The first contestable flight of man flew at an altitude of eight inches high; the Wright Brothers' first airplane first flew for 12 seconds averaging 11mph; it’s no stretch of the imagination to say the first flight vehicles were less efficient than a brisk jog, and more similar to a hovercraft rather than an airplane. Aviation was the theme of the decade however, and the race to build the first functional airplane captured souls around the world. There were airplane concepts, and prototypes that couldn’t fly, but the Wright brothers contestably flew the world’s first functional airplane in sustained, controllable flight during subsequent testing and design of their prototypes.
Flash forward to 2018, just over 100 years later and we’ve conquered space flight in rudimentary degrees, routinely fly 10 miles high in the sky, are able to travel faster than the speed of sound regularly; have engineers in hot pursuit of hypersonic, 13,000mph flight vehicles that are already in testing stages. So what if the first test rig failed? The next one will take lessons from its failures and very soon now, we’ll be doing things we’ve only dreamed of. Throughout the relatively short history of manned flight, we’ve come a long way; technology is developing at compounding rates only to further increase the speed at which we conquer obstacles. Listed here are some noteworthy flyers that have broken barriers and pushed us to new levels in our pursuit of world domination. You’ve heard of some – others you’d have never guessed existed.
20 SpaceShipOne (367,360’ – 2,170mph/Mach 3.09)
Enough of the negativity – a proven example of a high flyer comes in a conceptual design and marks the beginning of a historic event; 14 years ago SpaceShipOne pierced the outer most edges of earth’s atmosphere marking the beginning of man’s private ventures into space.
Never before has a privately funded endeavor been able to lay stake to this claim.
The original rocket engine could deliver 20,000lbs of thrust for one minute and 35 seconds of burn time and thrusters allow directional control outside the atmosphere while aerodynamic control surfaces are designed for supersonic as well as sub-sonic speeds. Mach 3.09 (2,170mph) was achievable for a duration of 40 miles and the craft boasted a service ceiling of 367,360’ (69 miles).
19 Helios Prototype (96,836’ – 27mph/Mach 0.03)
The Helios attempts to explore alternative fuels infinitely renewable; solar power. This avenue of renewable fuels necessitates a solar array large enough to canvas your whole neighborhood; the 247’ wingspan is wider than two A320 Airbuses and shorter front to back than your crew cab pickup truck. The odd shaped flying wing was unmanned set a world record in 2001 for sustained horizontal flight by a winged aircraft at 96,863’ and is in development with the objective to stay aloft for up to six months continuously. Its power came from 14 brushless, DC electric motors rated at two horsepower each that drove 79” composite propellers.
18 Grob Strato 2C (78,740’ – 311mph/Mach 0.4)
Seeing as we’re exploring two very different types of aircraft here, we’re essentially looking at two different categories – experimental ones meant to push the boundaries of altitude and proven designs meant to push the limits of speed.
Not only will they have very different operating characteristics, but drastically different designs will separate the two categories; one is proven while the other is experimental.
This piston-powered turbo prop was meant for high-altitude flying when designed in the ‘90s for upper-atmospheric research. Intended for altitudes up to 78,700’ for 48-hour durations, the project was abandoned after only reaching a world-record setting 60,897’ due to performance deficiencies from projected figures.
17 Mig Ye-266 (67,915’ – 2,170mph/Mach 2.83)
With 45,000lbs of afterburning thrust available to the 44,000lb aircraft, this supersonic interceptor was basically a contingency plan of insurance against the North American XB-70 Valkyrie had it been put into production. The Mach 3 Valkyrie was canceled but that didn’t stop the 266 from terrorizing the sound barrier and rocketing to super high altitudes; the record-holding jet aircraft hit 123,524’ making your view at 30,000’ on your Southwest commuter flight look like child’s play. The Soviet interceptor had to be fast with extraordinary altitude capabilities when you really think about it because as large an area as it was tasked to defend, nothing but the quickest and highest flying aircraft was up to the challenge.
16 Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (85,000’ – 2,200mph/Mach 3.3)
While some of these amazing aircraft may be completely foreign to you, others are as recognizable as a McDonalds even if it’s just the name that rings a bell; the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is one such aircraft and, at one time, held both altitude and speed records for air-breathing, manned aircraft.
The long-range, Mach 3+ reconnaissance plane first flew in 1964 and even today many engineers claim it to be an aerodynamically-perfect design.
Although statistics vary and the actual performance specifications are shrouded in mystery (obviously) the Blackbird’s widely accepted performance hovers in the range of Mach 3.2 (2,200mph) and a service ceiling of 85,000’ although some believe it to be able to achieve Mach 3.5 (2,600mph) and transcend the 100,000’ mark. Any way you look at it, it can outrun any threat (including surface to air missiles) and none of the 1,000-plus missiles fired at the Blackbird have ever hit their mark.
