What was the fastest ever European aircraft — and why hasn’t its record been topped in half a century?


The Mirage 2000 – fast, but not the fastest.

We all know the fastest US plane was the X-15 or SR-71, and the fastest Soviet was MiG-25 – but what was the fastest European?  Was it Swedish? Nope, the fastest Swede was the Mach 2.1 Viggen. British then? The Lightning, depending on who you talk to – had a top speed of between Mach 2.0 and 2.3 — close, but no cigar. German? Nowhere near – the EWR VJ 101 experimental jump-jet only got to Mach 1.04 (the Mach 1.28 X-31 was half American). Is it a trick question – Europe collaboration? Nope — the Tornado could allegedly get to Mach 2.27 (though presumably only if the pilot skipped lunch) — and no, it’s not Concorde either which topped out at Mach 2.23 (though normal operating limit was 2.04)

West German jump-jet barely overtaking a bicycle.

So French right? Yes, but not an aircraft that made operational service. The fastest operational aircraft was the Mirage F1 which clocked around 2.22, the Mirage 2000 is fast too — around 2.2 —and the mighty Mirage IV nuclear bomber may have been able to exceed 2.2, the extremely capable Mirage 4000 could make Mach 2.2, but the fastest was an experimental swing-wing. According to Dassault — “Mirage G8 02 made its maiden flight at Istres, on July 13, 1972, piloted by Jean-Marie Saget. For its first anniversary – and its 74th sortie – on July 13, 1973, it achieved the highest speed ever for an aircraft in Western Europe: Mach 2.34 at 42,000 ft.”

The fastest European since Cicciolina. Image credit: Dassault

France had been flirting with variable geometry (or swing-) wings for a while, sometimes in support of the aborted AFVG. These studies had been a little heavy for French tastes, its air force and navy generally favouring light or middle-weight fighters.

A very French ‘Tornado’ – the Mirage G4. The G8s were converted G4s.

The general staff asked Dassault to look into a lighter (and cheaper) shorter ranged single-seat interceptor, and the two G8s (which were converted G4s) were flown in support of this effort. The second aircraft G8 02 was an actual single-seater (the backseat removed) and simpler weapon system introduced — it is likely that these weight savings helped it achieved its record speed. A record that has stood for 46 years! 

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Why hasn’t the record been broken?

The Chinese J-20.

So why has it not been broken? The main limiting factors on an aircraft flying beyond Mach 2.2 are canopy transparency materials and the engine’s air intake. The former requires the use of a material for the cockpit transparency (the ‘window’) that doesn’t melt at the temperatures created by the air friction of such high speed. Efficiency of the intake airflow slowing device on the intake is also important; to exceed around Mach 1.8 requires a means of slowing and controlling the airflow to the engine to a speed it can tolerate, this can done with shock-cones (as is the case with the Mirage family), splitter plates (like the Phantom) or ramps or variable geometry ramps (as used by the F-15 and Tornado). A modern modern solution is the diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) It consists of a bump and a forward-swept inlet cowl, and can be seen on the US’ F-35 and the Chinese JL-9, J-10B/C and J-20 and the Pakistani/Chinese JF-17.
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The Mirage 4000, a French equivalent to the US Strike Eagle — that never entered service, could reach Mach 2.2.

Specialising aircraft engines for flight much above Mach 2.3 demands huge compromises in size and fuel consumption at lower speeds. These type of speeds have been deemed unnecessary for modern fighters (though MiG may disagree), though fourth and fifth fighters do speed far more time at supersonic speeds than did the preceding generations.

Bump ‘n’ grind – the F-35s bumpy Divertless Supersonic Intakes (DSI). As well as being relatively simple, DSI’s are generally less radar reflective than intake ramps or splitter plates.

A severely sweptback wing is useful for low drag at supersonic speeds, but a thin wing relatively unswept wing is another approach – the F-104 Starfighter being an example. Airframe materials also come into it, and maybe one of the reasons that the F-22 (Mach 2.25) uses more titanium and less plastics than its slower peers the Typhoon and Rafale (Mach 2.05 and Mach 1.8 respectively) is its need to withstand prolonged supersonic flight and a higher absolute top speed. 
wp_21+68 F-104G JaboG 33_Schwarz.jpg

The manned missile sweeps for no man. OK, it sweeps a little.

As Jim Smith explained to HushKit, “Aerodynamic heating is a problem, as conventional aluminium alloys lose strength. So special materials are needed if extended flight above Mach 2 is required, for example in the SR-71. Intakes will generally be complex and have variable geometry, normally using ramps or a translating cone to create a shock structure which reduces the flow to subsonic speed. The configuration generally needs to be such that the wing leading edge sits behind the Mach cone from the aircraft nose to avoid high wave drag.” A Typhoon or Rafale has the power to achieve a new European record, but converting these types to make this possible would be expensive and not overly impressive as  unless it was radically modified neither would be able exceed the speeds of the MiG-25 or SR-71.

The two G8s demonstrating the range of available wingsweep.

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  1. Duker

    The part about Concorde is incorrect, yes the max cruise speed in commercial airliner service was M2.04, but during development it did fly faster.
    “Brian Trubshaw’s book Concorde The Complete Inside Story details the speed tests that took place in G-AXDN at Tangier, Morocco in March 1974 and confirms the Mach 2.23 achievement and claimed “it wouldn’t go any faster!” but does not state a ground speed. He also confirms that G-BBDG achieved Mach 2.21 during testing. All production Concordes delivered to British Airways and Air France were certified for commercial service up to a maximum speed of Mach 2.04.
    Its well to remember the cruise speed of Concorde was sustained during most of its flight, while combat aircraft can only manage short bursts otherwise they will use all their fuel or ‘burn out’ the engine
    The F22 does have diverter ‘plates’ as there is a gap between aircraft body and the inlet, the YF23 was more advanced with perforated suction plates which drew away the boundary layer air ahead of the inlet. The first aircraft that Im aware of that flew, in some versions with a combined ‘perforated bump’ was the Grumman F11 Tiger

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