The US Air Force, along with venture capital partners, awarded a $60 million contract to Hermeus Corporation that will allow the company to complete flight testing of its first aircraft, the Quarterhorse.
The hypersonic aircraft is capable of flying at five times the speed of sound. At this speed a flight from New York to Paris would only take 90 minutes, compared to the seven and a half hours it typically takes today.
The contract is being funded by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and various venture capital sources.
The air force said its engagement with Hermeus was part of a larger effort led by the directorate to fuel the commercial resurgence of high speed passenger travel, and has been dubbed the “Vector Initiative”.
The initiative aims to partner with commercial sector leaders to accelerate their development and, as a byproduct, advance enabling technologies that could provide the Air Force options for a variety of missions.
The award was made under the AFWERX Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) program led by the Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate (PE) as a follow-on to a Phase II SBIR contract. The collaboration also includes support from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).
“We are transforming the Air and Space Force into an early-stage ‘investor’ that leverages private capital, accelerates commercialization of technology and grows the number of companies partnering with the Department of the Air Force,” said Col. Nathan Diller, AFWERX director. “It has been great working with the team to help identify innovative companies with advanced capabilities.”
“One of our goals in supporting companies like Hermeus, is to expand the Defense Industrial Base for both aircraft manufacture, and hypersonic propulsion development,” added Brig. Gen. Jason Lindsey, the Program Executive Officer for Presidential & Executive Airlift. “Ultimately we want to have options within the commercial aircraft marketplace for platforms that can be modified for enduring Air Force missions such as senior leader transport, as well as mobility, ISR, and possibly other mission sets.”
Quarterhorse will validate the Hermeus turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) engine, based around the GE J85 turbojet engine, and is the first in a line of autonomous high-speed aircraft.
Hermeus noted that some may argue that it is impossible to flight test a TBCC engine across the full flight envelope for less than $100 million, adding that it is taking a different approach compared to traditional high-speed flight test programs.
The company said it would be “leveraging autonomous and reusable systems, ruthlessly focused requirements, and a hardware-rich program.”
“While this partnership with the US Air Force underscores US Department of Defense interest in hypersonic aircraft, when paired with Hermeus’ partnership with NASA announced in February 2021, it is clear that there are both commercial and defense applications for what we’re building,” said Hermeus CEO and co-founder, AJ Piplica.