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Fastest Military Aircraft in the World: Top 6

Updated on April 16, 2018
Savio Dawson profile image

Savio is a resident of Mumbai, India. Cars, bikes and everything fast are his passion and he writes about them on numerous reputable sites.

Introduction

Now the thing with military aircraft is that most of the fastest, powerful or biggest thing built today would be classified, and remain so for at least a decade more. Needless to say, therefore, the fastest list we know and have today is something which is declassified and available in the public domain. How else can we explain the fact that the fastest known military aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, was actually in service from 1966 to 1998! It is not even in service today! This hence makes it a bit difficult to believe that something faster is not out there as we discuss the article.

To keep things simple, we will not act Sherlock and focus on what we know. So let’s look at the list of fastest military aircraft.

You can also read about the fastest private passenger aircraft here

And the fastest commercial passenger aircraft here

1. X - 43 A

Source

The X – 43 A belongs to the experimental aircraft of the X- Series. This is the only known aircraft of the 21st century for its speed record. All the other aircraft, as we will soon see, belong to the 20th century. This speed record set by the X – 43 A is also recognized by Guinness World Records and was officially published in 2006. Now, in this case alone NASA had worked on three X-43 A for the purpose of testing flights between Mach 7 and 10. The first one launched in 2001 failed. The second one in March, 2004 did a speed of Mach 6.83 while the third in November, 2004 achieved Mach 9.6. Both the flights were planned to glide and then crash into the Pacific post the speed run. The two aircraft that managed the flight as planned and their record still stands for all types of aircraft.

November, 2004 Record:

  • Aircraft: X-43 A
  • Speed Record: Mach 9.6 [6,447 mph or 10,380 kmph]
  • Engine Power: Not available in public domain yet
  • Speed Record Created: March 2004
  • Total Built: 3 [Third of the 3]

March, 2004 Record:

  • Aircraft: X-43 A
  • Speed Record: Mach 6.83 [4,587 mph or 7385 kmph]
  • Engine Power: Not available in public domain yet
  • Speed Record Created: March 2004
  • Total Built: 3 [Second of the 3]

Let's look at the record flight. The unmanned X – 43 A was boosted to an altitude of 29000 m by a Pegasus rocket launched from beneath a B -52 B aircraft. The scramjet engine then burned for about 11 seconds which was good enough time to fly into the record books in both cases. Unlike a rocket-powered engine, this was an air-breathing engine which makes the technology a fascinating one, as the engine takes in air at a speed in excess of 5000 kmph.

So, the numero uno in our list is an unmanned, air-breathing, scramjet-powered aircraft, which topped the list for any variant of aircraft ever produced.

2. X - 15

Source

Although it was mentioned that the SR-71 was the fastest manned aircraft in the introduction section, it is actually the X-15 which was the fastest known manned military aircraft. Surprised? No, don’t be. The SR-71 was the fastest air-breathing, operational jet in service while the X – 15 was a manned, rocket-powered aircraft.

Let's look at the X - 15 in detail. The X-15 was an experimental aircraft which served the needs of both the United States Air Force and NASA. Only three were ever built. This again was an aircraft which was operational between 1959 and 1968 and now adorns that National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Let’s get to the more interesting parts. This was the only aircraft ever to have done more than Mach 5 in the 20th century. In fact, its fastest flight was a Mach 6.72 which is a record standing till date. Also, it was an aircraft which could actually fly to a ceiling of 100 km, thus qualifying the pilots to be called astronauts; NASA’s height ceiling of 80 km meant that any human flying above that height was automatically recognized as an astronaut.

  • Aircraft: X-15
  • Speed Record: Mach 6.72 [4,520 mph or 7274 kmph]
  • Engine Type: Rocket Engine
  • Engine Power: 16,000 pound-feet (71 kN)
  • Speed Record Created: October 1967
  • Total Built: 3

About the X-15

Flying at the high speed of Mach 6.72 could render the flight unstable and hence a non-conventional tail wing was added for stability. On the flip-side, the same tail would create such high drag at low speeds that it was technically impossible to take-off from land. The aircraft, therefore, was lifted to 14,000 feet by a NASA B-52 and dropped at that height. The X-15 would then ignite and continue on its own. The X-15 was the only known manned aircraft to do a Mach 6.72 and the only Space-plane. In comparison, even today’s missiles don’t do much more than a Mach 3 – Brahmos being the missile record holder. X-15 also holds the record for the highest service ceiling of 100 km.

To summarize, the X – 15 was a manned, rocket-powered aircraft which topped the list for the fastest manned aircraft of any type and second in the overall list.

3. Lockheed SR - 71 Blackbird

Source

This is one aircraft which most would know. If there was an official do-you-know-it record, the SR-71 would win it hands down. It has been spoken about a lot, seen a lot, documented a lot, and acted in Hollywood a lot (one even with Steven Seagal). So, that’s the mighty SR-71 for you’ll.

The SR-71 was also a practical aircraft which could take-off and land, unlike the X-15. So in that sense, it was one of the fastest reconnaissance and experimental research aircraft. It holds the record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft. It was operational from 1964 to 1999 between the USAF and NASA.

