Seventy-four years ago, Captain Charles Yeager of the U.S. Air Force became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. Once that barrier was broken, modern aviation took off, pun intended. These are some of the Air Force’s supersonic jets.
The First Supersonic Jet
On October 14, Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 was dropped from a B-29, rocketing away at over Mach 1. The Bell X-1 was an experimental jet, purpose-built to attempt speeds unheard of till that point. As such, it was not a production craft or a regular part of the Air Force’s inventory. The X-1 relied on another aircraft to get it to altitude, then basically fired rocket motors to reach speed. Though it had landing gear, flight controls, and working engines, the jet was not meant to take off from the ground.
The Subsequent Supersonic Explosion
After the Bell X-1, the USAF was eager to expand the supersonic might of its forces. To that end, numerous supersonic bombers and fighters began to appear.
Convair B-58 Hustler
The Convair was designed in the 50s, first flown in 1956, and entered operational service in 1960. The Hustler was just short of 100 ft long and had a wingspan of just under 60 ft. In terms of power, four GE J79-GE-5A turbojet engines provided 15,000-foot pounds of force with afterburners. The jet had a cruise speed of 610mph and could reach Mach 2, or 1,300 mph at 40,000 feet all while carrying a max bomb load of 19,450 lbs. The last Convair Hustler was retired in 1970.
North American Aviation XB-70 Valkyrie
Though the Valkyrie was never an operational bomber for the Air Force, the lessons learned with this airframe were instrumental to many Air Force programs. The Valkyrie was designed for the times, not for the future. A supersonic strategic bomber is the right idea to overcome anti-aircraft artillery, but with the advent of guided air-defense missiles, high-speed flight would be the death of a bomber. The Valkyrie sat at 185 feet long, with a wingspan of 105 feet. Its six GE YJ93-GE-3 turbojet engines could produce 28,000 ft/lbs of force, and propel it along at over 2,000 mph.
General Dynamics F-111A Aardvark
Developed in the 1960s, the Aardvark was a multi-role supersonic aircraft. It could carry nukes, perform ground attacks, and act as surveillance and an electronic warfare platform. The Aardvark sported variable-sweep wings, which later became commonplace on many military aircraft. The terrain-following radar used in the Aardvark allowed it to go in low and fast, something that was all the rage during the Vietnam War. The ability to use radar to fly in adverse weather conditions, coupled with electronic counter-measures, ensured the F-111 was used extensively during Vietnam. At 74 feet long, and with a wingspan of 63 feet, the Aardvark relied on two Pratt & Whitney TF3-P-100 afterburning turbofan engines to produce 25,000 ft/lbs of thrust. That thrust propelled the Aardvark along at 1,650 mph.
The Rockwell B-1 Lancer
Considered by many the cream of the crop of supersonic jets, the Lancer had an uncertain future when it was first envisioned. Developed in the 1960s, the B-1A Lancer was meant to replace both the B-58 Hustler and the B-52 Stratofortress, but was halted due to the AGM-86 cruise missile development. The cruise missile had the same basic flight characteristics as the B-1 and could be launched rather than flown. The program was started back up again in 1981 as the B-1B, a stop-gap measure due to delays in the B-2 program. Delivery of the Lancer began in 1986, and 100 nuclear-capable B-1B Lancers were produced between 1986 and 1988. The Lancer sets an impressive 146 feet long, with a 137-foot wingspan. With wings swept, the wingspan drops to 79 feet. Sweeping the wings on the ground changes the center of gravity so much that special pogos have to support the jet’s tail. Four General Electric F101-GE-102 afterburning turbofan engines produce 31,000 ft/lbs of force in afterburner. Its max speed is 830 mph at 40,000 ft, and an impressive 700 mph at 200 ft.
The U.S. has produced and flown 36 fighter-type aircraft capable of Mach speeds. These supersonic jets are too many to list here, but I will hit some highlights.
