Can you guess the fastest airspeed an aircraft has ever achieved? It is close to 10,200 km/h or 6,300+ mph. Quite astounding. But the more important question is how did we reach this level.
In the late-1930s, when the first fully jet-powered aircraft (Heinkel He 178) was introduced, it had a maximum airspeed of almost 600 km/h. The fastest ever recorded. Then, by 1941, the fastest airspeed achieved by any aircraft reached 900 km/h following the introduction of Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, the aviation industry made substantial advancements concerning engine output and the aircraft’s overall structural stability. These improvements allowed airplanes to operate at much faster speed with increased durability.
On October 14, 1947, the U.S Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager carried out the first-ever supersonic flight (exceeding the speed of sound or Mach 1) on Bell X-1. During the flight, the aircraft reached the maximum airspeed of 1,600 km/h. But, of course, it was no way near the fastest aircraft in the world.
Below is our list of 12 crewed aircraft and one unmanned fastest aircraft that were ever produced.
An aircraft’s speed is often measured by the Mach number, a dimensionless quantity representing the ratio between an object’s speed and the speed of light in the surrounding medium. Based on the airspeed of an aircraft relative to the speed of sound, flights can be categorized into different Mach regimes.
|Mach Regime||Speed (Mach Number)|
|Subsonic||Less than 988 Km/h (<0.8)|
|Transonic||988–1,482 km/h (0.8-1.2)|
|Supersonic||1,482–6,174 km/h (1.2-5)|
|Hypersonic||6,174–12,350 km/h (5-10)|
|High-hypersonic||12,350–30,870 km/h (10-25)|
12. Mikoyan Ye-66/ MiG-21
MiG-21 (retired) of Vietnam People’s Air Force at National Museum of the United States Air Force
Initial Flight: June 16, 1955
Recorded Top Speed: 2,175 km/h or 1,351 mph
The MiG-21is a single-engine jet fighter capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. The aircraft entered the service in 1959 as a low-cost fighter that could only operate in the daytime. However, it was highly maneuverable in the air and could operate from unpaved runways.
More than 50 different nations across the globe have, one time or another, utilized MiG-21 or its variants. It remains the most produced supersonic aircraft in the world and has the third-longest production run of any combat aircraft.
Throughout the history of the MiG-21 program, many prototypes and design variants have been produced. One such prototype was Ye-6T or Ye-66 (unofficial), developed in 1958. This particular prototype would later establish multiple airspeed and altitude records. According to some sources, the fastest speed achieved by a Ye-6T prototype is 2,681 km/h or 1,666 miles per hour.
However, the maximum speed of a production MiG-21 is redlined at 2,175 km/h (Mach 2.05).
11. Convair F-106 Delta Dart
Convair F-106B Delta Dart trainer of Air National Guard | Image Courtesy: USAF
Initial Flight: 26 December 1956
Recorded Top Speed: 2,484 km/h or 1,544 mph
The Convair F-106 Delta Dart was the last true interceptor aircraft to serve the U.S Air Force. It was born out of USAF’s interceptor program in 1954 and made its first test flight three years later from Edwards Air Force Base. However, the test yielded disappointing results.
Due to various performance issues and production delays, the air force cut down its initial order of Convair F-106 by 75 percent, acquiring less than 350 units. On 15 December 1959, about two months after being introduced into service, Major Joe Rogers set the world single-engine speed record (official) on an F-106 at 2,455 km/h or Mach 2.39.
However, the fastest airspeed of a Convair F-106 Delta Dart is recorded at 2,484 km/h or 1,544 mph by aviator Charles Myers in 1959 as well.
10. Sukhoi SU-27
Sukhoi Su-27 | Image Courtesy: Vitaly V. Kuzmin
Initial Flight: 20 May 1977
Top Speed: 2,500 km/h or 1,600 mph
With the arrival of fourth-generation warplanes such as the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 eagle, in the late 1960s and early 70s, the United States gained a commendable technological superiority over the existing Soviet military aircraft.
As a counter, the Soviets launched the “Prospective Frontline Fighter” program to develop a highly agile fighter plane with Mach 2+ speed. The program concluded with MiG-29 and Su-27.
The Sukhoi Su-27 (NATO reporting name “Flanker”) is relatively heavier and larger of the two, while both are versatile; capable of performing different combat roles. The aircraft is described as supermaneuverable, the ability to perform extreme tactical maneuvers that are not possible by simply adjusting the flight control surfaces, such as flaps, rudder, and air-breaks.
At an altitude, the maximum airspeed of a Su-27 is 2,500 km/h (Mach 2.35).
9. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
An F-4 Phantom II of fighter squadron VF-74 U.S Navy
Initial Flight: 27 May 1958
Recorded Top Speed: 2,585 km/h or 1,606.3 mph
The supersonic multirole aircraft F-4 Phantom II had been a cornerstone of the U.S Armed forces for more than three decades between the 1960s to 1990s. The aircraft was initially developed to replace the aging F3H Demon (carrier-based) fighters. However, due to the aircraft’s high adaptability, it was quickly embraced by the U.S Air Force and the Marine Corps.
