The company behind the SR-71 Blackbird’s engine Pratt & Whitney now confirms it is working on a secretive development program called Metacomet aimed at solving the problem of fielding high-speed, reusable propulsion systems at low cost.
Pratt & Whitney, which developed the J58 engine that powered the Blackbird, is now scheming up a reusable, low-cost hypersonic engine called the Metacomet. The effort leads to the question of what, exactly, the Pentagon has in mind for the engine.
Pratt & Whitney started working on the Metacomet two years ago, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology. The company’s Gatorworks division is dusting off its work on the J58, which allowed the SR-71 to reach a record-breaking Mach 3.2, with the hopes of using it to help create a new engine capable of propelling a new vehicle even faster.
Although the company declines to provide specifics of the Metacomet solution set, test plans or potential applications, Stagney says the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) proposed Mayhem demonstrator vehicle for a hypersonic, air-breathing propulsion system “is definitely one of the programs that we’re looking at, for sure.”
The AFRL revealed plans for the Mayhem System Demonstrator on Aug. 13 as a “larger-scale, expendable, air-breathing, hypersonic, multimission” platform that can carry “larger payloads over distances further than current hypersonic capabilities allow,” according to a formal request for information that was released to industry.
The J58 was a one-of-a-kind engine. Its unique trick involved the ability to transition from turbojet engine to turbo-ramjet engine in flight, sucking in vast amounts of oxygen-rich air and burning it to drastically increase engine output. Each J58 could generate up to 32,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner mode, a spectacular feat for an engine designed in the 1950s.
Despite its vintage, the J58, which was developed in the 1960s and retired when NASA ended test flights of the SR-71 in 1997, remains one of the most successful and ingeniously designed high-speed air-breathing engines.
The J58 made the SR-71 the fastest air-breathing plane ever. In March 1990, the SR-71 flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in just over an hour, traveling at an average speed of 2,144 miles per hour.
Related Article: Experience SR-71 Blackbird J58 engine test in full afterburner