Tag Archives: plane

Reno Airshow.

Shooting stars: a look at the world’s speediest jet aircraft

If you like to go fast, you’ve come to the right place.

Reno Airshow.

Image credits Todd MacDonald.

Jet aircraft are, arguably, the crowning achievement of today’s aeronautics industry. And yet, experts predict that we’ll see massive improvements in their capabilities over the next decade. Supersonic business jets (SSBJs) are one of the most eagerly anticipated of these vehicles, and they should be commercially available in the next four to five years.

But that’s in the future — what about today? What are the fastest jets you can get on board of today, and what are the fastest you probably won’t be allowed to fly? Let’s find out.

Friendly jets, fighter jets

Unsurprisingly, military forces around the world have a monopoly on the fastest jets today. So, in order to give this list some balance, I’ll place both civilian and military jets side by side, even though they’re generally in entirely different leagues. I’ll try to be short on the details for most contenders on this list — partly because some are boring and easy to find online, while others are straight-up classified information — but I’ll give you a little extra on the last two jets.

So let’s get on board.

Bombardier Global Express / Global 5000/6000 (mixed-use, in active service)

Global 6000.

Bombardier Global 6000 operated by VistaJet Malta.
Image credits James / Flickr.

A nice little private jet to start our list with, the Global can reach speeds of up to Mach 0.9 (Mach 1 is the speed of sound). The 5000 variant is slightly smaller, while the 6000 variant is larger and also sees (and is modified for) military operations. These include airborne radar and control, battlefield communications, surveillance, and maritime patrol.

Cessna 750 Citation X+ (civilian, in active service)

Cessna 750 Citation X.

Cessna 750 Citation X.
Image credits Papas Dos / Flickr.

The Citation X+ is one of the fastest civilian aircraft in the skies today, able to reach Mach 0.935. (close to 717 miles / 1154 kilometers per hour). It’s a bit larger than the older Citation X and boasts a higher cruising speed, payload, and range. It’s still very pretty, though.

Сухой Су-27 / Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” (military, in active service)

SU-27 RIAT.

A Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 at the RIAT airshow, 2017.
Image credits Airwolfhound / Wikimedia.

Zis is ze Russian menace, comrades. Developed as an air superiority fighter to counter novel US fighters in the early 70s, the Su-27 subsequently took on all manners of air combat missions. With a huge payload of rockets and bombs, a 30-mm gun, very good maneuverability, and a maximum speed in excess of Mach 2.25 it definitely deserves a place on our list.

The Su-27 found its fans in Soviet, Russian, and other nations’ military command structures. This airplane is still in use and has served as a base for a lot of later variants.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 “Eagle” (military, active)

F-15.

Image credits Shannon Collins / Flickr.

Remember how the Sukhoi was designed to “counter novel US fighters”? This was one of those novel fighters. It was actually a very good plane for its age and can still hold its own against more modern adversaries. The Eagle took its maiden flight in 1972 and was accepted into service in 1976. It is among the most successful Cold War fighters, with over 100 victories and no losses in aerial combat. Goes a bit over Mach 2.5.

Like its arch-rival, the F-15 was designed as an air superiority fighter and has served as a base for multiple variants. Unlike the Sukhoi, however, it has less impressive ground strike capabilities (due to a lower payload). It is a more specialized counterpart to the Soviet jack of all trades. While both look smashing, sorry democracy, but I like the Sukhoi just a tad more.

Микоян МиГ-31 / Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31 “Foxhound” (military, active)

Russian Air Force MiG-31.

A Russian Air Force MiG-31 in flight.
Image credits Dmitriy Pichugin / Airliners.net

If the world’s Russian stereotype could become a plane overnight, this would be it. Is it pretty? No. Does it need to be? Also no. Can it run solely on vodka? Probably. Is it scary?

Definitely.

