Artist's impression of the X-51A Waverider in flight (Wikipedia)

A hypersonic craft that can fly from New York to London in one hour is to be tested by aviation engineers.

The unmanned X-51 Waverider, run by the US Air Force, Nasa, Boeing and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, could usher in a new era of flight.

The Waverider craft, which is under wraps in a hangar in Edwards Air Force Base in California, will be dropped from a B52 Bomber and fly using a revolutionary "Scramjet" engine which would allow it to accelerate to five times the speed of sound.

Released at a height of 50,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, the craft will be tested in a mission lasting just over three minutes.

Robert Mercier, deputy for technology at the high-speed systems division at the US Air Force research laboratory in Ohio, described the move to hypersonic flight as akin to "going from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft".

If the test goes smoothly, the craft is expected to hit speeds of more than 3,500mph - which would cover the distance between New York and London in an hour.

"Since the Wright Brothers we have examined how to make aircraft better and faster," Mercier said. "Hypersonic flight is one of those areas that is a potential frontier for aeronautics. We're standing in the door waiting to go into that area."

The project, which is thought to cost around $140m (£89m), has had an uncertain history, with the engine repeatedly stalling in previous tests.

Flight attempt

The Waverider is embarking on a one-way trip. It will not be collected following its flight. Once it is released over the ocean it will fall for several seconds, at which point a booster rocket will ignite for the craft to gain its initial acceleration for around 30 seconds.

The booster will drop off, with the craft expected to be travelling at around Mach 4.5. After it is released, the "scramjet" engine will ignite, rocketing the Waverider to hypersonic speed to heights of 70,000 feet.

The craft will then break up after having flown for 300 seconds.

The craft is so named because its engine allows it to ride on its own shockwave.

The Waverider
The Waverider attached to a B52 bomber's wing (Air Force)