What Is the Fastest Airplane in the World?
Since airplane technology is usually developed alongside or with the cooperation of a country’s military establishment, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what the world’s “fastest airplane” really is. There are no doubt dozens of incredibly fast airplanes in development around the world that we just don’t know about yet.
To that end, here’s a breakdown of the five fastest airplanes in the world. Some of these are launched from traditional runways, some are launched mid-flight from other aircraft. Some of these planes have rocket engines, and some use more traditional fuels. But whatever the category, these are quite simply the fastest (known) airplanes in the world.
The SR-71 made her maiden flight in December of 1964. The Blackbird (as it is better known) is jet-powered and (unlike some of the other super fast airplanes on this list) does require a traditional human pilot. According to the Air Force, the SR-71 easily reached Mach 3.2 (that means about 2,094 miles per hour) and was at the time the fastest airpalne in world history. According to experts in aeronautics, the Air Force never really tested the SR-71 to the extent of its abilities, meaning that its true top speed will never be known. While NASA claims that the SR-71 only ever reached an altitude of 16.1 miles, some Air Force documents suggest that it flew even higher, as high as 20 miles above the Earth’s surface. Built by Lockheed as a long range spy vehicle, the Blackbird was retired in 1998 and is not currently used by the American armed forces in any capacity.
Fun Fact: The SR-71 Blackbird was an incredibly efficient airplane. Its special JP-7 jet fuel was first pumped through the engine to act as a coolant and as hydraulic fluid before ever burning up as fuel.
Having set the current airspeed record for jet-fueled vehicles, the X-43 is still something of a secret plane. Using the word “plane” may be stretching it a bit — the X-43 is an unmanned drone, still in the experimental stage. The X-43 is not much like the Blackbird at all. Deployment does not require takeoff — the X-43 is dropped from a vehicle already in flight. The X-43 is launched by its own launching system that breaks away once top speed is reached, allowing a scramjet engine to do the rest of the driving after top speed occurs. How fast is the X-43? It is the fastest airplane in the world as of this writing, having hit 7,546 mph. That’s equivalent to Mach 9.8, an almost ridiculously high number, back in November of 2004. That speed still hasn’t been challenged by any other airplane.
Fun Fact: NASA is looking into the X-43, not for military purposes but as part of a two-piece orbiting system to replace the current rather inefficient launch program.
This was the first airplane developed the US Air Force to reach the outer edges of space. One of the earliest “super fast” airplane test models, the X-15 still holds the record for “fastest man-powered rocket fueled airplane”, at Mach 6.7 or 4,520 mph. That record, which has never been broken, was set way back in 1959. The X-15’s test pilots were surprised to find, years later, that they were technically “astronauts”, having travelled above the minimum height declared by NASA to equal a “space flight” — as soon as you get up over 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, you’re an astronaut. The sheer speed of the X-15, and the heavy amount of experimenting being done by the US Air Force and NASA, has meant tragedy for pilots of the X-15, with two high profile test pilot deaths occuring within just a few years of one another. The heavy g forces experienced by pilots made flying the X-15 a true test of a pilot’s grit.
Fun Fact: NASA originally wanted to use the X-15 design to launch astronauts into space. This plan was scrapped after the approval of the Mercury design.
Flying on a Concorde was once the definition of luxury — not many people get to break the sound barrier on a flight across the Atlantic. The Concorde is a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner, and easily the fastest commercial airplane of all time. The Concorde flew from New York to Paris in just under three and a half hours, less than half the time it usually requires a commercial plane to cross the same distance. First launched in 1976, the Concorde is no longer in service. A high profile crash (Concorde’s only crash) and the effect of the September 11th attacks in New York City meant disaster for this (very expensive) travel option.
Fun Fact: Concorde is planning to revive one plane (making only a few trips a year) in time to transport wealthy passengers to the 2012 Olympics in London. So you may not have missed out on your chance to fly Concorde just yet.
Known as the “Charger” in the west, the Tu-144 was Russia’s answer to the Concorde. In fact, they are the only two supersonic transport aircraft in history. According to legend, Russian spies ripped off everything about the Concorde and passed it along to the designers of the Tu-144, earning it the nickname “Concordski”. Unlike the Concorde, the Tu-144 had a pretty nasty reputation in terms of passenger safety. Though the Tu-144 was (temporarily) faster than early Concordes, it flew only 55 times and was grounded due to safety concerns. Cruising through the skies at a blazing fast Mach 2, the Tupolev Tu-144 was at least as fast as the Concorde, and for a brief few months in the late 70s, it was tested at faster speeds than the Concorde. Though a high profile crash (at an air show in Paris) and non specific “safety concerns” killed off this supersonic passenger craft, it was something for Communist Russia to be proud of. At least before the original model exploded and took out half of a small French village in front of a global audience.
Fun Fact: The Tupolev Tu-144 is not just one of the fastest airplanes in the world, it was probably also one of the loudest. The same spies that gave the early Concorde design to the Russian government neglected to steal the plans for the plane’s cooling system. The Russian solution was so loud that many passengers refused to return on the second leg of their round trip tickets.
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