One of the fastest jets in the world today, the MiG-31 cruises at Mach 2.83. However, if you’re feeling brave and don’t think a fighter needs its engines and fuselage to hold together, you can push this MiG up to a whopping Mach 3.2. You and your co-pilot, who is manning the MiG’s weapons.

Why so fast? Well, the previous two fighters were designed for air supremacy (i.e. duking it out with opponents to gain control of airspace). That needs poise, a certain grace in flight. The MiG-31, on the other hand, is an interceptor. It is designed around a radar that can track multiple targets, a whole bunch missiles, big, beefy engines, and not much else. Interceptors are meant to climb fast, fly fast, and fly high. Once there, they would pummel enemy bombers and long-range ballistic missiles before circling back to base — rinse and repeat.

The fighter’s upper-speed limit of Mach 3.2 is in no way, shape, or form sustainable if used often. The temperatures and mechanical stress generated from air friction will rip and burn it apart at the same time. But if your job is to shoot down incoming nuclear ballistic rockets, sometimes you just need the speed — whether the plane makes it or not is of secondary concern when whole cities are on the line.

Aérospatiale / BAC Concorde (civilian, retired)

Concorde.

British Airways Concorde G-BOAC
Image credits Eduard Marmet.

The Concorde is an iconic piece of wing. Designed and built in the 1950s (as part of a French-British collaboration between Aérospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation), the Concorde made its maiden flight in 1969. It is the first of the only two supersonic planes to have been operated commercially. The other is the Tupolev Tu-144, which is pretty very similar to the Concorde.

The Concorde could reach speeds of Mach 2.04 (2,180 kph or 1,354 mph) at cruise altitudes, comfortably seating between 92 and 128 passengers. It mostly saw use with wealthy individuals who could afford to pay for the luxury services and thirsty engines high speeds. In 1997, for example, a Concorde trip from London to New York cost just under 8,000 US$ (12,000 US$ in today’s money), around 30 times as much as a ticket on a conventional passenger plane. The trip did, however, only take about three hours.

One of Concorde’s most striking traits is its wings. They were purposefully designed with short-spanning, ogival (or double) delta wings, as drag at supersonic speeds strongly depends on wingspan. Delta wings produce lift by ‘rolling’ air into vortices of low pressure on their upper surface. However, this type of wing can’t be fitted with flaps (control surfaces) and provides relatively poor lift and control at low speeds. That’s why the Concorde’s wings extend over such a huge part of its length — the plane wouldn’t be able to get off the ground without the extra wing surface.

Delta-winged aircraft are particularly cumbersome during take-off and landing because the whole craft has to be angled in lieu of flaps. The Concorde took off and touched down at an extreme angle; the first in order to artificially-increase its lift, and the latter in order to use the wings as airbrakes. This requirement is also why the cockpit can angle itself down.

Concorde.

Air France Concorde landing at JFK in the summer of 1980. So derpy, though.
Image credits Ron Reiring / Flickr.

It experienced high heat during flight; virtually every piece of the plane’s exterior (windows included) were reportedly warm to the touch after landing. The plane could, in practice, fly faster than its advertised specifications, but it was limited to 2.04 Mach as anything faster would melt its aluminium fuselage. Its skin expanded by as much as 1 foot (30 cm) during flight.

High running costs and a ludicrous development price limited the Concorde’s commercial career. The aircraft was also plagued by an immense thirst for fuel and high emissions, and was forbidden from flying at supersonic speed over populated areas as its sonic boom could and would break windows.

On July 25, 2000, a Concorde flying from Paris to New York City suffered critical engine failure shortly after takeoff due to debris from a burst tire rupturing and igniting a fuel tank. The aircraft crashed into a small hotel and restaurant, killing 113 people (100 passengers, 9 crew members, 4 people on the ground). Concorde still supersonically limped until retirement in 2003, but this crash virtually ended its career.

Still, the Concorde made history.

Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird (military, retired)

SR-71 "Blackbird" testing

The SR-71 from Lockheed. Image credits U.S. Air Force.