15 NF-104 Starfighter (120,000’ – 1,688mph/Mach 2.2)
A year before Blackbird spread her wings and mastered the sky with the power of two ocean liners the Lockheed Starfighter took to the skies as a supersonic aerospace trainer. Equipped with a small rocket engine and a reaction control system for flight outside the atmosphere, it was a low-cost training craft for the X-15. To simulate the low-lift/high-drag approach profile of the X-15, the Starfighter would throttle back to 80% thrust and extend flaps, speed brakes and landing gear and commence a 30° dive and pullout for the landing flare at 1,500’. This highly-dangerous maneuver left next to zero room for error should a botched approach need to be aborted.
14 X-15 (354,330’ (67miles) – 4,520mph/Mach 5.89)
Many of these aircraft featured here are interrelated if you look closely; the SR-71 flew roughly the same time as the Starfighter, which was a trainer for pilots of the North American Bell X-15 that would gather critical data – much of which was responsible for making human spaceflight possible and paving the way for hypersonic aircraft design.
This would become the first winged-aircraft to reach speeds of up to Mach 6 (4,520mph).
Nearly 200 research missions were flown between the three X-15s; the high-flying craft had an astonishing peak altitude of 354,200’. Despite its monumental capabilities, it was unable to takeoff under its own power and a B-52 launch platform was required to ferry it up to an altitude it could be released for flight.
13 F-4 Phantom II (16,000’ – 1,473mph/Mach 2.23)
Ever since our comprehension of aeronautical engineering became comprehensive enough to clear away most of the mystery of flight, good planes could be easily produced, but making cutting-edge, exceptional ones is still a tossup. The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom is a perfect example of one of the most versatile fighter jets of all time.
Twin J79 engines pushed the jet to speeds fast enough to follow it’s Titan II missiles down to their targets in a 30° dive – a feat not many planes are even close to capable of.
The list of achievements associated with the F-4 is longer than can even be summarized and the plane has been used for nearly every classification of mission known to the military. 1,400mph maximum rated speed and a 59,600’ ceiling with a 58,000lb gross weight made it a large pair of shoes to fill even by today’s standards.
12 HTV-2 Falcon (525,000’ (100miles) – 13,000mph/Mach 16.94)
Buckle up sci-fi fans, the future is here. The envelope of our currently defined reality is being stretched as the limits of possibility are incredibly close to the next major breakthrough. Although an ultimate failure, the Falcon is ‘the fastest plane ever.’ This prototypical flying wedge is designed to fly at 13,000mph (yes, Mach 17). The fateful test flight launched from Lompoc, California and was going well until contact was lost 20 minutes into the test flight. The failsafe programed into HTV-2 realized the systems had been degraded past prescribed thresholds and plunged it into the Pacific Ocean. Despite the failure, scientists are learning from every penetration into unknown territory and making adjustments as they go. The Falcon would have been able to be anywhere on earth within one hour of launch.
11 SNCASO Trident (65,000’ – 1,061mph/Mach 1.6)
Early in 1953, the Trident made its maiden voyage as an experimental interceptor aircraft aimed at updating the badly outdated and recovering French military. The prototype underwent various updates and design changes and set a number of world records during test flights but never made it to production.
An impressive 65,000’ was obtained as well as supersonic speed albeit in a shallow dive.
Almost 12 Trident variations were produced during the four-year test program with later versions being fitted with mixed-power systems. Over 100 test flights saw the Trident evolve over the years, but the fatal explosion of the very first Trident II, 001, caused by uncontrolled fuel mixing led to a cancellation of the program and now the Trident rests comfortably on stilts in a perpetual dive for eternity.
10 XB-70 (77,350’ – 2,056mph/Mach 3.1)
Under the adage bigger is better, many countries have experimented with ultra-large aircraft designs in hopes that the massive size would give the plane power allowances that would just push others aside by sheer performance.
Rarely is this just the case on its own and it is many well-rounded faucets that encompass a truly exceptional airplane.
The North American XB-70 Valkyrie was positioned to be one such aircraft with its Mach 3 capabilities and a massive payload capacity but a prohibitive price tag knocked points off the XB-70s score as well as lack of mission flexibility and its inability to be adapted for low-altitude missions. The advent of surface to air missiles became another consideration that made the supersonic bomber more vulnerable and it ended up never replacing the still-in-service Boeing B-52 as it was intended to.
9 Sukhoi Su-9 (55,000’ – 1,325mph/Mach 1.73)
On the outside, it’s either mildly impressive or stunningly ugly; little more than a metal tube with a cockipit and some wings sticking out of it, there’s not much to write home about. It almost looks aerodynamically retarded with the shape of the nosecone – or lack thereof. Codename Fishpot, it was a single-engine, all-weather, Soviet interceptor aircraft that flew for the first time in 1956. An unknown combat record does not mean the Su-9 never saw combat – it just means nobody is admitting to it having seen combat. The single-engine interceptor was retired less than two decades after entering service despite its Mach 1.73 capabilities, possibly due, in part, by the horrible range of less than 700miles.
8 Convair F-106 Delta Dart (57,000’ – 1,525mph/Mach 2.3)
Most aircraft perform just fine somewhere near the median center of the performance envelope; but when you need a combat range of 1,800mi and Mach 2.3 speeds (1,525mph) the Delta Dart has been a reliable go-to for almost three decades.
The service ceiling of 57,000’ isn’t spectacular, but a climb rate just shy of 30,000ft/min isn’t shabby at all for an aircraft developed when Tri-Five Chevys ruled the road.
The major jumps in record-breaking speeds have mostly been made through to the mid-‘70s being punctuated by a plane some engineers call “aerodynamically perfect.” Speculative as that may be, the Blackbird is still the queen of the skies.
7 Arvo CF-105 Arrow (53,000’ – 1,307mph/Mach 1.98)
Just prior to the Dart’s sound-barrier pounding record flight, the CF-105 Arrow held a speed record for a brief time in 1958 just under 100mph slower than the Dart. Record speeds in automobiles are broken by mere miles per hour, but in reference to supersonic flight – 100mph is next to nothing.
The Cold War era was a time of emerging jet technology and the craze of the decade was supersonic interceptor aircraft.
Canada, lying underneath a very viable bomber route, answered the threat of airspace incursions with the advanced Arrow; twin J75 Pratt & Whitney turbojets producing 46,000lb of thrust could push the interceptor to 53,000’ and Mach 2 potential ensured no bomber was getting away unscathed.
6 F-86 Sabre (49,600’ – 687mph/Mach 0.89)
The North American F-86 was a record-setter of its day. Although the F-86D could only manage 715mph, this was in 1953 when jet technology was still very new. Much was to be learned about not only engine technology but the aerodynamic efficiency at supersonic speeds (Hint: It’s a lot different than subsonic flight!). Couple this to the fact that propeller-driven aircraft were standard at the time, the primary stage of military aviation was shrouded with propeller-driven aircraft making any jet a formidable opponent as was seen with the ME-262 at the very end of WWII. Compared to its potential by today’s standard, jet power had not even reached puberty yet.
5 Ader Eole (8” – 36mph/Mach 0.04)
I feel that something like this has rarely been studied save for the occasional historian and super-aviation buff, so I’ll shine a little spotlight on a record setter that never gets any love. Developed 10 years before the Wright brothers broke the shackles of gravity, a very different type of flyer was already in the works – a steam-powered, propeller-driven prototype claimed by designer Clement Ader in 1907 to have achieved a short flight of 164’ at an altitude of eight inches in the historic region of Northern France in 1890. Less substantiated is his later claim of a 320’ flight in 1891 but the fact remains the Ader Eole was symbolic of mankind’s refusal to be bound to the earth in submission of gravity.
4 Perlan Glider (90,000’ – 434mph/Mach 0.56)
Flashing back to modern days, we’ve all but left steam power behind in most every application of power generation in favor of more renewable energy; but the Airbus Perlan makes use of something that’s about as green as it gets.
It is a glider that set records for non-powered flight riding rare stratospheric mountain waves that carried the pressurized craft aloft to 52,172’, which is just ridiculous for most planes in general, let alone a glider. 100,000’ research flights are expected in 2019.
The photographs of the high-altitude flight are stunning as the convex profile of the earth becomes mildly apparent with clouds hugging the lower levels of the atmosphere like a blanket.
3 Wright Flyer III Replica (30’ – 30mph/Mach 0.03)
Flight would not be possible without baby steps of an emerging industry, and at a time when the aviation industry was non-existent, a few men worked tirelessly to realize a dream few believed were possible. The famed Wright brothers did not just slap some trusses together willy-nilly and wrap it in a canvas, toss a motor on it and shoot it into the sky; they worked tirelessly with failure hot on their heels the entire time, taking the biggest gamble of their credible careers to pursue a wildly impossible dream nobody believed in. Baby steps like this were true pioneers of the hi-tech aerospace industry we know today as we inch toward new horizons.
2 TU-95 (46,000’ – 575mph/Mach 0.74)
Although not the highest nor the fastest flying airplane you’ve ever seen, the Tupolev TU-95 is one of the most unique bombers in existence. Built to rival the B-52, the large, four-engine turboprop bomber serves as a strategic bomber and missile platform, notable for the four sets of contra-rotating propellers (two props on the same axis, rotating opposite directions). The plane is one of the loudest prop-driven military aircraft in existence due to the propeller tips moving faster than the speed of sound. Put in service in 1956, the strategic bomber is projected to be in service well into the lesser half of this century giving it a service life of nearly 80 years – if it lasts that long.
1 Stratolaunch 3 (Unknown - Unknown)
The Spruce Goose has finally been overshadowed! Honestly, I’m going to make a grim prediction here because one look at the Stratolaunch gave me a sick feeling to my stomach. The twin-fuselage, high-wing, heavy lifter looks extremely dangerous for a number of reasons; and nothing about this aircraft looks like a good idea.
It’s supposed to be a launch platform for space craft of the near future.
I sure hope I’m wrong, but I feel like mankind is about to learn a Titanic-sized lesson. Stress on the main wing spars appears as if it would be phenomenal should, for whatever reason, there be a severe loading differential between the two fuselages; my bet’s on structural failure somewhere in the main spar. Let’s stay positive though, yea?
Sources: blackbirds.net, nasa.gov, airandspace.com, boeing.com, airspacemag.com, f-106deltadart.com.