The 11 Fastest US Air Force Fighter Planes are the fastest things on land, at sea, or in the air. Ever since someone came up with the idea to pair artillery with an airplane, thus creating a combat aircraft, the speed of said aircraft was an essential factor. It allowed the pilot to catch up with his opponent, or run away from him if needed. The race to build the fastest plane preoccupied aircraft designers and pilots throughout the early 20th century. In April 1939, on the eve of World War 2, Germans with Me-209 managed to set a record for piston-engine planes of 469 mph that would hold for the next 30 years, despite all the technological progress made during and after the war. Soon after, the jet age began and the Mach barrier was the new objective, one that was reached soon enough.
Many believe that speed and maneuverability aren’t all that important in modern air combat, especially taking BVR (beyond visual range) weaponry that today’s planes are armed with, and that other thing, stealth, should take precedence in aircraft design. Lt. Col. Dale Zelko would probably disagree with that assessment and would probably give anything to have been able to switch from his stealthy, but very slow F-117, once a Serbian missile got a lock on him. The unwieldy F-117 was unable to maneuver its way out of harm’s way, resulting in the only combat loss of Nighthawk in its history. Nevertheless, speed has lost some of its importance to combat aircraft designers, as witnessed by the presence of several fighters that aren’t in active service anymore still being on our list.
The fastest US Air Force plane, however, isn’t on our list, for the simple reason that it isn’t a fighter plane. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was a product of Lockheed’s Skunk Works division, a highly secretive department in charge of many black ops projects during the Cold War. The airplane was designed as a response to the downing of a U-2 spy plane and subsequent capture of its pilot Francis Gary Powers by the Soviets. The new aircraft was supposedly immune to surface-to-air missiles, simply due to the fact that it could outrun them. Able to reach Mach 3+ speeds, the standard evasion tactic in case missile was launched at it was to simply put your foot down and accelerate. Out of 32 built, not a single one was lost to enemy action, which proves the concept without a doubt. To this day, Blackbird holds the air speed record for a manned airbreathing jet aircraft, set in 1976. Captain Eldon W. Joersz and Major George T. Morgan, flying in SR-71 serial number 61-7958 over Beale Air Force Base, achieved Mach 3.3 speed, or 2,193.2 mph (3,529.6 km/h). The plane also holds the absolute altitude record of 85,069 feet.
In order to create the following list, we started with the latest addition to the United States’ air arsenal, the F-35 Lightning II. We then backtracked through aviation history to the early days of jet aviation, comparing the speeds of various fighters flown under the US banner. Out of the 11 Fastest US Air Force Fighter Planes on our list, only five are in active service. Others have been retired, but their speed record lasts as a reminder of history and the progress aviation has made. Here they are then, beginning on the next page. And if you like reading about the air force, don’t miss our article on the 20 Largest Air Forces in the World, as well!