A high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Developed and built (by Lockheed’s Skunk Works) in the 1960s, the Blackbird remains the world’s fastest jet. Able to go over three times the speed of sound, at 3.3 Mach (4,073 kph / 2,200mph) this plane is a technological jewel. It is also an exercise in extremes, a legend on wings, and the plane that the X-Men fly around.

Designed as a recon and bomber aircraft, it was later earmarked specifically for Strategic Reconnaissance. The requirements placed by the US Government when the project started were — to put it bluntly — hilariously over the top. The Blackbird had to fly higher and for longer than any other plane at the time. It had to be able to hide from (it was the world’s second stealth aircraft) or outrun any Soviet interceptor or air defense platform, deep in enemy territory, with no hope of reinforcement. It had to be stable enough to photograph whatever the Soviets were doing, 90.000 feet (27.432 meters) below. It needed unique life support systems to keep its crew alive, on missions that would take hours upon hours at a time.

Somehow, the designers delivered, and created a vehicle in a class of its own. “Everything had to be invented. Everything.” recalls Kelly Johnson, one of the main designers of the aircraft. As a telling example, the Blackbirds’ engines come equipped with unique air intake vanes that shift position mid-flight to keep the bleeding edge of its sonic boom out of the engine cowlings. Without these, the SR-71 would literally fly so fast that incoming air would explode its engines clean out of the frame.

Blackbird profile.

Image credits National Museum of the USAF.

No expense was spared for this jet. In an age when the American aircraft industry used titanium with extreme stinginess (it was very expensive and hard to acquire), the SR-71’s structure was 85% titanium. It was high-grade stuff, too — Lockheed engineers refused roughly 80% of the titanium shipments they received due to it not being pure enough for the job. No other alloy was strong enough to resist the immense forces its engines bellowed out while being light enough to keep it fast. Lesser metals would simply melt off the aircraft mid-flight due to air friction close to its maximum speeds. Lockheed had to develop new tools and procedures to work with titanium, as it does become very brittle during construction and will break if mishandled — these are still being used today.

Temperatures on the aircraft’s leading edges were expected to exceed 538 degrees Celsius (1,000 Fahrenheit) during flight. At the same time, ambient temperatures outside the cockpit window would be -60 degrees Fahrenheit (-51 Celsius) due to its extreme cruising altitude. The inside of the windshield reached 250 degrees F (120 °C) at Mach 3.2.

Blackbird Canards.

Lockheed A-12 (SR 71 Blackbird predecessor) wind-tunnel test models at NASA Langley, showing an interesting canard configuration as well as the more familiar configuration that was ultimately used.
Image and caption credits NASA via Wikimedia.

This plane could abuse itself so much — the extreme conditions it experienced during flight made it usually return from missions with missing rivets, panels ripped off, and parts such as inlets needing replacement — that the US Air Force needed about a week’s time to get them back to shape after a sortie. There were cases where repair teams needed a whole month to get the planes back into shape.

According to military reports, the Blackbirds logged 53,490 total flight hours and 11,008 mission flight hours. During this time, over four thousand strikes have been fired in anger against them. None found its mark. They were retired from active service in the 1990s.

Still, from the delicious design and ludicrous requirements to the excellent service record and sheer ability of this airplane, it remains a legend among its kin.

Unmanned US plane lands after two-year secret mission

After circling our planet for an unprecedented 718 days doing classified scientific experiments, an unmanned plane landed at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Air Force’s secret X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle landed at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Sunday, setting off a sonic boom that surprised residents. Image credits: Secretary of the Air Force.

It was an unusual sight at the Kennedy Space Center — the first space plane to land there since Atlantis in 2011. People from Orlando and other places in Florida reported hearing sonic booms just like during the golden days of NASA’s space shuttle program, but this was a different kind of mission: a secret, military one.

It was one of the military’s two X-37 space plane vehicles. The Boeing X-37, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is a reusable unmanned spacecraft which can launch vertically and land horizontally, but the more interesting feature is that it can fly for so long without a recharge. Officials were thrilled to see the plane intact and functioning properly.

“Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, the 45th SW commander, said in a statement. “Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”

So what exactly is the purpose of the X-37? Well… we don’t really know. The official U.S. Air Force statement is that the project is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force”. However, speculations have gone much further. Various allegations have been made, from delivering weapons from space to spying on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module. The Guardian suggested that its purpose was “to test reconnaissance and spy sensors, particularly how they hold up against radiation and other hazards of orbit,” while International Business Times stated that the U.S. government was testing a version of the EmDrive electromagnetic microwave thruster. However, all these claims were denied by The Pentagon and Boeing subsequently. While the mystery hasn’t really been explained, at this point, there’s little reason to doubt the claims of officials. It’s unlikely that the X-37 is doing something aggressive in space, but it is quite possible that it’s testing out sensors or other developing technologies — somewhere at the science-military border.

“Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal-protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal, reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Space.com via email in March. “Also, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO) are investigating an experimental propulsion system,” she said.

It’s certainly a bit unnerving that we’re already toying with the idea of militarizing space, especially given the scale of such projects. Military space programs “are as big as NASA,” astrophysicist and astronomer Jonathan McDowell told NPR’s Here and Now back in 2015, when X-37 started this mission. McDowell also said that at this point, there are at least 20 “full-fledged spy satellites or other really secret vehicles” orbiting the Earth and that’s a scary thought.

This was the fourth and lengthiest mission from the project, also notable for the plane’s autonomous landing. It’s unclear what the project’s further objectives are. The US Air Force has at least confirmed that they are actively researching reusable space vehicles and establishing a space test platform for themselves.

Weapons of math destruction: plane delayed because university professor was writing equations

No matter how bad you are at math, you should be able to recognize an equation when you see it, right? Well, that wasn’t the case for a passenger on the plane from Philadelphia to Ontario. This passenger saw a saw a man “suspiciously” writing down a complicated looking formula on a piece of paper and notified cabin crew.  She then said she was feeling ill, causing the plane to be turned around, and then the man was brought in for questioning. The thing is, the man was Guido Menzio, an Italian-born associate professor in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, who was simply going through some equations for his upcoming lecture.

It almost sounds too bizarre to be true. Firstly, the passenger (his seat neighbor) thought Menzio looks suspicious, just because he happens to be slightly tanned, dark-haired, bearded and with a foreign accent – things you’d expect from an Italian man after all. Then, she noticed that he was writing “something strange,” cryptic notes in a language she did not understand. But this is where it gets even eerier. She didn’t say anything to the cabin crew, instead preferring to pose ill. The protocol in this case is very strict: the plane must be returned.

But when the plane returned, instead of medical assistance, the woman sought security assistance. Menzio told the Associated Press:

“I thought they were trying to get clues about her illness. Instead, they tell me that the woman was concerned that I was a terrorist because I was writing strange things on a pad of paper.”

His scribbling was actually a differential equation he was preparing for a lecture on Search Theory in Canada, where he was headed. He says he was treated with respect by security, but on Facebook he recalls this bizarre experience:

“The passenger sitting next to me calls the stewardess, passes her a note.” He was then “met by some FBI looking man-in-black”.

“They ask me about my neighbor,” he wrote. “I tell them I noticed nothing strange. They tell me she thought I was a terrorist because I was writing strange things on a pad of paper. I laugh. I bring them back to the plane. I showed them my math.”

After a two-hour questioning, Menzio returned to the plane, but the fact that a system can be so easily perturbed by someone so clueless is disturbing.

copter to plane

This 10-engine-copter made by NASA can morph into a plane in mid-flight

Inspired by quadcopters and airplanes alike, NASA engineered made the best of both worlds and designed a 10-engine electric craft that can hover like a drone, but also cruise like a plane. Called Greased Lightning or GL-10, the craft is allegedly four times more efficient than a helicopter in cruise mode, while also retaining vertical take off capabilities.

