorse’: The U.S. Air Force’s Mach 5 Monster Plane (Fastest on Earth)?

Hypersonic Passenger Jet
Hermeus, a start-up company building a reusable hypersonic aircraft, signed a $60 million partnership contract with the United States Air Force to further test and develop the company’s Quarterhorse aircraft, powered by a single turbine-based combined cycle engine.

Meet Quarterhorse: For many decades, the U.S. achieved air superiority over its adversaries.

Beginning with the F-22 Raptor’s first flight, American-made planes had set the threshold for fifth-generation airframe capabilities.

Now that Beijing and Moscow have caught up to America’s former monopoly of aerial technologies, U.S. engineers are looking toward the next generation of possibilities.

While the SR-71 Blackbird continues to wow the most avid aviation buffs, the Air Force’s upcoming “Quarterhorse” airframe may soon take the title as the fastest hypersonic plane in the skies.

The manufacturer behind the Quarterhorse

The Atlanta-based company Hermeus has focused on the development of commercial hypersonic airframes since its conception back in 2018. With a mission to create a dual-use Mach 5 capable airframe, Hermeus is set to break records in hypersonic space.

In 2021, the Air Force awarded Hermeus a $60 million contract to create three uncrewed concept airframes- including the widely recognized “Quarterhorse.” The goal of the Quarterhorse is to validate the manufacturer’s newly produced engine and reach speeds of Mach 4-plus.

Prior to the Quarterhorse, the SR-71 plane held the record as fastest airframe by being able to reach speeds around Mach 3. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney J-58 turbojet engine, the Blackbird, the plane became the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War shortly after its introduction to service.

In order for the Quarterhorse to compete with such a speedy aircraft, its engine would have to seamlessly transition between turbojet, ramjet and back to turbojet.

Typical turbojet engines cannot supersede Mach 3 (three times faster than the speed of sound). A ramjet engine, however, can reach speeds of up to Mach 5 since this type of system uses air to pressurize air and fuel in the combustion chamber.  Hermeus has already mastered this unorthodox powerhouse of an engine- the Chimera.

According to Popular Mechanics, “In order to test its Chimera engine, Hermeus needed to simulate the high-speed pressures of Mach 4 flight, so the company packed up its engine and shipped it to the Notre Dame Turbomachinery Lab, a high-Mach test facility. There, Hermeus demonstrated the Chimera’s ability to transition between engines by guiding supersonic air around the turbojet and into the ramjet. The hypersonic engine for Quarterhorse joins similar initiatives to unlock the era of hypersonic flight, including the Air Force’s Project Mayhem, which hopes to deliver a hypersonic bomber in the foreseeable future.”

 Why does the U.S. want this supersonic airframe in its arsenal?

No matter how stealth or weapons-packed an airframe is, it could always be outrun by a faster competitor. Therefore, speed can provide increased survivability in most cases. Additionally, America’s top-of-the-line airframes cannot be in every location at once.

Long distances between strategic regions have remained a hurdle for U.S. airframes, making the need for a hypersonic Mach 5 plane paramount for potential kinetic warfare. The legendary Blackbird jet made history during its tenure by famously outrunning more than 4,000 missiles fired at it throughout its service years with the U.S. Air Force.

The Quarterhorse could fulfill the infamous track record of the Blackbird once serviceable, at least this what the Air Force hopes.

Author Expertise

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

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