Top 6 Fastest Military Aircraft in the World

Updated on July 22, 2019
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 many sites.

The thing with military aircraft is that most of the fastest ones built today would be classified, and they would remain so for at least a decade or more. Therefore, the fastest aircraft we know of are ones that have been declassified and are available in the public domain. How else can we explain the fact that the fastest known military aircraft—aside from one of the X-Series planes—were actually tested or in service in the last century? It makes it a bit difficult to believe that something faster is not out there, considering the advancements in technology over the past fifty years.

The List of Fastest Military Aircraft in the World

Aircraft
Top Speed
X-43A
Mach 9.6 [7,363 mph or 11,854 kmph]
X-15
Mach 6.72 [5,154 mph or 8,298 kmph]
SR-71
Mach 3.3–3.5 [2,531–2,684 mph or max 4,322 kmph]
YF-12
Mach 3.35 [2,569 mph or 4,137 kmph]
MIG-25 Foxbat
Mach 3.2 [2,454 mph or 3,952 kmph]
Bell X-2 Starbuster
Mach 3.196 [2,451 mph or 3,946 kmph]
Note: Conversion factors used: Mach 1 = 767 mph or 1234.8 kmph | 1 mph = 1.61 kmph

1. X-43A

One of the famous X-Series aircraft created by NASA.
One of the famous X-Series aircraft created by NASA. | Source

The X-43A belongs to the experimental X-Series of aircraft. This is the only one on this list that is from the 21st century; all the other aircraft in this article are from the 20th century. This speed record set by the X-43A is also recognized by the Guinness World Records and was officially published in 2006. NASA had worked on three X-43A aircraft 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, and the third in November 2004 achieved Mach 9.6. Both of the successful flights were planned to glide and then crash into the Pacific after the speed run. Only two of the three aircraft managed the flight as planned but the record they created still stands.

November 2004 Record:

  • Aircraft: X-43A
  • Speed Record: Mach 9.6 [7,363 mph or 11,854 kmph]
  • Engine Power: Not available in the public domain yet
  • Speed Record Created: March 2004
  • Total Built: 3 [Third of the 3]

March 2004 Record:

  • Aircraft: X-43A
  • Speed Record: Mach 6.83 [5,239 mph or 8,434 kmph]
  • Engine Power: Not available in the 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-43A was launched from beneath a B-52 aircraft, and from there it was boosted to an altitude of 29,000 m by a Pegasus rocket. The scramjet engine then burned for about 11 seconds, which was long enough to fly the aircraft into the record books. Unlike a rocket-powered engine, this was an air-breathing engine which makes the technology a fascinating one; fascinating because the design had to cater to the fact that the aircraft had to take in air at speeds in excess of 5,000 kmph.

So, the number one on our list is an unmanned, air-breathing, scramjet-powered aircraft, which topped the list for any variant of aircraft ever produced.

2. X-15

To date, the X-15 is the fastest manned aircraft.
To date, the X-15 is the fastest manned aircraft. | Source

Although the X-43A comes ahead of the X-15, it was the X-15 which was the fastest known manned military aircraft. Surprised? No, don’t be. The X-43A was for testing the top speed that an aircraft can reach and hence unmanned; you can't risk a person's life there! The X-15, on the other hand, was designed to be a faster manned aircraft and it impacted future aircraft designs, including spacecraft and space shuttles. So, it was comparatively slower than the X-43 but faster than any other manned aircraft.

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 aircraft was operational between 1959 and 1968 and now adorns the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Let’s get to the more interesting parts. This was the only manned 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 that still stands. 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 [5,154 mph or 8,298 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 crazy speed of Mach 6.72 could render the plane 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 and low altitude that the aircraft would have had to carry additional unnecessary fuel. 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, only a couple of known missiles (missiles are usually faster than aircraft) can do above Mach 6 even today. The 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 on the overall list.

3. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

One of the most well-known military aircraft, the SR-71.
One of the most well-known military aircraft, the SR-71. | Source

This is one aircraft that most people will know of. If there was a record for popularity among the public, the SR-71 would have it hands down. It has been spoken about a lot, seen a lot, documented a lot, and appeared in a lot of movies, including one with Steven Seagal.

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 [2,531–2,684 mph or max 4,322 kmph]
  • Engine Type: Jet Engine
  • Engine Power: 32,500 pound-feet (145 kN)
  • Speed Record Created: multiple times during operation
  • Total built: 32

Missile Fired at SR-71

Now, there’s much to write about the SR-71, but that 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 because of that, it 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 SR-71 was one of the first planes to use the now-famous stealth technology, and so it 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 come near an SR-71, let alone catch it. This is further corroborated by the fact that although 12 SR-71s were lost due to accidents, none of them were due to enemy fire.

So to sum it 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

The YF-12, which bears a striking resemblance to the SR-71, was designed to intercept other aircraft at high speeds.
The YF-12, which bears a striking resemblance to the SR-71, was designed to intercept other aircraft at high speeds. | Source

This one looks like the SR-71 and just because it comes after the SR on the list 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 speeds and engaging the enemy craft; that is if the enemy craft had a chance.

  • Aircraft: YF-12
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.35 [2,569 mph or 4,137 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 the title of the world’s largest manned interceptor. The plane was operational between 1963 and 1978; operational until 1971 with the USAF and until 1978 with NASA.

5. Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat

The MiG-25 was designed by the Soviet Union for the purpose of intercepting the SR-71.
The MiG-25 was designed by the Soviet Union for the purpose of intercepting the SR-71. | Source

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

The MiG-25 was a proper interceptor, which means it carried weapons to kill an SR, but never killed one. It was, however, good at 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 the grasp of the MiG, but to the MiG's credit, the intrusion of Russian airspace by the SRs was reduced once the Foxbat came into operation.

  • Aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.2 [2,454 mph or 3,952 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 countries’ 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

The X-2 with the B-50 that carried it.
The X-2 with the B-50 that carried it. | Source

The Bell X-2 was one of the early aircraft in the X-series. The 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 due to a tragedy.

Here are the stats:

  • Aircraft: Bell X-2
  • Speed Record: Mach 3.196 [2,451 mph or 3,946 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 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 of flight. What this did is it allowed the plane to speed up to an impressive Mach 3.196, a speed unheard of in those times.

The X-2 Disaster

During its only high-speed record run, the pilot banked right after the run, and the aircraft tumbled out of control. The pilot ejected out of the plane and deployed the small pit parachute which was not good enough to save him. That tragedy pretty much ended the program.

Back to the Hangar

At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that if there were faster aircraft out there, then the chances are that it would be classified. However, there is an alternate theory which asserts that making fast aircraft now is 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? We don't know for sure, but if the indications are anything to go by, then we may have seen the last breed of fast-flying, manned military aircraft!

More Reading

If you're interested, you also read about the fastest military bombers and the fastest military drones. [Hint: One of the drones is faster than the X-43A]

Which Aircraft Impressed You?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Savio Koman

    Comments

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      • Savio Dawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Savio Koman 

        2 months ago from Mumbai, India

        Hello Paul Taiwo,

        I guess it will be the favorites of many. But you should take a look at the SR-72, the younger brother of SR-71, and can do twice the speed.

        I had covered it in an article on the Fastest Military Drones. I have given a link to that article under the Introduction section over here. Have a look. And, by the way, the SR-72 is a drone and not human piloted.

      • profile image

        Paul Taiwo Wiltshire 

        2 months ago

        SR-71 my favorite of all ages

      • Savio Dawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Savio Koman 

        3 months ago from Mumbai, India

        Hello Garcia,

        There's definitely nothing angelic about these aircraft. However, how we wish if it were. :)

      • profile image

        WILLIAM GARCIA 

        3 months ago

        ON EAGLES WINGS. ON ANGLES WINGS.

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