It’s been some time since the concept has been in works, and as testament lie some of the battered prototypes which had to make a ‘hard landing’. In any event, the prototype they’re working with now and demoed on YouTube is quite impressive. The current version weighs 62 pounds with a 10-foot wingspan, and can perform an in-air transition to airplane in no time and with no difficulties. According to  Bill Fredericks, an aerospace engineer at NASA, the model can be scaled-up to “make also a great one to four-person-size personal air vehicle.” How freakin’ awesome is that?

via PopMechs

plane-interior

Windowless Plane reduces CO2 Emissions and makes the trip more Enjoyable

An UK design firm is proposing a most daring idea: replace the windows in a plane with super-light smartscreen panel made from organic LEDs (OLED). These panels would cover most of the plane’s inner surface and display the view from outside, better and lovelier than any windows could. Of course, you could choose to watch a football match, read a book or just leave the screen blank – it’s your choice.

plane-interior

Photo: Photograph: Tomasz Wyszo/mirski/ww.dabarti/CPI

Of course, this is not just a design fad – these are rarely allowed through in the aerospace industry where even the slightest tweak can end up increasing a plane’s cost by the millions. On the contrary, the idea is most utilitarian in nature.

 

For a plane to support passenger windows,  the whole fuselage needs to be re-enforced because of the high stresses around the hollow window geometry. If these were removed, then the plane could be built with far lighter materials, cutting down manufacturing costs and, most importantly, operational costs. According to the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) – the company behind the smartscreen alternative to plane windows –  for every 1% reduction in the weight of an aircraft, there is a saving in fuel of 0.75%.

“We had been speaking to people in aerospace and we understood that there was this need to take weight out of aircraft,” said Dr Jon Helliwell of the CPI.

“Follow the logical thought through. Let’s take all the windows out – that’s what they do in cargo aircraft – what are the passengers going to do? If you think about it, it’s only really the people that are sitting next to windows that will suffer.”

Helliwell and colleagues have actually thought of a better alternative to the windows by proposing screens that would be made using organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) – a combination of materials that give out their own light when activated by electricity. OLEDs are very expensive today and, worst of all, are very sensitive to moisture and require a special casing. This means they’re generally inflexible and hard to adapt for this kind of project.

“What would be great would be to make devices based on OLEDs that are flexible. We can make transistors that are flexible but if we can make OLEDs that are flexible, that gives us a lot of potential in the market because we can print OLEDs on to packaging, we can create flexible displays,” he said.

Using £35m worth of advanced equipment in its Sedgefield facility, the CPI says it working on technologies to advance flexible OLEDs and tackle problems of cost and durability. The team hopes it can develop technology that will enable the company to advance this concept in the next 10 years. The video below showcases how this might look like.

X-37B

Top-Secret Air Force plane lands after 2 year mission in Earth’s orbit

After exactly 674 days in orbit, the Air Force’s top secret spaceplane landed in California on Friday. There’s very little anyone knows about the plane, apart from its name – X-37B – and the fact that it can fly in orbit unmanned. The two main assumptions are that it’s either a space plane or a bomber. Maybe both.

A mysterious unmanned shuttle

X-37B

Courtesy of Boeing

The X-37B first flew in 2010 and again in 2011 and 2012. It’s only been a couple of days since it returned from its last mission, which lasted nearly two years. A lot of people are wondering now what the plane has been doing all this time. Initially, the mission was slated to last only nine months, further fueling suspicions.

“Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” the Air Force said in a statement

shuttle_x37b

Image: Boeing

Nothing mentioned of spy or weapon-carrying technology of course in the official statement. The air force also mentioned  it will take over former shuttle hangars at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, suggesting it plans to expand X-37B operations.

“The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane,” said the program manager of the mission in a statement. “The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

To reach orbit, X-37B is piggy-bagged on a rocket and, once its mission is complete, returns from orbit like a plane.

“The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” the Air Force said in the statement. “Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”