  • Aircraft: SR-71
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.3-3.5 [2,219-2353 mph or max 3789 kmph]
  • Engine Type: Jet Engine
  • Engine Power: 32,500 pound-feet (145 kN)
  • Speed Record Created: multiple times during operation
  • Total built: 32

Now, there’s much to write about the SR-71 but still wouldn’t be enough to describe the aircraft. The SR-71 actually traveled faster than a bullet at its top speed. The only military use of the aircraft was for reconnaissance and still did not have any evasive or attack weapons; it simply wasn’t designed for carrying weapons. So, how does it work in enemy territory for reconnaissance? Simple, the now famous stealth technology was first adorned by the SR-71 and so was mostly Radar silent. But what if it still was found? Simple again – just outrun the intercepting aircraft or missile. No jokes – that was its stated evasive action – accelerate and outrun. There were just no aircraft or missiles built then which could near an SR-71 leave alone catching it. This is further corroborated by information that although 12 SR-71 were lost due to accidents but none due to enemy fire. That is some amazing stats!!

So to sum up, the SR – 71 was a manned, jet-powered, air-breathing aircraft which was the fastest operational aircraft ever and third on the overall list.

4. YF - 12 | Extreme Resemblance to the SR-71

Source

This one looks like the SR-71 and just because it comes after the SR in the list, that does not make it a copy. In fact, the SR is a copy of the YF model. The YF-12 is unofficially called an SR -71 with fighting capability. It could carry three air-to-air missiles. The weapons were primarily due to its role. Unlike the SR, the YF was made for intercepting at high speed and engaging enemy craft, if the enemy craft had a chance.

  • Aircraft: YF-12
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.35 [2,253 mph or 3627 kmph]
  • Engine Type: Jet Engine
  • Engine Power: 31,500 pound-feet (140 kN)
  • Speed Record Created: multiple times during operation
  • Total built: 3

Prior to the SR-71, the YF-12 held the record for the highest altitude and speed record. It still continues to hold one record and that is of the world’s largest manned interceptor till date. The flight was operational between 1963 and 1978; operational till 1971 with the USAF and till 1978 with NASA.

5. Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat

Source

This is the first non-American aircraft in the list. As most would have guessed this was Russian made and with the sole purpose of intercepting an SR-71. Much like with most weapons technology during the height of cold-war era, it was obvious for the Russians to have figured out the existence of the SR-71 and its breathtaking ability and hence they required something that would counter it.

The MiG-25 was a proper interceptor which means it carried weapons to kill an SR, but never did it kill one. It was, however, good in intercepting other aircraft which would, in comparison, be inferior to the MiG's speed (and there were many). All said, the SR-71 remained out of grasp of the MiG but to the MiG's credit the intrusion of Russian airspace by the SRs reduced (or were suspended) once the Foxbat came into operation.

  • Aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.2 [2,152 mph or 3465 kmph]
  • Engine Type: Jet Engine
  • Engine Power: 22,494 pound-feet (100.1 kN)
  • Speed Record Created: multiple times during operation
  • Total built: 1100

The MiG-25 in its killer version was built between 1964 and 1984. However, it still continues to be part of some country’s combat arsenal, albeit in a toned down state. This was also one of the very rare aircraft offered for high-speed fun rides. The MiG – 25 also created many records in the speed to climb category and speed runs, many of which still stand. It was the first aircraft to breach the 35,000 m ceiling.

6. Bell X - 2 Starbuster

Source

The Bell X-2 was one of the early aircraft in the X series. The numero-uno X-15 also belongs to this series but was produced much later. The X-2 was built with the sole purpose of experimentation and understanding flight dynamics at Mach 2 and above. Although the development started around 1945, the first flight took off in 1955 and was grounded by 1956 owing to a tragedy.

Here are the stats:

  • Aircraft: Bell X - 2
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.196 [2,149 mph or 3460 kmph]
  • Engine Type: Rocket Engine
  • Engine Power: 15,000 pound-feet (67 kN)
  • Speed Record Created: 1956
  • Total built: 2

The X-2 much like the X-15 was rocket powered and hence had to be air-dropped by a B-50 bomber. The wings were swept back and the aircraft carried no weapons, understandably, to test the high-speed dynamics. What this did is allowed the flight to speed up to an impressive Mach 3.196, a record unheard in those times. During this only high-speed record run the pilot soon after the run, banked right and the aircraft tumbled out of control. The ensuing ejection deploying the small pit parachute was not good enough to save the pilot. That tragedy more or less ended the program.

Back to the Hangar

At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that if there were faster aircraft out there then chances are that it would be classified. However, there is an alternate stream of thought which makes the making of fast aircraft literally useless. In the age of stealth, improved missile technology like fire-and-forget and now the Chinese bid to build visually invisible aircraft, where is the need to go fast? This we won’t know now, but if the indications are anything to go by, then we may have seen the last breed of fast flying military aircraft in the last century for the last time!

Which Aircraft Impressed You?

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© 2018 Savio Koman

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