That Darkstar in Top Gun: Maverick—was it real?

“He is the fastest man alive”

This line is pronounced in Top Gun Maverick when Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell hits Mach 10 on the Darkstar – a reusable, piloted hypersonic aircraft that is ostensibly the creation of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works – note Skunk’s Lockheed Martin logo on the aircraft’s tail in the film.

I felt a surge of pride when I saw the familiar logo – my dad worked at Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Projects – known as Skunk Works – for over 30 years. Dad never told us what he did. He could not. He took work trips to “somewhere in the desert”. We kids learned to say, “Dad builds rockets,” when someone asked what our dad did at work.

Skunk Works goes to Hollywood

Skunk Works – so named because the plant produced a strong unpleasant odor, especially on hot days – is by definition a place of secrecy.

The skunk is the mascot of “Skunk Works,” a term for Lockheed Martin Advanced Development that dates back to 1943, when engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson led a team in Southern California charged with designing a jet for the military. As manufacturing space was impossible to find because of the war, the team worked out of a rented circus tent set up next to a plastics factory.

According to a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin, Paramount Pictures approached the aerospace company in 2017 with a request for technical expertise in producing Top Gun: Maverick.

“Lockheed Martin Skunk Works designed and produced a conceptual reusable piloted hypersonic aircraft, called the Darkstar in the film.” she said.

The Darkstar’s fictional lines evoke two other Lockheed Martin aircraft: the SR-71 Black bird—SR stands for Strategic Reconnaissance—the now retired, super fast design; and the Lockheed Martin F-35, also known as “the most advanced fighter in the world”.

FLIGHT was told not to confuse Darkstar with the SR-72, a concept referred to as the “Son of Blackbird”, which is a build ostensibly suggested by the media in 2013 but never confirmed as a concept by Skunk Works.

Darkstar is cinematic fiction, the spokesperson explained, saying, “Darkstar is a hyper-realistic aircraft concept designed specifically for Top Gun: Maverick. Hypersonic technology is making progress and the work being done at Lockheed Martin today is laying the groundwork for a reusable hypersonic vehicle like the Darkstar one day being possible.”

The fictional aircraft took five years to build. The development team took this to heart, keeping in mind “the modeling, materials and components that must withstand the heat and environmental stressors caused by high-speed flight”.

In addition, Lockheed Martin “helped design realistic flight equipment, shared artifacts for the set, and organized site visits and demonstrations to support the effort. The team provided insights to drive realism into the plot, serving as consultants during filming,” said a company spokesperson.

Proud of your part in the movie

Lockheed Martin has a page dedicated to information about Top Gun Maverick. There you’ll find more information about the project and some of the Lockheed Martin designers who worked on it, identified only by their first names: Jim, Jason, Lucio and Becky.

Jim is credited with the conceptual design. Jason and Lucio took care of the task of transforming the conceptual designs into a realistic model aircraft with a functional cockpit. Becky, a mechanical engineer, worked with the film’s crew to build the Darkstar vehicle, including the working cockpit. Throughout the filming process, her job was to keep the model structurally sound.

Jeremy Hindle, production designer for the Paramount film, described Darkstar’s design as “angry, evil and incredibly fast”.

In the film, the Darkstar mission is never discussed openly. However, we are told that the government wants to withdraw funding from the project because it has not yet reached Mach 10. It is suggested that test flight protocols – which set specific targets to reach and not go beyond Mach 10 – are short of Mach 10. 9.

Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell changes the rules a bit to get “one last test flight”. Test flights involve a protocol where a goal is set and achieved, but does not involve pushing the envelope. Maverick is warned not to fly – Mach 9 is 6,905.42 mph.

The closest a piloted aircraft has come to that speed in reality is the SR-71. Black birdwhich reached Mach 3.3 or 2,193 mph.

There is a dramatic sequence where Maverick dons his high-altitude flight suit and helmet as he prepares for launch before sunrise. Tension increases as the aircraft climbs into the dawn sky, and the cockpit Mach number reading heads towards the target value.

Is it possible to fly an aircraft as fast as Mach 9?

“Operating in the realm of hypersonic flight is difficult,” Lockheed Martin spokesperson said. “The film depicts both a fictional aircraft and a fictional flight test scenario. The path-finding work being done today is vitally important. The film’s notional setting does not represent today’s work.”

This isn’t the first time Locheed Martin has created a Darkstar. In the 1990s, Lockheed Martin created the RQ-3 Darkstar, a high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle designed for endurance, not speed. The UAV made its first flight in March 1996. The project was terminated in 1999 because the aircraft did not meet expectations.

Three remaining Darkstar UAVs are in museums – one is at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, one is at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the third is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

Maybe someday. Just like the flight scenes in the original top gun inspired generations to become military aviators, this film will also inspire future generations of engineers.

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