Dogfighting at Hypersonic Speeds: UVA Pilots New $4.5 Million ‘Top Gun’ Contract

October 19, 2022
Illustration of X-51A Waverider flying in the sky

The X-51A Waverider, an unmanned hypersonic vehicle, may be among the aircraft that benefit from the new project. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

The University of Virginia has landed $4.5 million in backing from the Department of Defense to collaborate on ways to improve aircraft maneuverability at hypersonic speeds – the latest DOD-UVA partnership to be announced this year.

So if you thought the “Top Gun” sequel was exciting, this project will be like “Top Gun” on steroids, said Christopher P. Goyne, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who directs the UVA Aerospace Research Laboratory.

“I watched ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ with the family last night,” Goyne said. “In the beginning of the movie, Maverick is doing flight testing of a hypersonic aircraft and demonstrating flight at Mach 10. Later in the movie, they’re using F-18s. In both cases, with every tight turn and high angle of attack, there’s a chance the aircraft engine might stall.”

Over the next three years, Goyne’s multi-institutional team will build a scramjet engine for a hypersonic vehicle. The technology, if successful, will likely be incorporated into the next generation of both piloted and unpiloted aircraft, and missiles. 

“The design is going to have to accommodate the requirements of future missions that are too extreme for our current technology,” Goyne said. “They want us to accommodate these high angles of attack and side slip, when the aircraft is flying at extreme angles and even a little bit sideways. If you want to do a high-gravity or low-radius turn, then you have to go to a high angle of attack. But if you’re at plus or minus 20 degrees, that’s when the engine flame can go out.”

Sponsored by the Defense Department’s Joint Hypersonic Transition Office through the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics, the research will give numerous graduate and undergraduate students hands-on project experience.

Christopher Goyne working on equipment in a lab

Christopher Goyne is the principal investigator for the project team. (UVA Engineering photo)

The UVA team will include Goyne, UVA senior scientist Robert Rockwell of the Aerospace Research Laboratory and four new graduate students.

In addition, former UVA professor Peter Beling, now on the faculty of Virginia Tech, will contribute to the prognostics portion of the research.

“In prognostics, you use measurements from sensors on the flight vehicle and in the engine to monitor how the engine is performing and predict how it will need to operate in the future,” Goyne said.

The University of Minnesota and North Carolina State University will do the numerical modeling to guide the design of the engine.

UVA will test a portion of the engine in its high-speed wind tunnel, one of the few facilities in the world that can perform prolonged-duration scramjet testing at velocities needed to simulate hypersonic flight. North Carolina State will then provide the scramjet’s inlet, and the larger engine configuration will be tested at a NASA Langley Research Center wind tunnel facility in Hampton.

The Air Force Research Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, a federally funded research center, will also collaborate. Key industry partners on the project include Innoveering, Calspan and Boeing. UVA’s industrial advisers include Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

Goyne has led previous defense-related projects at UVA, including for the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Projects Agency, and maintains a leadership role within the University Consortium of Applied Hypersonics.

He is also an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, having served as chair of its Hypersonic Technology and Aerospace Planes Technical Committee, and is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications