The X-15, SR-71, and MiG-25 were all speed demons: Unfortunately for aviation enthusiasts, the world’s fastest-ever jets are all mothballed, retired, and gathering dust in various aerospace museums or sitting on the drawing board.
Seemingly, the golden age of flight is past, a time when countries and companies competed with one another under the premise of security competition – but what often manifested itself to be just plain competition.
Of course, countries and companies still compete today, always pushing the envelope, investing billions along the way. But today’s competition usually relates to more sophisticated metrics like interconnectivity, data fusion, observability, and fuel efficiency rather than speed, altitude, and climb rate.
While today’s machines are more complex and advanced in most respects, there’s something hard to beat about a jet that just simply goes faster or flies higher than all the others.
For nostalgia’s sake, let’s revisit the three fastest jets of all time.
Meet the MiG-25
Still in service is the MiG-25 “Foxbat,” which first flew 58 years ago. While Russia no longer uses the Foxbat, the Syrian and Algerian Air Force still flies the Cold War speedster. Built primarily from stainless steel, the Foxbat was designed to keep up with the Americans supersonic reconnaissance platform, the SR-71 Blackbird. Even today, the MiG-25 is the fastest manned aircraft ever serially produced.
The Foxbat was built for defending the Soviet Union’s vast airspace – especially from the speedy SR-71 and the high-flying U-2 Dragon Lady. Accordingly, the Foxbat is capable of hitting Mach 2.83 at high altitudes, which is nearly 2,000 miles per hour, and reaching an altitude of nearly 70,000 feet. The Foxbat can climb at a rate of 40,900 feet per minute. Powering the MiG-25 are two Tumansky R-15B-300 afterburning turbojet engines. Each engine provides 16,500 pounds of thrust dry and 22,5000 pounds of thrust with afterburner engaged.
Production of the Foxbat ended in 1984, meaning the scattered surviving models are the last batch; the MiG-25 is in its twilight years.
Meet the SR-71
The jet most commonly considered the fastest ever is actually just the second fastest ever: the SR-71 (and for the sake of efficiency we’ll lump the A-12 Oxcart in with the SR-71, although the two were distinct in several respects; note forthcoming explanation relates to the SR-71). The SR-71 is a technological marvel, of which only 32 were ever built. Introduced in 1966, the SR-71 flew with the US Air Force until 1998 and NASA until 1999. Designed to complete aerial and reconnaissance missions over enemy territory, the SR-71 could evade enemy SAMs simply by easing the throttle forward and accelerating to speeds faster than the SAM could match. The SR-71 was faster than a missile!
The Blackbird could hit Mach 3.3, or 2,200 miles per hour, and fly within a service ceiling of 85,000 feet. Powering the Blackbird were two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbojets. The J58 was groundbreaking at the time – producing a static thrust of 32,500 pounds.
Meet the GOAT: The X-15
The fastest jet ever, however, is the X-15 – a hypersonic, rocket-powered aircraft that the USAF and NASA used to test the viability of flying to space (rather than launching aboard a rocket). The X-15 could fly at speeds nearly double that of the SR-71, reaching Mach 6.7, or 4,520 miles per hour, on October 3, 1967. The X-15’s Mach 6.7 run remains the top-speed ever recorded in flight. The X-15 had a dizzying service ceiling of 354,330 feet – meaning the jet could be flown into space – which indeed it was; several of the X-15 pilots earned astronaut wings for crossing the recognized boundary into outer space. The X-15, which didn’t take off from a runway but instead was detached from a pylon on a mothership, could climb at 60,000 feet per minute. The X-15 relied on one Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-2 liquid-fueled rocket engine; the XLR provided 70,4000 pounds of thrust.
While the X-15 is not as well remembered as it should be, the rocket-plane recently crossed over into the popular cultural realm; Ryan Gosling, who portrayed astronaut – and X-15 pilot – Neil Armstrong, was depicted as flying an X-15 during a test flight in the film First Man.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.