If you’re anything like us, watching Top Gun: Maverick must have intrigued you into fantasizing about what breaking the sound barrier feels like — if you’ve never done it, that is.
Supersonic flight has fascinated aviation enthusiasts since the early 20th century, promising the exhilaration of soaring through the sky at speeds faster than sound. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that supersonic flight became a reality with the development of supersonic planes.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of supersonic flight and look at as many supersonic aircraft that have pushed the boundaries of aviation technology as we can. From the legendary Concorde to the latest fighter jets, we’ll examine the unique designs and capabilities of each plane. So, let’s get down to it right away!
Supersonic Planes in Operation
With supersonic flight being frowned upon for commercial use due to noise pollution and high fuel consumption, there are currently no supersonic planes in operation for commercial passenger travel.
Militaries all over the world, however, still operate supersonic planes for various purposes, including reconnaissance, interception, and bombing. Let’s take a closer look at some of these planes by country/region.
Supersonic Planes Developed in the US
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a multi-role fighter aircraft developed for the US Air Force, Navy, and Marines, as well as for several international customers. The F-35 was designed to be a stealthy, supersonic aircraft capable of ground attack and air-to-air combat with top speeds up to Mach 1.6.
One of its most notable features is its advanced sensor suite, which includes a distributed aperture system that provides a 360-degree view of the aircraft’s surroundings. Additionally, the F-35 is equipped with the latest in avionics technology and can carry a wide range of weapons. Notable deployments include combat missions in Syria and Iraq.
Boeing EA-18G Growler
Next up is the Boeing EA-18G Growler, an electronic warfare aircraft designed to jam enemy radars and disrupt communications. The Growler is equipped with specialized warfare systems, including the ALQ-218 receiver and the AN/ALQ-99 jamming pod, and is based on the F/A-18 Hornet.
The aircraft can also carry a range of weapons, including missiles and bombs. Some notable historical applications include the Growler’s use in the US-led intervention in Libya in 2011.
Boeing F/A-18 Hornet
Developed in the 1970s, the Hornet is versatile and good at ground attack and air-to-air combat. It stands out for its ability to operate from aircraft carriers. It’s equipped with a variety of weapons and sensors.
It also reaches an impressive max speed of Mach 1.6 with a combat range of over 600 miles. The Hornet has seen extensive combat deployment in the Middle East, and it is presently in service with the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and various allied nations.
Designed by Northrop Grumman in the 1970s, the F-14 Tomcat is a supersonic, twin-engine fighter aircraft developed for the US Navy. It’s capable of an impressive speed of Mach 2.34 and has a combat range of over 1000 miles. Designed to be a fleet defense interceptor, the Tomcat was capable of engaging multiple targets at the same time.
The Tomcat’s defining features include wings with variable geometry, which it adjusts in flight to optimize performance. The Tomcat gained fame for its appearance in the movie Top Gun and saw action in various conflicts, including the Gulf War. Although no longer in service with the United States, a few F-14s remain in the air with the Iranian Air Force after being acquired during the rule of Shah Mohammed Raza Pahlavi.
The US Air Force developed the F-15 Eagle, a twin-engine, supersonic fighter aircraft, in the 1970s. This high-performance aircraft is exceptional in superiority missions thanks to its advanced avionics, which include a radar system capable of tracking multiple targets simultaneously. The Eagle has been deployed in numerous conflicts in the Middle East. It’s capable of speeds up to 2.5 Mach.
F-16 Fighting Falcon
Developed for the US Airforce in the 1970s, the F-16 Fighting Falcon is a single-engine, supersonic (2.5 Mach) fighter aircraft. It’s a lightweight, agile aircraft capable of air-to-air combat and ground attack. Its fly-by-wire control system allows the pilot to make precise maneuvers at high speeds. The Falcon has had deployments in several wars including the Gulf War and Iraq Wars.
Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is a stealthy, twin-engine fighter aircraft developed for the US Air Force in the 1990s. The Raptor was developed for high-performance missions and air superiority applications, and it can reach speeds of more than Mach 1.5.
The F-22’s crowning glory is its advanced stealth technology, which allows it to evade enemy radar. The Raptor has seen deployment in several conflicts, including the war in Afghanistan.
A consortium of European countries developed the Eurofighter Typhoon in the 1990s as a multi-role fighter aircraft. It possesses high maneuverability that enables it to engage in air-to-air combat and ground attacks effectively.
The aircraft’s outstanding air defense capabilities, including its passive infrared search and tracking systems, make it an ideal choice for missions. With a top speed of Mach 2, the Typhoon is one of the fastest fighter aircraft in the world. It has been called upon several times and served remarkably well during the Libyan Civil War and the military intervention against ISIS.
The Dassault Rafale is a multi-role fighter aircraft developed by France in the 1990s. It’s a versatile aircraft capable of air-to-air combat, ground attack, and reconnaissance missions. With a top speed of Mach 1.8, the Rafale has impressive performance and cutting-edge technology, making it an invaluable asset to the French military.
The Mikoyan MiG-31 is a supersonic interceptor aircraft developed for the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It’s a high-altitude interceptor that can engage targets at extreme distances, with a top speed of Mach 2.83.
The MiG-31 boasts a powerful radar system that can track up to 24 targets simultaneously. The aircraft has been deployed in several instances, including the Syrian Civil War and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The Mikoyan MiG-35 is a 4th-generation single-seat multi-role fighter jet that had its maiden flight in 2016. The MiG-35 is highly maneuverable and boasts precision-guided targeting capability and advanced weapons. It’s also capable of Mach 2.25 flight. The MiG-35 has yet to be called upon in any conflicts.
Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” and Its Variants
Nicknamed “Flanker” in NATO, the Su-27 and its variants are a series of Russian-made, 4th-generation fighter jets. Renowned for their impressive speed, maneuverability, and range, these aircraft have been in service since the late 1980s.
The Su-27 is equipped with an advanced avionics suite, including a 30 mm cannon, air-to-air missiles, and air-to-ground missiles. Its variants include the Su-30 (a two-seat multi-role fighter), the Su-33 (a carrier-based variant), the Su-34 (an all-weather strike aircraft), and the Su-35 (an upgraded version of the Su-27).
All of these aircraft have seen extensive use in conflicts around the world and have played a significant role in the ongoing war in Ukraine on either side.
The Sukhoi Su-57 is a Russian fighter jet that was introduced in 2010. The Su-57 is a stealthy, multi-role aircraft designed for air-to-air combat and ground attack, with a capability of reaching speeds of over Mach 2 (at altitude) and Mach 1.3 (in super-cruise).
Renowned for its advanced stealth technology, it is currently Russia’s most advanced fighter jet, although it has only been used in tests so far.
Also known as the “Blackjack,” the Tu-160 is a supersonic bomber aircraft developed for the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Tu-160 was designed to be a long-range strategic bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
It’s most notable for its large payload bay, which can carry up to 40,000 kg of weapons. The Tu-160 has been deployed in several conflicts, including the war in Afghanistan, and was involved in last year’s invasion of Ukraine.
Supersonic Planes Developed in China
The Chengdu J-20 is a fifth-generation fighter aircraft developed by China in the 2010s. It is a stealthy, multirole aircraft featuring advanced stealth technology to evade enemy radar, with a top speed of Mach 2.0. The J-20 has yet to be deployed in any conflicts.
CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder
The CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder was developed by China and Pakistan in the 2000s. It is a low-cost alternative to more advanced Western fighters, featuring advanced avionics, including a radar system that can track multiple targets. The JF-17 has been used by the Pakistani Air Force in several conflicts.
The Guizhou JL-9 is a trainer aircraft developed by China in the 2000s. It is a low-cost and easy-to-maintain trainer aircraft, boasting advanced avionics and a modern glass cockpit.
