Saturday, August 5, 2023

NASA/Lockheed Martin Roll Out X-59

It's almost five years to the day since I posted a piece saying that NASA had made a contract with Lockheed Martin for the next generation X-plane, the X-59 Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD).  Today it's called the X-59 QuessT (Quiet SuperSonic Technology) so I guess it seems like inflation is affecting acronyms, too.  The jet is the embodiment of experimental technologies intended to dramatically reduce the sound levels of supersonic air travel, in an effort to allow supersonic commercial flights over the continental US.  The goals for the X-59 are to "reduces the loudness of a sonic boom to a gentle thump to people on the ground," perhaps like a car door slamming within a few hundred feet and to "gather data on human responses to the sound generated during supersonic flight," according to NASA.

Lockheed Martin rolled the plane out in public 11 days ago, although word is apparently now just getting out.  That's going by the posted "since" field on the YouTube page for this video.  The audio for this is just some music.  No narration.  No content.  

The footage shows off the unique geometry of the X-59, which features a sharp, extended nose section measuring 38 feet (11.5 meters) in length. Because of the length of this nose section, however, pilots flying the X-59 won't be able to accurately see out of the front of the cockpit, which doesn't even feature a forward-facing windscreen.

The long nose is probably going to be a problem.  It was with the Concorde back when it went into service and its nose was shorter.  An article in Machine Design that was a reference for my August '18 article referred to that:

Flight rules when the Concorde flew demanded that pilots be able to see the runway when they were landing and taking off. That meant engineers had to devise a way for the nose to tilt downwards almost 13o on takeoffs and landings then go back to its proper position while in flight. To improve visibility on the X-59, Lockheed is using a forward mounted camera. For taxiing and ground handling, a second camera under the nose looks downward when the landing gear is extended. The long nose will still present problems for taxiing and limit its turning radius. This will likely restrict the aircraft from operating out of smaller airfields.

While I'm not a pilot I've had the good fortune to sit in the right front seat of a small plane a couple of times, and I have to think that using a video system instead of just looking through a windshield is something that needs attention in design, so that if the primary system fails the pilot isn't completely blind.  Perhaps it's not that unusual compared to other planes in service today - or even not that different from simply flying on instruments - but reliability is always a major concern in aviation design.  

To remedy this, the experimental jet features what NASA calls an External Vision System, or XVS. XVS is essentially a closed-circuit video system consisting of a forward-facing camera and a cockpit-mounted display in front of the X-59's pilot. The system uses "custom image processing software and camera systems, to create an augmented reality view of the X-59 pilot’s forward line-of-sight along with graphical flight data overlays," according to a 2019 NASA statement.

If you saw Top Gun: Maverick last year, you may remember the scene at the opening of the movie where Tom Cruise is a test pilot in a supersonic plane and is pushing it to Mach 10.  The supersonic plane seen in that movie was based on input from the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the same group that built the X-59 and that's working on the SR-72 successor to their enormously successful SR-71 Blackbird.  What was seen in the movie wasn't the SR-72, but something based on it crossed with the X-59, which was in the process of being built when the movie was made.  The emphasis was on looking cool while not showing what either plane really looks like.

Those of you who live near Edwards Air Force Base will probably get to be the first to see and hear the X-59 QuessT fly.  Once data is taken that shows the design behaving as intended, flights will extend over other suburban and urban areas and they'll be looking for feedback from the communities on the acceptability of the sounds when the sonic boom/car door slamming reaches you.  



  1. Lindberg took off, flew and landed "The Spirit of St. Louis" using a periscope.

    Poor visibility because technology and streamlining has always been a thing once enclosed cockpits came around.

    The P-47? Had to have a ground personnel ride on the wing so as to give taxiing instructions to the pilot.

    The Bombardier in many tail-wheeled bombers was responsible for giving takeoff and landing instructions to the pilots.

    With a modern glass cockpit, who needs windows? (until the glass cockpit craps out and you lose power, but by that time you need to be thinking about ejecting.)

    The Concorde and the US SST would have benefited greatly by not having to do the droop nose thingy.

    1. Having some familiarity with guys testing for their Instrument Rating being required to wear helmets that are designed to keep them from looking out the windows softens intolerance of the video system. If you're on the ground when the video system fails, I believe that's no big deal - they just cancel the flight. It's the video failing in flight that needs the attention.

      This is the root problem with any "glass cockpit." When everything goes dark, it's a pretty ugly situation.

    2. Total electric failure is not unheard of. More potentially insidious is the intermittent fault. Thats why all glass cockpits have some analog instruments.

      Those few steam gauges will get you on the ground safely; but it is akin to flying partial panel. The danger lies in the competency of the pilot(s).

      Practice partial panel on analog gauges to a pilot flying technologically advanced aircraft feels like a giant step backward. That's the psychology side of it.

      Generally, no pilot likes to indulge themselves in partial panel. What you dislike, you'll tend to avoid doing.
      Mandated recurrent training goes up a notch.

  2. Folks, don't kid me, that thing is a test bed for a very high speed air superiority fighter. You can say it's a proof of concept for a quiet supersonic passenger jet, but put a internal guided missile bay a la F-22 on that pup and it would eat up anything in existence and then some.

  3. Never forget that a few years ago NASA did sonic boom testing out of KSC in the local area.
    One wonders how much Microsoft is in that thing? Sure could get exciting when the BSOD shows up instead of a camera view!

    1. I was in high school in the late 50s, early 60s, and I lived near Wright-Patterson AFB. At that time, the USAF conducted tests to determine the public's tolerance for sonic booms, and let me tell you, they laid some really big ones on us. They had teams on the ground to go around after each run to poll the public and to pay for broken windows (yeah, they were that loud.) I believe that it was those tests that were the basis for the military's sonic boom policies for years afterward.

  4. Since it is LockMart building this, they could have included an F-35 helmet to provide the pilot with 3D vision for landing and takeoff. Though, those helmets cost about $250,000, so they may be taking a little less expensive route for an X Plane.

  5. December 2003, as part of the Centennial celebration of flight, at Dare County airport at Manteo, NC.

    A company with partial funding from Allied Signal and a grant from DARPA demonstrated synthetic vision in real time in aircraft. The inclement weather was perfect for the demonstration. The aircraft overhead - a new Cessna 172, if I recall - had received an FAA waiver since they were operating outside the type certificate.

    One of the modes depicted on the LED screen was flying through the boxes. The box symbol was a 3 sided box (without the top) with a V shape (like a reticle) superimposed on the bottom of the box.

    At that time, this was proof of concept. Over the twenty years since, that system has become available for private aircraft.

  6. I think they found the model I made of the Douglas X-3 "Stiletto" in the 1950s and updated it.

  7. The old adage of, "If it looks right, it will fly right," is echoing in my head.

    That thing doesn't look right.