SFO to JFK in less than an hour? It could happen

On Tuesday, a test flight over the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles could pave the way for hypersonic commercial air travel that would cut the time of a cross-country flight from over five hours to less than one.

A B-52 will carry the the X-51A WaveRider “scramjet” unmanned test craft on its wing from Edwards Air Force Base out over Point Mugu.  At about 50,000 feet over the ocean, the B-52 will drop the craft which, if all goes well, will reach speeds of about 3,600 mph (or Mach 6)  if only for about 300 seconds, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, DARPA, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne(s utx) and Boeing(s ba) are collaborating on the project to show the feasibility of hypersonic flight. Obviously, the military would love to have hypersonic missiles and other fast-and-stealthy hardware.

But hypersonic commercial flights are not outside the realm of possibility over time. EADS has been working on its own vision of hypersonic commercial flights promising Paris-to-Tokyo journeys of under 3 hours.  But they’re not expected any time soon. The European Commission has set aside $6.15 million  to test out high-speed planes.

Commercial supersonic flight is not unprecedented. The Concorde aircraft flown by Air France and British Airways hit speeds of up to Mach 2 or about 1,350 mph, and could fly from New York to London in about 3 hours. But they were notoriously inefficient and expensive — and cramped.  The program was not economically sustainable and was discontinued a decade ago.  Cost and efficiency will be factors to consider for airlines evaluating hypersonic flight going forward as well.

Still, I’d be willing to bet there’s a market for high-cost but extremely fast cross-country flights. As The Times reported, a coast-to-coast trip at X-51 speeds would take 46 minutes. And, at that clip, who cares about airline food or if the Wi-Fi works?

Check out the video simulation of WaveRider

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user MultiplyLeadership