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SR-71 Blackbird Speed Record Threatened: Darkhorse Hypersonic Drone Set to Challenge Iconic Achievement

Back in 1976, one of America’s SR-71 Blackbird spy planes shot through the sky at speeds of Mach 3.3. That’s 2,193.2 mph or 3,529.6 kph, numbers that back then marked an absolute speed record for a crewed jet aircraft.

As some of you know, the plane was powered by a pair of J58 turbojet engines. The powerplants were produced by perhaps the biggest name in the industry, Pratt & Whitney. And it’s the same company that’s now involved in a project meant to literally trash the Blackbird record.

The project is called Darkhorse, and it’s the creation of a startup called Hermeus. We’re talking about a hypersonic drone that should be capable of flying at hypersonic speeds, over Mach 5 (3,800 mph/6,100 kph), while serving mostly military goals, but potentially civilian ones as well.

The Darkhorse too will use a Pratt & Whitney engine, this time the mighty F100. It’s the engine that’s used in the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, and has proven over the years to be highly reliable and powerful.

True, the thing is not in itself powerful enough to shoot things at hypersonic speeds, that’s why in the Darkhorse it’ll be part of a larger system called Chimera II. We’re talking about a turbine-based combined cycle technology that’ll rely on the F100 to take the drone to speeds of Mach 2.8 (2,148 mph/3,457 kph).

From there, a ramjet will kick in and push the aircraft past Mach 5. Unlike the main jet engine, which is produced by a third party, the rest of the Chimera II’s parts (most importantly the inlet, pre-cooler, burner, and bypass system) are made in-house by Hermeus.

It was this week when Hermeus announced it took delivery of the first F100 engine, meaning the tech is now closer to completion than it’s ever been, and the Blackbird record closer to being broken.

We’re not told when the Darkhorse will be ready for its first test flight, but the tech is already being put through its paces. For testing purposes, a demonstrator tech called Quarterhorse will be used. This one utilizes an earlier version of the Chimera system, powered by a General Electric J85 powerplant. It’s an engine used over the years in a series of aircraft, including the present-day T-38 Talon trainer.

What’s extremely interesting as far as the Hermeus idea goes is that the Darkhorse, once ready for duty, will serve as a development platform for a hypersonic civilian transport plane called Halcyon. Although details about this one are quite scarce at the moment, just the thought of moving people and cargo around the planet at Mach 5 and above is enough to get us all hyped up.