December 13, 2022
Alright, I’ve messed around and figured out how to fly the “Darkstar” from the new “Top Gun” movie in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Let’s take a trip.
The flight I’ll be taking will be from the Top Gun academy at Miramar, near San Diego, to Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, DC. If I do everything right, the 2,000 mile trip should take 25 minutes.
Here I am on the tarmac at Miramar. The jet in the movie is what I would call quasi-fictional. It’s roughly based on the Lockheed SR-72, which is supposedly in development, though all the details about it are top secret.
The SR-72 is supposed to be the replacement for the SR-71 Blackbird, which was retired in 1998 and was the fastest operational airplane in the world.
Lockheed actually worked with the filmmakers of “Top Gun” to ensure the full-scale mock-up they developed looked like a realistic hypersonic airplane, LIKE but not identical to the SR-72.
Because of the wind today, I’m taking off to the west and will need to turn around to head east. That will add some time to my flight.
Rotating off from Miramar’s runway at 180 knots, with afterburners on, I pitch up 10 degrees and raise my landing gear, accelerating towards Mach 0.9.
Once I reach Mach 0.9, I stay below the speed of sound by raising pitch to 20 degrees, while turning to the east. That’s San Diego harbor below me.
To break the sound barrier and accelerate quickly, I invert the plane to go into a dive. The reason I invert is to avoid excessive negative G-forces, by pulling back instead of pushing forward on the stick to nose down.
Here’s the start of my inverted dive, just after breaking Mach 1.0.
Now that I’m supersonic, I quickly roll back upright and resume my 10-degree climb, gradually accelerating to Mach 3.0. I’m already over the California desert, nearing the Salton Sea ahead.
Passing Mach 2.0. I’m banking slightly to stay on course, which is indicated by the pink line to the bottom right of the screen.
Until I reach Mach 3.0, I’m still using my conventional jets with afterburners.
A normal jet engine works by compressing air through a series of spinning blades, then adding fuel to burn it and make it expand rapidly out the back. Before it exits, the hot air turns a turbine that powers the compressor in front.
At extremely high speeds, a compressor isn’t needed, because the ramming force of the oncoming air itself is sufficient to compress it. A ramjet dispenses with both the compressor and the turbine to drive it.
In a ramjet, however, the air is slowed inside the engine to below the speed of sound. In a scramjet – or supersonic ramjet – the air flowing through the jet remains at supersonic speed – and can produce much higher speeds as a result.
A scramjet, however, needs the aircraft to be already moving at a very high speed to work. So once I reach Mach 3.0 (I’m at 2.81 and rising) I can flip the switch and ignite the scramjets.
The exhaust ports for my red-colored afterburners close, replaced by the white-hot heat of my scramjets. The plane accelerates VERY rapidly now.
I’ve also climbed very rapidly. I level off at 135,000 feet, a little higher than I planned, but no matter. I’m nearing Mach 6.5 now, over 4,800 miles per hour.
I think I’m over Arizona, but to tell you the truth I’m not 100% sure. I’m just following the pink line. You can see the nose and edges of the airplane heating up from the friction of moving so fast.
I’ve leveled off at 127,000 feet and reached Mach 9.1, my cruising altitude. It’s possible to reach Mach 10 by going higher, but I’ve got enough on my hands already.
The flight is going very quickly. I’m already over the Great Plains. You can easily see the curvature of the Earth.
The mission of the SR-72, like the SR-71, will be to conduct reconnaissance (spying) at an altitude to high and speed to fast for anyone to catch or shoot down.
I haven’t been able to recognize very much along the way, but I’m pretty sure this is St. Louis about 24 miles below me.
How hot does the plane get? That’s classified. But the skin of the SR-71, traveling at a mere Mach 3.0, reached an average of 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cockpit window of the SR-71 was made of quartz, and was 1.25 inches thick, to survive these temperatures.
About 200 miles from my destination, I turn off the scramjet, pull the throttle back to idle, and begin my slowdown and descent. I’ve dropped to 75,000 feet here, and slowed to Mach 4.4, basically just gliding down with minimal power.
Truth be told, that was bad advice I was following. I should have waited until I was over the Appalachians, and far closer to DC, to slow down. Prematurely shutting down the scramjets probably added an extra 15 minutes to my flight.
Next time I’ll wait longer, but at least this time I didn’t break up by coming into the lower atmosphere too fast.
My approach speed should be between 150 and 200 knots. To fly level at these low speeds, the Darkstar has to keep its nose pitched up about 10 degrees.
Crossing the Potomac with Washington DC in the background, just to my north. I’ve lowered my wheels for landing at Andrews.
This is a little tricky. I have no forward view, and can barely see out my side windows. I have to rely entirely on the digital image on my screen to land on the runway.
The little airplane marker on the screen shows my current trajectory. I need to keep it pointed near the start of the runway, while keeping my speed around a steady 150 knots – a lot faster than the 65 knots I’m used to landing a Cessna 172.
Well, I hit the runway a little harder than I’d like, but I ended up safe and sound.
My total time across the country, by scramjet, was about 50 minutes. Taking off to the west added about 10 minutes, and beginning my slowdown and descent too early cost me another 15. Still not bad from coast to coast.
Some hope that scramjets can someday be used for passenger transport, putting any destination in the world within a 90-minute flight. But for now, the applications remain purely military. Hope you enjoyed the flight.
There is a story, perhaps true, perhaps not, that when the filmmakers of “Top Gun” produced their full-scale mock-up of the Darkstar, China repositioned a satellite to fly over and take a closer look, believing it was real.