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Palmdale Facility Rides Super Fast Air Transit Wave

At Site 1 in Palmdale, technicians from Boeing Co. are assembling the future of air transportation. When dropped from the wing of a B-52, a 25-foot long space vehicle called the X-51A WaveRider hits a speed of Mach 4.7 from a booster rocket. Then a scramjet kicks in and with fuel pumping through as quickly as possible, the vehicle reaches Mach 6 or six times as fast as the speed of sound. After traveling a distance of 500 nautical miles, the X-51A’s engines shut down and the vehicle will be destroyed upon impact in the Pacific Ocean. Test flights of the vehicle begin this fall, with three more scheduled through early 2010. What happens after the four tests is anybody’s guess as no additional money has been earmarked to continue the program for the Air Force Research Laboratory. “A lot of X programs fly and they never do anything with them,” said program director Joe Vogel. “I believe that would be a travesty in this case. This has direct applicability to multiple applications.” The technology developed by Boeing and partner Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne marks a number of firsts in that the WaveRider can fly longer than other hypersonic vehicles and is the first powered by liquid hydrocarbons. Pratt and Whitney’s engine could one day take payloads or humans into space; be used in missile systems; or in future passenger aircraft traveling great distances in a fraction of the time it takes now. “People constantly want to get their products from point A to point B quicker,” Vogel said. “Here is your UPS of the future.” As the flight tests approach, Boeing is shifting engineering, technical and management personnel from its Phantom Works facility in Huntington Beach to the Antelope Valley. While this isn’t a huge number of jobs 33 people are expected to be transferred this year the presence of the X-51A project reinforces the region’s reputation as the center of cutting edge aerospace research and development. The Palmdale site lends itself well to the assembly of the WaveRider for testing purposes because of the close proximity to Edwards Air Force Base, where the test flights originate. If funding comes through for more testing, then Plant 1 will receive additional work. Assembly of test vehicles is one thing while mass production is a different story altogether. Space limitations at Plant 1 would mean moving mass production elsewhere although it could still be done in Palmdale. The program, however, isn’t moving beyond the four test flights unless Congress provides more money. The WaveRider hasn’t even been airborne yet and already Vogel and Boeing promote and increase the visibility of the program. In late March, the company hosted a group of political and business leaders from the Antelope Valley for a presentation on the X-51A. Good relations with the elected officials at the federal, state, county and municipal levels is necessary to get the message out on the importance on the program, said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, who attended the presentation. Palmdale and the region as a whole- already benefits from presence of large aerospace firms like Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. The city, in fact, lobbied for the production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but ended up with a portion of the work divided between Lockheed and Northrop, Ledford said. The relocation of NASA Dryden Flight Research Center aircraft to Plant 42 in the city has the potential to draw in other aerospace vendors and create a clustering effectIf the X-51A program stays past the test flight stage that may draw the interest of other companies. “If they can show that the technology is perfected and works other companies in the engine business or airframe development will want to get in on it,” said Josh Mann, executive director of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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