The Hongdu L-15 is a trainer and light attack aircraft developed by China in the 2000s. It is a versatile aircraft that can train pilots and conduct ground attack missions and features advanced avionics, including a modern glass cockpit.
Shenyang J-11 and Its Variants
The Shenyang J-11, J-15, and J-16 are fighter aircraft developed by China in the 1990s and 2000s. The J-11 is a licensed copy of the Russian Su-27, while the J-15 is a naval variant of the J-11 and the J-16 is an upgraded version of the J-11.
These aircraft were designed to be highly maneuverable fighters capable of air-to-air combat and ground attack. The J-11, J-15, and J-16 have been deployed by the Chinese military in several cases, including the South China Sea dispute.
The Xi’an JH-7 is a fighter bomber developed by China in the 1980s. The JH-7 proved to be a versatile aircraft. Its most notable feature is its large bomb bay, which can carry a variety of weapons. The JH-7 has been deployed by the Chinese military in the Gulf War and the South China Sea.
AIDC T-5 Brave Eagle
The AIDC T-5 Brave Eagle is a supersonic advanced trainer aircraft developed by the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) of Taiwan. It was developed in the 1990s as a replacement for the aging Northrop F-5 fleet of the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF).
The T-5 is a twin-engine jet that features a glass cockpit, making it suitable for advanced flight training, as well as combat and reconnaissance missions. It has a top speed of Mach 1.4 and a range of up to 1,851 miles.
AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo
The AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo is a multi-role fighter designed by AIDC to replace the ROCAF’s aging F-5 fleet and counter the threat from China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). It’s a single-engine jet that features next-gen weapons systems.
The aircraft boasts a top speed of Mach 1.8 and has a range of up to 1,367 miles. The ROCAF has used the F-CK-1 in various missions, including air defense and ground attacks, and has exported it to other countries, such as Panama and Paraguay.
Supersonic Planes Developed in South Korea/Japan
KAI T-50 Golden Eagle
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Lockheed Martin jointly developed the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle, a supersonic advanced jet trainer. The aircraft was introduced in 2005 and has since been employed to train pilots in various air forces.
The aircraft has a maximum speed of Mach 1.4 and can carry a variety of weapons, making it a versatile trainer. The T-50 has been used by the South Korean Air Force, Indonesian Air Force, and the Philippines Air Force.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Lockheed Martin developed the Mitsubishi F-2, which is a multi-role fighter jet. It is a variant of the American F-16 and was introduced in 2000.
The F-2 was designed for air-to-air combat, air-to-ground attacks, and anti-ship missions. It can reach a maximum speed of Mach 2 and has superb avionics. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force has employed the F-2 in various operations.
Supersonic Planes Developed in India/Iran
The HAL Tejas is a single-seat, single-engine, lightweight, multi-role fighter aircraft developed by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Introduced in 2016, the Tejas is the world’s smallest and lightest supersonic fighter aircraft, flying at Mach 1.8.
It’s equipped with superb avionics and electronic warfare systems. Currently, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy employ the Tejas.
HESA Azarakhsh and HESA Saeqeh
The Saeqeh, introduced in 2004, is a two-seat, twin-engine fighter jet based on the design of the Azarakhsh. Both aircraft are equipped with lethal weapon systems, including air-to-air missiles and bombs.
The Iranian Air Force has used the Azarakhsh and Saeqeh in different military exercises, and also presented them in international airshows. Both aircraft have a maximum speed of Mach 1.6.
Supersonic Planes: South Africa
Developed in the 1980s, the Atlas Cheetah is a South African fighter jet that is a variant of the French Mirage III. The Cheetah is lethal and has a maximum speed of Mach 2.2.
It is equipped with a superb weapons systems, including missiles and bombs. The Atlas is in use by the South African Air Force and has also been exported to Ecuador.
