An artist's rendition of what a hypersonic Air Force One might look like. Credit: Hermeus.

Americans are used to seeing their flaxen-haired president emerge from the doors of a Boeing 747-based Air Force One — a common sight whenever POTUS makes an official visit or heads for some golf at his resort in Florida.

But will a US president ever emerge from a hypersonic Air Force One — a jet with the capability of flying from New York to London in 90 minutes, rather than 7 hours?

In fact, the US Air Force is considering that possibility, awarding the Hermeus Corporation a contract to support its work on a hypersonic aircraft powered by an advanced combined-cycle jet engine — a stepping stone to fielding a high-speed plane for VIP transport in the future, Joseph Trevithick of The War Zone reported.

The deal is worth approximately US$1.5 million and will focus on exploring design concepts for a business jet-sized hypersonic executive transport aircraft capable of seating between nine and 19 passengers. 

The Atlanta-based aviation startup will be working on this with the Air Force’s Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, which is responsible for managing the fleet of two Boeing 747-based VC-25A Air Force One aircraft, as well as the 757-based C-32A Air Force Two fleet, 737-based C-40 Clippers and various other business jets and turboprops, The War Zone reported.

“Leaps in capability are vital as we work to complicate the calculus of our adversaries,” Air Force Brigadier General Ryan Britton, the Program Executive Officer for Presidential and Executive Airlift, said in a statement.

“By leveraging commercial investment to drive new technologies into the Air Force, we are able to maximize our payback on Department of Defense investments.”

Combined cycle engines blend together the capabilities of traditional jet turbines and ramjets or scramjets, the latter of which can only reliably function at high speeds. Credit: Hermeus.

Hermeus, which was founded in 2018, has been focused on the development of a hypersonic passenger jet primarily for the commercial market, The War Zone reported. At the core of its design is a combined-cycle jet engine.

Combined cycle engines blend together the capabilities of traditional jet turbines and ramjets or scramjets, the latter of which can only reliably function at high speeds.

“Using our pre-cooler technology, we’ve taken an off-the-shelf gas turbine engine and operated it at flight speed conditions faster than the famed SR-71,” Glenn Case, Hermeus’ Chief Technology Officer, said.

“In addition, we’ve pushed the ramjet mode to Mach 4-5 conditions, demonstrating full-range hypersonic air-breathing propulsion capability.”

In principle, a combined cycle engine would allow an aircraft to take off like any other jet using existing runways, then switching over to a ramjet system to accelerate to hypersonic speed during the middle portion of its flight, and then land on the other end, again without the need for any specialized infrastructure.

“At Mach 5 – over 3,000 miles per hour – flight times from New York to London will be 90 minutes rather than 7 hours,” Hermeus’ press release on its Air Force contract declared.”

In addition to VIP airlift, a hypersonic aircraft in this size class, or even just supersonic one, could be valuable for performing other mission sets, including tactical ones, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare, and even long-range strike.