Airplanes fly fast, we know that but… what are the fastest airplanes in the world? We will see how among them there are fighters and military aircraft. But also experimental models whose antiquity may surprise us: more than fifty years. And it is that, in the heat of space race, some solutions were tested in unique airplanes before having spaceships. During those years (around 1960) the Cold War allowed spending huge amounts of money to develop airplanes that you will see on this list. Now the money is invested in saving or controlling flights.
When an airplane exceeds the sound barrier, it flies at “Mach 1” (it is 1,225 km / h at 15 degrees). If, in addition to being supersonic (more than Mach 1), it exceeds five times the speed of sound (Mach 5 or more, 6,125 km / h), it is called hypersonic. Only one of the fastest ten was capable of so much, because they are all supersonic , of course. We will see if some omens are fulfilled and we will see it again on commercial flights.
1. North American X-15
It was and still is the fastest aircraft: it reached Mach 6.7 (about 7,200 km / h) in 1967 with William J Knight at the controls. Surely the name of this plane doesn't tell you much because the X-15 was an experimental device. But for ten years, between 1959 and 1968, the X-15s flew 199 times. Spacesuits were developed on its flights and progress was made in medicine and control aerodynamics at very high speeds. This information allowed us to take steps forward without (so much) risk in the American space race.
The X-15s used to have two types of missions: speed flights (at level altitude) or high (upward flight to a certain altitude). Its propellant was a rocket engine and it lasted very little time: that is why it was launched, in flight, from a B-52 bomber. With the fuel used up and the mission accomplished, it glided at high speed and landed on a runway in the desert.
DAYTON, Ohio - North American X-15A-2 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (US Air Force photo)
In addition to exceeding speeds of Mach 6, the X-15 was the first space plane. It exceeded 100 km in altitude (10 times what a commercial airplane) and was able to fly beyond the stratosphere . In addition to normal aerodynamic controls on its wings (for gliding) it used small rocket engines to control it at such an altitude and at such high speeds.
2. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
We could say that it is the fastest conventional aircraft: it exceeded Mach 3 (3,540 km / h). It is possibly better known than the X-15 because it was used for more years and was not experimental or made flights so short. It was a military strategic reconnaissance plane, a spy plane. It was the first with “invisible” technology (to radar) and made with titanium. 32 units were manufactured that flew from 1966 to almost this century (1998). It was 32 meters long by 17 meters wide (wingtip to wingtip) and carried two crew members.
Its distinctive appearance, sharp and with the motors in the wings, has popularized it. It was used by the US Air Force but also by NASA for some experimental flights. It was so fast that if it was located, other fighters could not reach it. Not even a missile launched from the ground was capable of intercepting it thanks to its speed. In 1974 he broke the flight record between New York and London arriving in 1 hour 54 minutes . Flying so fast, its outside temperature was very high (300ºC). After landing no one could get close for a few minutes. And, when cold, the parts of the fuselage did not fit because they had slack (they did seal in flight, already hot).
3. Lockheed YF-12
Their resemblance to the Blackbird is not accidental, because they were developed from the same prototype. In fact, the YF-12 did not finally pass its experimental phase . It had to be the fastest interceptor fighter, flying up to Mach 3.3 (it reached 3,661 km / h in 1965). And it could fire missiles at that speed with precision.
But the needs of the army focused more on reconnaissance than on interception at such high speed. For that, more efficient and less logistically complicated missiles began to be developed. That is why only four units were built , and their entry into service was scrapped. They remained as test planes for NASA and flew for many years, until 1978.
4. Mikoyan Mig-25
The first Soviet fighter on the list, designed to intercept aircraft like the American Blackbird during the Cold War. Its maximum operational speed was Mach 2.8 but it could reach Mach 3.2 (3,600 km / h) briefly. In that case, however, there was a risk of damaging the engines and the structure. It had a powerful detection radar and four air-to-air missiles.
Unlike previous aircraft, the Mig-25 was mass-produced . Until 1984 1,190 units were manufactured. It was therefore an aircraft adopted in good numbers by the Soviet army and some of its allies (Syria and Algeria among others). He was a protagonist in the war between Iran and Iraq, for example. But at the end of his life it had a much more peaceful use. At MigFlug they used the Mig-25 to make high-altitude and supersonic tourist flights to the very edge of space.