Notable Retired Supersonic Planes
Bell X-1 & X-2
The Bell X-1 and X-2 were experimental supersonic aircraft developed by Bell Aircraft Corporation for the United States Air Force. The X-1 first broke the sound barrier in 1947, while the X-2 set new altitude records in the 1950s.
These planes paved the way for future supersonic aircraft by testing the limits of speed and altitude. The X-1 and X-2 were single-engine planes designed for high-altitude flight and could reach speeds of up to Mach 3.2.
Notable historical applications include Chuck Yeager’s historic flight in the X-1, which made him the first person to break the sound barrier.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was an American supersonic reconnaissance aircraft developed in the late 1950s. The SR-71 was capable of flying at high altitudes and at speeds of up to Mach 3.3, making it the fastest plane ever built.
It was a twin-engine, two-seat aircraft with a maximum altitude of 85,000 feet. The SR-71 is renowned for its advanced surveillance systems, making it an indispensable tool for intelligence gathering during the Cold War. Its notable historical uses include its deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf War.
Concorde was a supersonic passenger airliner developed jointly by British and French aerospace companies in the 1960s. The Concorde was a marvel of engineering and was capable of flying at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2).
It was a delta-winged aircraft that could carry up to 100 passengers and had a range of over 4,000 miles. The Concorde was known for its luxurious accommodations and was a favorite of celebrities and high-profile individuals. After over 27 years in service, it was retired in 2003 due to safety concerns.
Under Development/Concept Supersonic Planes
The Shenyang J-31 is a fifth-generation fighter jet currently under development by China. The aircraft shall reportedly perform a wide range of missions and is expected to be stealthy and highly maneuverable. While details about the J-31 remain scarce, it is believed that the aircraft will be capable of supersonic flight and will feature advanced avionics and weapons systems.
Mikoyan PAK DP
The Mikoyan PAK DP is a Russian fifth-generation fighter jet that is currently in the conceptual design phase. The Mikoyan Design Bureau is developing the aircraft as a replacement for the aging fleet of MiG-31 interceptors. The PAK DP will sport advanced sensors, along with low radar cross-section and high maneuverability.
S-512 Supersonic Jet
The S-512 Supersonic Jet is a concept aircraft being developed by Spike Aerospace. The aircraft can achieve supersonic flight, with a top speed of Mach 1.6, and it intends to be a business jet. The S-512 will feature a range of advanced technologies, including a cockpit without windows that uses cameras and screens to provide pilots with an outside view.
Hermeus Mach 5
Hermeus is a startup company that is developing a supersonic passenger aircraft. The company’s first aircraft, the Hermeus Mach 5, will fly at speeds of up to Mach 5, or approximately 3,800 miles per hour. Hermeus is designing the Mach 5 to be used for long-haul flights, with a range of up to 4,600 miles.
The QueSST is a concept aircraft being developed by NASA. It’s designed to test technologies for use in future supersonic passenger planes. The aircraft intends to be highly maneuverable and produce a low sonic boom, making it suitable for land use. The QueSST will reportedly fly at speeds of up to Mach 1.4, or approximately 1,074 miles per hour.
Boom Supersonic, in partnership with Northrop Grumman, is currently developing Overture, which is a supersonic passenger jet. The aircraft will carry up to 75 passengers and fly at speeds of up to Mach 2.2, or approximately 1,687 miles per hour. The intended use of the Overture is for transatlantic and transpacific flights, with a range of up to 4,250 miles.
From early experiments in the 1940s to modern-day engineering marvels, supersonic flight has really come a long way. From the legendary X-1 and Concorde to the latest fighter jets like the F-35 Lightning II and the Overture under development by Boom Supersonic, each plane has unique features and capabilities that have contributed to the development of supersonic flight. It is fascinating to see how far we have come in this field and to anticipate what the future holds for supersonic flight.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Miguel Lagoa/Shutterstock.com.