Ever since Germany began creating the first rocket-powered aircraft in the late-1920s, mankind has developed an immense infatuation with building jets capable of hitting supersonic speeds in the blink of an eye. While most found use during wartime to outrun missiles or spy on the enemy, others were simply built out of a creator’s obsession with velocity and getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
However, because jets are perhaps some of the most exciting vehicles on the planet, their popularity extends beyond just those who manufacture them. People all over the globe remain absolutely enthralled with jets and most notably, jets which kick some serious ass when it comes to the speed department. To help fuel said fascination, we’ve tracked down the fastest manned aircraft ever assembled and combed through its impressive resume to see what made it so special. What follows is the story of the fastest jet known to man.
The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
Developed and manufactured in the 1960s, this monster of a jet plane’s primary goal was to engage in highly classified reconnaissance missions, and to just generally fly faster than anything else of its time. Its best-recorded speed came in July of ’76 at Beale Air Force Base in California, clocking in at an astounding 2,193.2 miles per hour — a healthy 100 miles per hour faster than any other air-breathing manned aircraft. Piloted by Eldon W. Joersz and George T. Morgan, the official time broke an 11-year record previously set by a similarly constructed Lockheed YF-12A, which recorded a top speed of 2,070.1 miles per hour.
Lockheed developed the line of SR-71 jets because of a request from the CIA for a reconnaissance plane which could essentially outrun anti-aircraft missiles and operate at high altitudes. Previous Lockheed jets like the U-2 and the A-12 served as precursors to the Blackbird, with some of the technology native to those former aircraft reappearing in the newly built model. During production, manufacturers intended the SR-71 to fly at speeds above Mach 3 — roughly 2,280 miles per hour and higher — and though the fastest recorded time clocks in just under Mach 3, an SR-71 pilot named Brian Shul claims to have taken the aircraft much faster.
In a 1994 book titled The Untouchables, Brian Shul writes about his experience as a pilot of Lockheed’s SR-71 — he even refers to the position as being a sled driver. While the book doesn’t offer up much in the way of groundbreaking or classified information, Shul does mention one particular mission in Libya in which he claims to have flown in excess of Mach 3.5 while avoiding a missile. While it’s hard to know if he’s telling the exact truth or a version thereof, details on most missions involving an SR-71 remain classified, just like its actual velocity.
The SR-71 saw a brief retirement in 1989 before the U.S. government revived the aircraft in 1993 amid concerns of threats stemming from the Middle East and North Korea. After serving for several more years, the Air Force officially retired the SR-71 in 1998 with NASA following suit in 1999. Over the course of its impressive career, the SR-71 Blackbird logged tens of thousands of hours in flight, with about a quarter of its total hours spent flying at Mach 3 or above.
Though the military recorded 12 SR-71s as missing during its tenure, the craft holds the impressive distinction of never succumbing to enemy fire during any of its missions. It is worth noting the Air Force discontinued fly-overs of the USSR in the 1980s after the Soviet’s developed the MiG-31 interceptor of which they armed with a missile capable of traveling at speeds up to Mach 4.5. Soviet pilots also claim a MiG-31 intercepted the SR-71 in 1986, however, the interceptor did not engage the aircraft.
Even after its second retirement, many believed the U.S. government never fully unleashed the SR-71 to its potential and questioned the decision to send it to the sidelines. Considering the military remains keen on unmanned aircraft in the 21st Century, it seems the SR-71’s retirement was an inevitable one.
Perhaps one of its greatest achievements came in 1990 when an SR-71 broke four new speed records during a cross-country trip from California to Chantilly, Virginia. During the flight, the SR-71 set the record for fastest West Coast to East Coast time (67 minutes, 54 seconds); fastest Los Angeles to Washington D.C. time (64 minutes, 20 seconds); fastest Kansas City, Missouri to Washington D.C. time (25 minutes, 59 seconds); and fastest St. Louis, Missouri to Cincinnati, Ohio time (8 minutes, 32 seconds). For comparison sake, a typical passenger plane has the ability to make the trip from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in roughly 4 and a half hours — not counting take-off or landing times.
No matter if the U.S. Air Force actually pushed the SR-71 to its limit or not, Lockheed’s impressive jet has a resume any other aircraft of its kind blushes at. With a clocked speed of some 100 miles per hour faster than its closest competition, along with a personal account of the jet traveling upwards of Mach 3.5, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest jet on the planet — and it’s not even a close race.