The X-51A scramjet before launch from a B-52

The X-51A scramjet before launch from a B-52. Photo courtesy of the US Air Force.

The phrase “keeping a match lit in a hurricane” acquired new meaning to me over the last 24 hours as Hurricane Sandy whipped through Woodstock, where I live and work.

The phrase is also a metaphor for the extreme challenge presented by hypersonic air-breathing aircraft. That is, jet-propelled airplanes that can travel five times the speed of sound and above.

The most advanced such craft, the unmanned X-51A, funded by the US Air Force and DARPA, has yet to fly more than 2.5 minutes without a serious problem.

The latest flight ended in failure last August before engineers on the ground could even light the scramjet engine that is supposed to push the vehicle to hypersonic speed after a rocket boost.

Last week, the head of the program for the Air Force Research Laboratory, Charlie Brink, updated reporters on the latest findings on what went wrong and the team’s plans to try again. Read the details in my story on what went wrong with the X-51A on

Fortunately Sandy caused me and my loved ones no significant damage, and the town of Woodstock lost power for less than 24 hours. We’re up and running again already, but it won’t be until spring or summer before the X-51A is ready to fly again.