The F-4 Phantom established as much as sixteen world air records, all during its initial service years. Some of them were not broken until the mid-1970s. On 22 November 1961, during Operation Skyburner, a modified F-4 Phantom II reached a record speed of 2,585 km/h.
Due to its large airframe and massive firepower, the F-4s were heavier and less maneuverable than its Russian counterparts, such as MiG-21. Nevertheless, the aircraft had been used extensively by other countries and wars.
8. McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
A USAF F-15C flying over California
Initial Flight: 27 July 1972
Recorded Top Speed: 2,655 km/h or 1,650 mph
The F-15 is a twin-engine, multirole combat aircraft developed by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing Defense) that entered service nearly five decades ago. When the plane was first introduced, the air force labeled it as “the first dedicated USAF air superiority fighter since the 1940s’ F-86 Sabre.”
The aircraft is powered by two afterburning turbofan engines producing 105.7 kN thrust and have a maximum achievable speed of 2,655 kilometers per hour (Mach 2.5).
The F-15s have been a dominant force in skies, whether as an air-to-air fighter or a ground-attack aircraft (F-15E Strike Eagle). They were highly effective during the Gulf War winning most of their air-to-air battles.
While the USAF remains the largest operator of the F-15s, they are an integral part of the other air forces such as the Royal Saudi Air Force, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (licensed variant), and the Israeli Air Force.
7. Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-152/ Ye-166
Initial Flight: 21 April 1961
Recorded Top Speed: 2,681 km/h or 1,665 mph
The Ye-152 was an experimental heavy interceptor aircraft designed by the Mikoyan Gurevich Design Bureau in the late 1950s and early 60s. It was part of the Ye-150 family of aircraft. The net weight of a Ye-152 prototype aircraft was more than 12,300 kg, about 150 times that of its contemporary, MiG 21F (4,819 kg). It is due to heavier avionics and armaments.
The aircraft featured a powerful but unreliable single Tumansky R-15 turbojet engine (later used in MiG-25). Nevertheless, it allowed the aircraft to reach airspeeds of 2,681 kilometers per hour. However, the record carried out by the Ye-152 is registered under a false name of Ye-166.
6. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 “Foxbat”
MiG-25 | Image Courtesy: Dmitry A. Mottl/ Wikimedia Commons
Initial Flight: 6 March 1964
Recorded Top Speed: 3,000 km/h (Mach 2.8)
The MiG-25 “Foxbat” (NATO reporting name) is a supersonic military aircraft developed by the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG in the 1960s. The jet has a maximum operating speed limit of Mach 2.8. However, it’s capable of reaching much higher Mach 3+ speeds but not without permanent damages to the engine.
Due to its exceptional speed and high cruising altitude (23,000 meters), MiG-25 could operate as an interceptor and a reconnaissance aircraft. The highest altitude achieved on a MiG-25 (albeit modified) is 37,650 meters by a Soviet pilot in 1977.
After analyzing initial intelligence data on MiG-25, the Western Allies mistakenly believed it to be an agile fighter aircraft rather than an interceptor. It compelled the United States to initiate their own air superiority fighter project designated as F-15 Eagle.
A MiG-31 of the Russian Air Force | Image Courtesy: Dmitriy Pichugin
Despite the success of MiG-25, the Soviets were still without a supersonic interceptor that could engage Western fighters directly with adequate firepower. As a result, a replacement was introduced with additional capabilities but keeping the most critical aspects of the supersonic jet; speed and operational altitude.
The new model, designated as MiG-31 “Foxhound,” featured some of the most advanced avionics and radar technology of its time. It has a similar outer appearance and, most importantly, maximum speed to its predecessor.
5. Bell X-2 Starbuster
Bell X-2 (below) drops away from its B-50 Superfortress mothership | Image Courtesy: NASA (NACA)
Initial Flight: 18 November 1955
Recorded Top Speed: 3,050 km/h or 1,900 mph (Mach 2.87)
The Bell X-2 was a research aircraft developed by Bell Aircraft in collaboration with the National Committee of Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA) and the U.S Air Force to explore and investigate flight qualities above Mach 2 speeds.
The X-2, nicknamed “Starbuster,” featured a swept-wing configuration and was driven by a powerful single Curtiss-Wright XLR25 rocket engine producing 67 kN thrust.
On 23 July 1956, on his ninth and final X-2 test flight, Frank “Pete” Everest became the “fastest man alive” after achieving a record airspeed of 3,050 km/h at 20,764 m altitude. However, it was not the fastest recorded speed on a Bell-X-2.
About two months after Everest’s record-setting flight, on 27 September 1956, pilot Milburn Apt on his first X-2 test flight reached Mach 3.1 speed or 3,369 km/h. It would have been a spotless record if Apt had successfully made it back to the surface. Moments after reaching the maximum speed, Apt lost control of his jet, resulting in a nosedive fall. Unable to release himself on time, Apt died soon after the aircraft crashed on the ground.
