Culture > Diversion

The Darkstar hypersonic plane goes public

Sadly, the world’s fastest jet is merely a prop in real life

We bet that you got shivers down your spine during this opening sequence. PHOTO FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES

First, we’re big fans of Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s universe, and anything that zooms and makes things go boom. In the first epic scene of Top Gun: Maverick that pays homage to The Right Stuff, our titular hero takes a fictional SR-72/Darkstar experimental plane for one last flight before the hypersonic project is shut down by the grumpy admiral because “drones are the future” and they have yet to reach Mach 10.

It's a very convincing prop, isn't it? PHOTO FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES

The whole scene takes less than five minutes from the time Maverick blows right over the admiral on takeoff, pushing the scramjet to the target Mach 10 (12,348km/h), then past its breaking point and ending up somewhere in Colorado. Truly epic stuff, especially when it’s only the first of several planes he’s going to steal, break, and otherwise do exciting things they only teach you at Navy Fighter Weapons School (aka Top Gun) with.

Hailed as a cinematic masterpiece in the aviation genre, the production took pains to film real fighter planes, with the actors in the back seat grunting and sweating and swearing and trying not to puke on camera. With seamless integration of CGI and old-fashioned camera magic, the suspension of disbelief needn’t be so high that you’ll rejoice at seeing all of the aerobatics—not to mention the legendary F-14 Tomcat still kicking fifth-generation fighter-jet ass.

Yes, the Darkstar is real, but you won't be seeing it break Mach 10 any time soon. PHOTO FROM US AIR FORCE

Anyway, the production was apparently so convincing that China actually took the trouble to reroute a satellite to take overhead shots of the Darkstar prop, thinking that it was a real plane. And why not? Lockheed Martin, whose “Skunk Works” team famously built the F-104 Starfighter and the SR-71 Blackbird, was actually contracted by Paramount Pictures to help design the Darkstar mock-up for the film.

Taking cues from established theories on how a hypersonic plane would look, the Darkstar is like a sleeker version of the SR-71–long fuselage ending in a dagger-like nose, two big engines at the back and below the airframe, and canted vertical stabilizers.

It looks like it popped out of an old issue of Popular Science. There are two windows by the cockpit, but no forward-looking canopy, likely because it wouldn’t be able to withstand the heat at hypersonic speeds. In the movie, Maverick sees what’s up ahead with an array of sensors. And also, we still need windows so the audience can see inside the plane (and see Tom Cruise).

If fancy new planes aren't your thing, you can always witness the good old boys take to the skies once more. PHOTO FROM US AIR FORCE

According to Lockheed Martin, the mock-up was five years in the making. They helped “design realistic flight gear, shared artifacts for the set, and arranged site tours and demonstrations to support the effort.” The LM design team, known only as “Jim,” “Jason,” “Lucio” and “Becky” (because this is top-secret stuff), made the conceptual design, including a functional cockpit and a design brief that was basically to make it look “angry,” “mean” and “insanely fast.”

And now the United States Air Force has done a brilliant PR move by displaying the Darkstar mock-up at the recent Aerospace Valley Air Show in the Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. It’s part of a bewildering array of current and retired aircraft like the F-15 Eagle, the A-10 Thunderbolt, the B1-B Lancer, the B-52 Stratofortress, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and a wild schedule of aerobatic displays.

Who knows? Maybe these young kids will be the engineers to make the Darkstar's successor. PHOTO FROM US AIR FORCE

Lucky showgoers can get up close and personal with Maverick’s Mach 10 scramjet. Naturally, it doesn’t actually have any engines, and just looking at the scale relative to the bunch of school kids reveals it’s about half the size it would need to be in real life.

Local STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students got first dibs at seeing the “plane” up close, hopefully, to inspire them to pursue a career in aeronautics and build the next generation of aircraft and spaceplanes. Aside from the static displays and the airshows, the expo also had virtual-reality flight simulators, a robotics playing field, and demonstrations from the Air Force security forces.

So kids, if you like planes and you want to be part of something special about two decades from now, take your math very seriously—and you might have a fighting chance in the exciting world of aeronautics and rocket science. Otherwise, the closest you’ll ever get might be watching Top Gun: Son of Maverick for the nth time.

Andy Leuterio

Andy is both an avid cyclist and a car enthusiast who has finally made the shift to motorcycles. You've probably seen him on his bicycle or motorbike overtaking your crawling car. He is our motorcycle editor and the author of the ‘Quickshift’ column.