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Airplanes go fast — like really fast. Let’s just get that out of the way. But the question is how fast do planes really go?
Airplanes travel at speeds ranging anywhere from just over 100 mph up to nearly 2,200 mph. Personal aircraft typically travel between 120 - 200 mph; commercial airplanes fly between 500 - 700 mph, and military aircraft can travel at speeds around 1,200 - 2,200 mph.
If you’ve ever been in an airplane of any kind, and we’re guessing most of you reading this have, then you know that they fly fast. But there’s a big difference between a single-engine turboprop and a jet-powered military aircraft. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top speeds of some of the most common aircraft in each class as well as how planes are able to travel at such high speeds to begin with.
Everything that you read in this article is the culmination of hours of research combined with expertise in the aviation industry — whether our own or through discussions with pilots and other experts. All the speed information for specific airplanes are taken directly from the manufacturer’s specs, so you can rest assured knowing that everything you read is as accurate as possible.
How Fast Do Airplanes Fly?
Whether you’ve flown in a commercial jet to head to your favorite vacation spot, or you’re training to become a pilot and have flown some smaller aircraft yourself, there’s one thing for certain. Airplanes can fly fast. Planes can fly anywhere from around 100 mph up to thousands of miles per hour, it just depends on what kind of plane and what its purpose is.
Take a look at the tables below to get an idea of how fast personal aircraft, commercial airliners, and military jets fly to see the massive differences between the classes of aircraft.
How Do Airplanes Fly So Fast?
We all know that airplanes travel fast, but how are they able to do so? In your car on the highway, you might drive about 70 mph. But as you can see in the tables above, planes go much faster than that. Even learner planes for beginners. So how do they do it? There are two main components that go into how fast a plane can travel — power and aerodynamics. We could go on for days about each one of these on their own, but we’ll just touch on the basics here.
The biggest factor in how fast a plane can fly is also typically the biggest factor in how fast a car can really go at its maximum speed — power. Smaller, single-engine planes typically use a propeller engine to make their power, and some use piston engines somewhat similar to what you could find in your car. But the bigger and faster planes use turbine engines that produce enormous amounts of thrust.
No matter what the power source of the plane is, they are typically able to produce a significant amount of power that’s able to overcome the wind resistance and carry the heavy weight of the plane at incredible speeds.
Other than the power produced by the plane’s engines, the next most important aspect of how fast they can fly is their precisely-engineered aerodynamics. As we just alluded to above, the plane’s engines produce more than enough power to overcome wind resistance, but the aerodynamics of the design really help the plane slice through the air.
In general, the more aerodynamic a plane is and the more power it produces, the faster it can potentially fly.
Does A Tailwind Make A Plane Fly Faster?
Before we go into any details about whether or not a tailwind makes a plane fly faster (or if a headwind makes it fly slower), let’s take a quick look at what tailwind and headwind are. Simply put, a tailwind is a wind that is blowing in the same direction that the plane is flying. A headwind is just the opposite, blowing against the direction that the plane is moving in.
As you can probably guess from that, a tailwind will make a plane fly faster and a headwind will make a plane fly slower. Right?
Well in general, yes. Having a tailwind will enable the plane to fly faster, whereas a headwind can reduce the speed of the aircraft. In some cases, the pilot may wish to reduce their throttle in a tailwind or increase their throttle in a headwind to maintain a constant speed, but that usually isn’t necessary.
In this case of a tailwind, it’s much more efficient to just let the wind speed up the aircraft and shorten the total flight time. This effect is evidenced by looking at flights from New York City to LA and comparing them to flight times from LA to New York City.
Going east to west (NYC to LA), planes will be fighting a headwind in most cases (since wind typically goes west to east). With that in mind, it takes around 5 hours and 23 minutes to fly from NYC to LA in a standard commercial airplane. If you’re flying in the opposite direction (LA to NYC), you’ll have a tailwind. The total flight time is then reduced to around 4 hours and 47 minutes, just because of the wind.
What’s The Fastest A Plane Has Flown?
While smaller personal aircraft and commercial airliners can certainly travel pretty fast — a few hundred miles per hour or more — they’re nothing compared to the speed that some jet aircraft can reach. And of all the jet aircraft in the world, there is but one true king when it comes to speed records.
The Lockheed Martin SR-71 Blackbird.
Built as a strategic reconnaissance aircraft in the 1960s, the SR-71 Blackbird was designed for stealth and speed. It needed to be able to deliver its crew of two into and out of areas as quickly as possible without being detected.
To achieve this, the aircraft was designed to fly at an astounding Mach 3.3 — that’s 3.3 times the speed of sound. In layman’s terms, that’s a speed of around 2,100 miles per hour. Just let that sink in. That sort of speed is roughly 4 times faster than the typical commercial airliner flies.
Just think about it this way, in an SR-71 Blackbird, you’d be able to make a flight over the entire continental United States in less than an hour and a half!
What Happens When A Plane Breaks The Sound Barrier?
Breaking the sound barrier is often thought of as one of the coolest things that planes can do. You see it in movies and on TV, but what does that actually mean to break the sound barrier and how fast do planes need to be traveling to do so?
We’ll spare you some of the details of the sound barrier and how it works, but here’s a quick rundown so that you have an idea of what it means for a plane to break the sound barrier. At sea level and standard atmospheric conditions, sound travels in waves moving at 770 miles per hour (345 meters per second). This speed will change based on temperature and, therefore, altitude, but we’ll use it as a baseline for this discussion.
So as a plane, usually reserved for military aircraft, is flying overhead, it is of course emitting soundwaves. These sound waves are traveling at the finite speed of sound, so as the jet approaches the speed that these waves are moving, they begin to almost pile up together at the front of the nose. At the point just before the jet breaks the speed of sound, it is moving at the same speed as the sound waves in front of it.
But with sufficient speed and acceleration, the jet can push through these sound waves as it moves faster than the sound itself. When the jet breaks through the built-up pressure of all the sound waves at the front of its nose, there is a massive change in pressure as the waves fill the void where the jet was previously. This change in pressure within the sound waves creates the sonic boom that you’ve likely heard in videos and movies — it sounds like a massive explosion as the plane flies by.
Once a jet is moving faster than the speed of sound, it’ll appear to fly by in eerie silence as it’s traveling faster than the sound it produces. After it flies by, people on the ground would be able to finally hear its noise. Seeing a jet break the speed of sound can be one of the most intriguing things to witness in aviation.
This is, of course, not an issue for most planes that you’ll be flying or riding in — small aircraft or commercial jets — as you likely won’t ever be reaching speeds of over 770 miles per hour!