4. North American XB-70 Valkyrie
XB-70A Valkyrie on a runway before the test flight
Initial Flight: 21 September 1964
Recorded Top Speed: 3,250 km/h or 2,020 mph (Mach 3.8)
In the mid-1950s, due to the rapidly evolving strategic needs, the U.S Air Forces started investigating potential bombers, or ground attack aircraft, that could carry heavy payloads (including nuclear missiles) at supersonic speeds over long distances.
Read: NASA vs SpaceX – How Different They Are?
The probe ended with the experimental aircraft North American XB-70, nicknamed ‘Valkyrie.’ Only two units of XB-70 were ever produced. Both of them had delta wing arrangements and were made mostly of stainless steel and titanium. The aircraft was powered by six turbojet engines producing a thrust of 120 kilonewtons (with afterburner).
As an experimental aircraft, the XB-70 played an instrumental role in developing the late B-1 bomber and Tupolev Tu-144 programs.
3. Lockheed YF-12
Lockheed YF-12A flying over a mountain
Initial Flight: 7 August 1963
Recorded Top Speed: 3,331.5 km/h or 2,070.1 mph
YF-12 was a prototype interceptor aircraft developed by the Lockheed Corporation in the late 1950s and the early 60s for the U.S Air Forces. The aircraft was based on Lockheed A-12, an experimental spy plane developed as a “black” project.
Unlike its precursor, the YF-12 was a two-seater aircraft and can carry a fire control radar along with multiple air-to-air missiles. The maximum airspeed achieved by the YF-12 on record is 3,331.5 km/h during a test flight on 1 May 1965, making YF-12 the fastest airplane in the world. However, it was soon surpassed by SR-71, another highly advanced military plane based on Lockheed A-12.
The YF-12 still holds the records for the fastest and heaviest crewed interceptor to date.
2. Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird”
An overhead front view of SR-71 “Blackbird” | Image Courtesy: U.S Air Force
Initial Flight: 22 December 1964
Recorded Top Speed: 3,529.5 km/h
The fastest aircraft on earth to date made its initial flight more than fifty years ago. The backstory of why and how SR-71 came into existence is rather intricate. The idea was to develop a reconnaissance aircraft that can operate without being detected by most radars and is faster than any other existing airplanes at that time. Its design was carried out by Lockheed’s Skunk Works, an advanced research lab for military projects.
The SR-71 was an almost invincible asset for the U.S armed forces in the air due to its speed and ability to operate at extremely high altitudes. The highest altitude achieved by an SR-71 was 25,929 m. At such height, most surface-to-air missiles, at that time, were ineffective.
Apart from its most popularized nickname, “Blackbird,” the SR-71 is occasionally known by other names such as “Habu.” During its more than three decades of service, only 32 units of SR-71 were produced.
1. North American X-15
An X-15 in flight | Image Courtesy: NASA
Initial Flight: 8 June 1959
Recorded Top Speed: 7,274 km/h or 4,520 mph (Mach 6.7)
On 3 October 1967, William “Pete” Knight, a U.S astronaut and test pilot, shocked the world after flying at a staggering speed of 7,374 kilometers per hour, reaching close to Mach 7. His record of the highest speed achieved by a crewed aircraft remains intact.
The aircraft on which he achieved such speeds was part of the legendary X-plane series of high-speed experimental aircraft, designated North American X-15. Like most other X-planes, the X-15 was launched mid-air with the help of a ‘mothership.’
Read: 14 Unique Early Experimental Flying Planes
The aircraft was initially powered by a modified XLR99 engine (that powered Bell X-1 flight), providing a thrust of 27 kN. It was later replaced by a more powerful rocket engine with a thrust output of 250 kN. The X-15 has a unique tail design (thick and wedged), which allowed it to maintain stability at hypersonic speeds.
Artist’s concept of NASA X-43A | Image Courtesy: NASA
Recorded Top Speed: Mach 9.6
While the X-15, at Mach 6.7, remains the fastest crewed aircraft to date, the bar is set much higher when it comes to unmanned flights. The fastest unmanned plane on record is X-43, an experimental aircraft developed to study the aerodynamics of hypersonic flights. It was part of NASA’s Hyper-X program started in the late-1990s.
After the failed first attempt to reach hypersonic speeds in 2001, the X-43 reached Mach 6.8 during its second test flight in March 2004. On its third and last flight, which took place on 16 November 2004, the airplane reached an astounding Mach 9.6 (10,240 km/h) airspeed. The aircraft, during both successful flights, was launched from a B-52 Stratofortress at 13,000 m altitude.
Read: NASA Funds To Develop Fully Electric Aircraft
Initially, the Hyper-X program was scheduled to further tests but was eventually cut short due to the introduction of scramjet experimental aircraft designated as X-51 Waverider.
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