Air Force officials are preparing to conduct the maiden free flight of the first X-51A hypersonic air vehicle as early as May 25 from Edwards AFB, Calif. A B-52 will release the expendable X-51 over the Pacific Ocean. Spaceflight Now reported Monday that initial captive carry tests on the B-52 showed the need for greater coordination of chase aircraft and telemetry acquisition, thus pushing back the date of the historic first flight. The X-51 features a supersonic combustion ramjet engine designed to propel the vehicle to more than six times the speed of sound. These flights, if successful, would be the first practical demonstration of scramjet technology and could pave the way for new types of ultrafast-striking missiles, reusable aircraft, and even space-access vehicles. The Air Force plans four X-51 flights. (For X-51A background, see Game Changers from the archives of Air Force Magazine.)
The Air Force will begin its 71st annual Operation Christmas Drop on Dec. 4. The weeklong exercise is a yearly tradition that delivers supplies such as food, fishing equipment, school books, and clothes to remote islands in the Pacific. It is the longest-running Department of Defense humanitarian mission.