North American F-100 Super Sabre
The F-100A Super Sabre was USAF’s first supersonic production fighter, and the first of the Century Series aircraft. Century Series refers to the numerical designations (i.e., F-100, F-101, etc.), but also denotes upgrades in avionics, structural design, and speed. The Super Sabre was developed as the successor to the F-86 Sabre. First flown in 1953, the F-100 entered service in 1954 and flew until 1979. At 50 feet long and with a wingspan of 39 feet, the F-100 was powered by one Pratt & Whitney J57-P-21/21A afterburning turbojet engine. The 16,000 ft/lbs of thrust in afterburner gave the Super Sabre a top speed of Mach 1.4.
Republic F-105 Thunderchief
Affectionately (or not) known as the “Thud,” the Thunderchief was introduced to the active Air Force in 1958. Originally designed to be a nuke-delivery system, the F-105 was built as a low-level, supersonic penetration platform. Fly low and fast; release the weapon; then fly like hell to get away. Produced in numerous variants, the F-105D was the dominant variant with more than 600 delivered to the Air Force. While built as a nuclear-attack aircraft, the F-105 saw extensive action in Vietnam, dropping tons of conventional munitions during the early years of the war. At 64 feet long and 35 feet wide, the Thud’s one Pratt & Whitney J75-P-19W afterburning turbojet engine could push it to Mach 2.1 at 35,000 ft.
Northrop T-38 Talon
Still in operation today, the T-38 entered service with the USAF in 1961 as its first supersonic trainer aircraft. Northrop produced over 1,000 T-38A models, many of which are still flying today. Purpose-built as a trainer aircraft, the T-38 took advantage of General Electric innovations, with two GE J85-5A afterburning turbojet engines that could produce 3,000 ft/lbs of thrust. With a length of 46.5 feet and a wingspan of 25 feet, the Talon’s light weight (7,000 lbs) combined with powerful engines gives the jet a max speed of 858 mph, Mach 1.3.
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
One of the most iconic supersonic jets in the Air Force’s inventory, the F-16 entered active service in 1978. Initially designed to be a daytime air-to-air fighter, the F-16 evolved into an all-around multi-role aircraft that is currently in use by 26 countries. Its speed and maneuverability made the F-16 the aircraft of choice for the USAF Thunderbirds demonstration team. The F-16 was an upgrade from the previously used T-38 Talon. The Falcon sits at 49.5 feet long, 33 feet wide, and sports one Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229, or General Electric F110-GE-129, afterburning turbofan engine. The engine produces around 17,000 ft/lbs of thrust that can propel the Falcon along at Mach 2 at 40,000 ft, or Mach 1.2 at sea level.
Special Purpose Aircraft
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
No list of supersonic jets would be complete without the SR-71 Blackbird. A Cold War innovation, the Blackbird entered service in 1966, and 32 were ultimately produced. The SR designation indicates that the aircraft was developed for strategic reconnaissance, and its flight abilities lent themselves to that role. Born from Lockheed’s Skunk Works, the Blackbird was a secret project to produce a low-observable, high-speed/high-altitude, reconnaissance plane that could get in and get out quickly.
The world airspeed record for a manned, air-breathing aircraft was set in 1976 when the SR-71 flew at 2,190 mph. It has not been topped since. In fact, when the Blackbird was retired in 1990, the final flight of tail number 61-7972 from California to Virginia set four new speed records. Four new records. On its final flight. The SR-71A sat at 107.5 feet long and had a wingspan of 55.5 feet. Two Pratt & Whitney J58 engines each produced 32,000 ft/lbs of thrust capable of propelling the jet at Mach 3.3.
The Future of Supersonic Flight
With the current crop of fifth-generation fighters out there, supersonic flight is still very much alive and well. With jets like the F-22 and F-35 in the skies, supersonic flight by the USAF will continue for generations. Advances in engineering could lead to super-cruise, which is the ability to fly at Mach speeds without the use of afterburners. This significantly cuts the radar cross-section of a fighter jet as it doesn’t cause it to blast huge plumes of fire from its tail. New innovations in hypersonic weaponry may herald a new age of faster-than-sound travel.
In one generation, mankind went from its first flight to landing on the moon. The future looks bright for military aviation and supersonic jets.