5. Bell X-2 Starbuster
Another experimental American plane, which reached Mach 3.2 (3,370 km / h) although its pilot did not survive afterwards. It was the successor to the X-1, the first supersonic aircraft that popular pilot Chuck Yeager reached beyond Mach 1 in 1947. The Bell X-2 had to be tested at higher speeds, Mach 2 and Mach 3, to investigate how the engines worked. controls beyond supersonic flight. But it only flew in 1955 and 1956.
When on one of his flights the pilot exceeded Mach 3 but lost control , it was decided to put an end to this type of aircraft. At that time, military fighters were not far behind in performance and it was decided that an experimental aircraft should make a bigger leap. Shortly after, the X-15 would arrive, which heads this classification of the fastest aircraft in history.
6. XB-70 Valkyrie
A very little known plane, almost unique. Also a result of the Cold War, it had to be the fastest bomber, reaching Mach 3 (3,250 km / h in 1966). It had six jets capable of moving the 240 tons of this 32-meter wingspan and 58 meters long aircraft at that speed. It was so big that it could carry enough fuel for the 7,000 km flight to the USSR.
Like the BlackBird, the idea was to make it impossible for the enemy to catch up with you by speed. Furthermore, this was (or had to be) a nuclear bomber: it also had to be able to escape the explosion of its own bombs. It could carry up to 14 nuclear warheads, but the enormous cost and the arrival of ballistic missiles paralyzed its evolution . Two test units were manufactured. One was destroyed in an accident during an exhibition and the other is kept in a museum in Ohio.
7. Mikoyan Mig-31 Foxhound
The heir to the Mig-25, similar to it and still operational since 1981, reaches Mach 2.8 (3,000 km / h). Like the Mig-25, it is possible to take a supersonic ride aboard one … if you can afford it. With its two huge jet engines it can fly above Mach 1 both at high altitudes and at lower altitudes.
It is an interceptor fighter and for that it has a lot of detection technology (radar) on board. It inherits it from the Mig-25 and in what the Soviets excelled a lot, using vacuum valves by the way. But as it remains active (Russia plans to keep it operational until 2030) it is the fastest fighter in the world today . It was discontinued in 1994 and there are believed to be about 400 in existence. There are many variants depending on the mission, but it can carry remarkable intercept weapons.
8. McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
One of the most successful American aircraft still in service , it exceeds Mach 2.5 (3,000 km / h). It has two powerful engines with almost as much propulsion capacity as its weight (18 tons). It arrived in 1975 and will continue to operate until at least 2025, in addition to in the United States in clients such as Israel or Saudi Arabia. More than 1,200 units have been manufactured and will continue to be manufactured until 2019.
It was originally an air domain fighter, but it has also become an excellent fighter-bomber. There are different variants and many possibilities of weapons to use, depending on the mission. Protagonist in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or the Balkans, it was the successor to the popular F-4 Phantom .
9. General Dynamics F-111
It is not another fighter, it is an American tactical bomber capable of flying at Mach 2.5 (2,650 km / h) at high altitude. Also a result of the Cold War, it could carry up to 14 tons of bombs (including nuclear ones). It was the first aircraft with mobile wings , it became active in 1967. They were more open in flight at low altitude and speed, lagging in supersonic flight. It remained active, depending on the country, between 1996 and 2010, particularly in Australia and the United Kingdom.
10. Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker
A Soviet fighter capable of reaching Mach 2.35 (2,500 km / h), was also the first with “fly by wire” controls . Instead of direct controls, the pilot is in command and a computer controls the plane's surfaces. It was developed to counter American military fighters such as the F-15 and is a remarkably successful fighter.
It has had many variants due to its success and capacity, and is still operational even 40 years after its first flight in 1977. The Sukhoi Su30, 33, 34, 35 and 37 are all developments of this aircraft dedicated to different purposes. In addition, if you want to fly in a Su-27 you can do it too: from 12,500 euros for 25 minutes.