The Concorde completed its last transatlantic flight in 2003, but commercial aviation has kept looking for new ways to fly faster than the speed of sound. That chance just got one step closer to reality.
In August 2020, NASA took delivery of the first F414-GE-100 engine built by GE Aviation for its X-59 QueSST plane, a one-of-a-kind experimental aircraft that will fly faster than Mach 1 and higher than most high-performance aircraft, at 55,000 feet.
The space agency announced in early January that “following the X-plane’s temporary move from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works in California to their facilities in Texas, the X-59 is set to start 2022 with critical ground testing as progress continues toward NASA’s target of the aircraft’s first flight later this year.”
NASA said the ground testing “will be done to ensure the aircraft can withstand the loads and stresses that typically occur during flight. The team will also calibrate and test the fuel systems before the X-59 makes the journey back to California for more tests and completion.”
Designed by NASA and Lockheed Martin, the X-59 QueSST (short for Quiet Supersonic Technology) made Popular Science’s list of the 100 Greatest Innovations of 2019. The plane’s distinctive shape — a pointy, 30-foot nose and swept wing, reminiscent of the Concorde — has been devised for a specific purpose: to dial back the noise that supersonic aircraft create when they break the sound barrier, reducing the sonic boom that can rattle windows at ground level to a gentle thump.
The project began six years ago as a design study for commercial supersonic technology research within NASA’s aeronautics program. It has since evolved into what is now called the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) mission. And while many previous X-planes have had their origins in military programs, the X-59 has essentially been designed and built from scratch using existing systems from other high-performance aircraft. GE developed a new variant of the F414 fighter jet engine to meet the X-59’s exacting performance and reliability needs — the ability to accelerate and climb to a cruising altitude of 55,000 feet.
The new engine, which was built and initially tested at GE Aviation’s facility in Lynn, Massachusetts, is nearly 13 feet long and 3 feet in diameter and can produce 22,000 pounds of thrust. “We’re going to need every pound of thrust that this engine can put out to complete this mission,” says Ray Castner, NASA’s LBFD propulsion lead for the X-59. “And that thrust is in the afterburner.”
The F414 engine and its older cousin, the F404, power a wide variety of jets in the U.S. and around the world, including the F-117 Nighthawk, Sweden’s Saab Gripen, India’s Tejas, and of course the Super Hornet.
Top image: The X-59 supersonic jet in production at Lockheed Martin. Image credit: Lockheed Martin.