Last week, SOFREP reported on Boeing joining the competition to field a worthy successor to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird, a Mach 3-capable military reconnaissance aircraft that saw its last operational flight in 1999. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have both expressed their intent to build a hypersonic capable aircraft that could carry the moniker “SR-72,” and although both companies have had successes with the scramjet engines necessary to propel these planes to such incredible speeds, it has long been assumed that Lockheed is a bit further along in their developmental stage than the competition.

New remarks by Lockheed’s Vice President Jack O’Banion, however, may indicate that they’re even further along than previously believed. In fact, it would seem that Lockheed Martin may even have an operational prototype of their scramjet aircraft already built.

At the SciTech Forum, held by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Florida last week, O’Banion discussed his company’s plans for the SR-72 prototype with the audience – and notably seemed to discuss elements of its construction in the past tense, potentially indicating that the platform has already been built at least once.

For instance, when projecting the well-known artist’s rendering of Lockheed’s hypersonic aircraft, he said: “Without the digital transformation, the aircraft you see there could not have been made.”

As far as conjecture goes, it seems reasonable to make the deductive leap that, at least according to O’Banion then, one of these experimental aircraft has indeed already completed construction.

“We couldn’t have made the engine itself — it would have melted down into slag if we had tried to produce it five years ago,” O’Banion went on. “But now, we can digitally print that engine with an incredibly sophisticated cooling system integral into the material of the engine itself, and have that engine survive for multiple firings for routine operation.”

These two statements coupled together are telling.  First, by saying that the aircraft had been made, O’banion suggested that Lockheed’s airframe had been constructed, but that alone wouldn’t necessarily suggest an operational prototype. However, by elaborating on the engine’s cooling system sustaining “routine operations,” he might have been suggesting a completed aircraft – or at least the completed components that, when assembled, would produce one.

If that doesn’t do it for you, however, O’Banion wasn’t through yet.  According to Bloomberg, he also said, “The aircraft is also agile at hypersonic speeds, with reliable engine starts.”

Lockheed promotional image of their SR-72 design.

Now that is starting to sound like an operational prototype may have even taken to the skies already.  Of course, these comments could be interpreted a number of ways – stability can be assessed through wind tunnel testing and 3d modeling, reliable engines starts and the success of the coolant system could be regarding burn testing rather than flight testing, and so forth. Again, it’s the combination of statements regarding both the air frame and powerplant that seems to suggest Lockheed’s SR-72 competitor may no longer be a theoretical effort.

Both the U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Office and Lockheed Martin declined to comment on the possibility of there being an operational SR-72 prototype in their stable, which, frankly, means nothing. Whether there was an operational fleet of secret aircraft or the SR-72 remained nothing more than white board fodder, their response would have been the same.  Their silence does beg the question, however, was O’Banion going off script when discussing the SR-72’s progress? Was he mistaken or potentially just using poor word choices?

In any regard, there is a notable gap between operational prototype and being considered “operational” from a military standpoint. The F-35, for instance, spent years in the space between those two distinctions, but it’s difficult to ignore how significant an operational Mach 5-capable manned aircraft would be in terms of advancing America’s airborne supremacy in the decades to come.

To quote Lockheed, “A hypersonic aircraft will be a game changer.


Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin