Supercruise is sustained supersonic flight of an aircraft with a useful cargo, passenger, or weapons load performed efficiently which typically precludes the use of highly inefficient afterburners (reheat). Many well known supersonic military aircraft are not capable of super cruise as they are only able to maintain supersonic flight in short bursts (typically with afterburners) while they cruise at subsonic speeds. Aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird are designed to cruise at supersonic speed with afterburners enabled.
One of the most prominent and well-known examples of this type of aircraft was Concorde. Due to its long service in commercial airlines, Concorde has the record for the most time spent in supercruise; it has spent more time in supercruise than all other aircraft combined.
Most military aircraft use afterburners (or reheat) to travel at supersonic speeds and cannot reach supersonic speeds using the dry engine thrust. Afterburners are highly inefficient compared to conventional jet engine operation due to the low pressures typically found in the exhaust section. This limits most aircraft to using afterburners for only very short periods. Therefore, an aircraft that can supercruise has generally greater endurance at supersonic speeds than one which cannot. Supercruise capability is also an advantage for stealth aircraft, as an afterburner plume both reflects radar signals and creates a significant infrared signature in addition to being visually conspicuous.
The first turbine-powered aircraft to exceed Mach 1 in level flight without afterburners was the un-reheated Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire powered P.1 prototype of the English Electric Lightning, on 11 August 1954. Previously this aircraft, WG760, flown by Roland Beamont had unknowingly exceeded Mach 1 in the climb on its first flight on 4 August 1954, although due to position error, the Mach meter had only shown a maximum of Mach 0.95, and Beamont, who had not noticed any change in behaviour of the aircraft, was surprised when informed of the fact after the flight data had been analysed. However, this early demonstration of supercruise was extremely limited; the Lightning could supercruise at approximately Mach 1.02 while later versions were able to achieve much higher speeds.
The British Aircraft Corporation Tactical Strike/Reconnaissance 2 (TSR-2), which first flew on 27 September 1964, was one of the first military aircraft specifically designed to cruise supersonically; one of the planned mission profiles was for a supersonic cruise at Mach 2.00 at 50–58,000 ft. Supersonic cruise at lower levels was at Mach 1.1 at 200 ft. The TSR-2 used Bristol Olympus engines, a later version of which would also power Concorde.
Only the civilian SSTs Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144 spent most of their time supercruising. Many of the fighters listed as capable of supercruise can only marginally exceed the speed of sound without afterburners and may only be able to do so without an external weapons load. In day-to-day operation Concorde used reheat (afterburners) to accelerate through the high-drag transonic flight regime; although it was capable of reaching its top speed without the use of reheat, the excessive fuel consumption involved in doing so made this impractical for commercial flights. Unlike Concorde, Soviet counterpart, the Tu-144, which was capable of supercruise at Mach 1.6, Concorde could supercruise at Mach 2.0. For the Tupolev to attain this speed, it required continuous reheat and a cruising speed of Mach 1.6 was adopted for the service period of the 10 first generation Tu-144s. Later Tu-144s had more powerful military engines which were not as restrictive, giving only slightly less range but higher speeds than Concorde.
The term supercruise was originally used to describe a fighter performance requirement set forth by USAF Col. John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, and Col. Everest Riccioni, proponents of the F-16 Falcon. Following the entry into production of the F-16, they began work on an improved fighter design with the ability to cruise supersonically over enemy territory for a minimum of twenty minutes. As air combat is often the result of surprise, and the speed of the combat is determined by the speed of the surprising aircraft, this would have given a supercruise-capable design a worthwhile performance advantage in many situations. The postulated fighter would have had a top speed of just over Mach 1, and a fuel fraction in excess of 40%, the minimum required to successfully meet the twenty-minute requirement. Meeting the fuel fraction requirement necessitated a very austere design with few advanced electronics. The United States Air Force showed no interest in the proposal at that time, but years later revived the term and redefined it to apply to the requirements for the Advanced Tactical Fighter, which resulted in the F-22 Raptor.
The F-22 Raptor's supercruise capabilities are touted as a major performance advantage over other fighters. Even so, supercruising uses much more fuel to travel the same distance than at subsonic speeds: The Air Force Association estimates that use of supercruise for a 100-nautical-mile (190 km) dash as part of a mission would cut the F-22's combat radius from about 600 nautical miles (1,110 km) to about 450 nautical miles (830 km). However, this is still unconfirmed as the altitude and flight profile are classified (as are most of the F-22's capabilities). There is no way to compare this with other aircraft; most aircraft using afterburner to fly at supersonic speeds will have exhausted their fuel supplies very rapidly, typically tripling their fuel consumption during that portion of the flight.
The F-22 has demonstrated supercruise speeds of at least Mach 1.7, a difference of 320 knots (593 km/h) indicated airspeed (KIAS) at 40,000 ft (12,000 m). Supercruise in militarily significant parlance is meant to imply a significant increase in effective combat speed with a full weapons load over existing types. Virtually all current and past jet fighters, prior to the F-22, cruise at approximately Mach 0.8–0.9 with a militarily significant weapons load. The F-22 represents a significant advance in cruise speed over previous types. Nonetheless, it can maintain this speed, even in supercruise, for only about five minutes, falling far short of the original performance requirement.
The key challenge in attaining supercruise is not simply attaining a high thrust to weight ratio vis-à-vis the aircraft but a radical redesign of the engine because the air entering a jet engine must always travel at subsonic speeds, regardless of aircraft speed. Otherwise compressibility waves ( or shock waves) will create uncontrollable vibrations among the compressor vanes. Engine inlet design therefore can effectively limit the speed of the aircraft, regardless of thrust. The SR-71 Blackbird's distinctive nosecone is designed to funnel air around the J-58 engine for that very reason.
There are a few engines in production that are designed to facilitate tactically significant supercruise:
- The Pratt & Whitney F119 engines used in the F-22 Raptor
- The Snecma M88 engine in the Dassault Rafale allows it to supercruise in dry power, even with four missiles and a 1000-litre belly tank and even in the naval version; it can supercruise while carrying six air-to-air missiles (MBDA MICA).
- The EJ200 engine built by EuroJet Turbo GmbH gives the Eurofighter Typhoon supercruise capability. It is capable of supercruising at Mach 1.5 in clean configuration,. Typhoon pilots have stated that Mach 1.3 is attainable in combat configuration with external stores.
- The General Electric F414G in JAS 39 Gripen NG is designed for supercruise and has been shown to achieve Mach 1.2.
Independently Russia is working on an all new AL-41 engine with a complete redesign underway to add supercruise ability to the PAK FA. This is yet to give fruit, but the stop-gap 117S engine, produced by this program, seems to achieve the supercruise goal already. It was recently announced [] that during testing of a Su-35BM fighter equipped with these engines it was travelling at the ~1.1-1.2M airspeed at nominal power and was still accelerating, thus suggesting that the supercruise was possible at even higher speed. Further testing will show the extent of this possibility.
All known supercruise aircraft can only do so at considerable altitude (where the air is thinner and so offers less resistance), which restricts the use of terrain mask and so makes any non-stealth aircraft very obvious.
Aircraft designed to cruise on afterburner
The Pratt & Whitney J58 engines of the Lockheed A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird were designed for sustained and efficient operation at supersonic speeds using afterburners with air that was diverted past the turbojet core of the engine. This gave a good compression ratio and higher efficiency simply due to the ram effect at the high operating speed of the aircraft. The afterburners acted essentially as ramjets and these types of engines achieve peak efficiency at around Mach 3.
In a somewhat similar vein, the XB-70A Valkyrie made use of specially designed turbojets (six General Electric YJ-93 engines) to sustain speeds in excess of Mach 3. Unlike the J-58 engines powering the SR-71, the YJ-93 engines of the XB-70A did not require the use of special fuel, and did not radically modify the intake/exhaust geometry in order to achieve Mach 3 flight. The YJ-93 engines did operate in afterburner at Mach 3; however, the engines were specifically designed to be very efficient in afterburner, and the XB-70A AV-2 prototype sustained speeds in excess of Mach 3 for 32 minutes on one flight. Furthermore, the type was designed to operate at such speeds for periods of hours over intercontinental ranges.
Ramjets and scramjets
Ramjet and scramjet powered aircraft have to date been experimental. There have been numerous ramjet missiles, but these engines only operate at supersonic speeds and therefore would be theoretically ideal for an aircraft intended to spend long periods in supersonic flight. Due to the exotic nature of the engines, whether this would be considered "supercruise" is largely semantic.
Aircraft with supercruise ability
- Eurofighter Typhoon
- Dassault Rafale
- Gripen NG "Gripen is supersonic at all altitudes and can cruise supersonically with an external load including fuel tank, four AMRAAM and two Sidewinder missiles without the need to engage the afterburner." A Totally Superior Product (p. 2)]
- F-22 Raptor
Formerly in service:
- F-35 Lightning II
- TAI TFX
- Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft
- AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
- Zero Emission Hyper Sonic Transport
- Sukhoi/HAL FGFA
- Sukhoi PAK FA
- Chengdu J-20
- Shenyang J-31
- Mikoyan LMFS
- [dead link]
- Stealth design of airplanes / stealth aircraft
- English Electric Aircraft and their Predecessors, Stephen Ransom & Robert Fairclough, Putnam, London, 1987, (p.227)
- Austrian Eurofighter Site in German
- F-22 Raptor.com
- "Gallery of USAF Weapons", pp. 147–155. Air Force Magazine, May 2006.
- "Air defense mission for flotille F12." Fox Three, issue 8, pg. 8. Retrieved: 2011-03-30.
- Desclaux, Jacques and Jacques Serre (2003). M88 – 2 E4: Advanced New Generation Engine for Rafale Multirole Fighter. AIAA/ICAS International Air and Space Symposium and Exposition: The Next 100 Years. 14–17 July 2003, Dayton, Ohio. AIAA 2003-2610.
- "Gripen Supercruises." Gripen International, 21 January 2009.
- Frequently Asked Questions about JSF, jsf.mil, retrieved March 2011
- Tirpak, John A. (November 2012). "The F-35’s Race Against Time". airforce-magazine.com. Air Force Association. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
- http://www.lenta.ru/articles/2008/07/04/su35/Su-35BM testing report on Lenta.ru (in Russian)
- title=Valkyrie: North American's Mach 3 Superbomber|last=Jenkins|first=Dennis R.|coauthors=Tony R. Landis, Alvin S. White, and Fitzhugh L. Fulton|publisher=Speciality Press|date=2005|page=various pages|isbn=1580070728]
- "A Totally Superior Product" (PDF). Gripen News: 2. June 2001.
- "Gripen Supercruises" (press release). Retrieved 2009-12-04.
- Powerplant, ConcordeSST—describes full cycle of Concorde's engine from takeoff to touchdown, including the turning off of reheat to begin supercruise at Mach 1.7.