We know that airplanes can fly fast. They’re much faster than other forms of transport like cars or trains, but the question remains: just how fast do planes fly?
Airplanes can typically fly between 100 mph and 1,500 mph. The speed at which an airplane travels will depend on the aircraft classification and mode of flight. Small private aircraft fly between 100 and 200 mph. Larger commercial passenger jets typically fly between 500 and 600 mph. Military aircraft can reach speeds of up to 2,200 mph.
To compile the technical information for this article, we have spent many hours researching the many types of planes in depth with aviation experts.
All of the airspeed data is published on the aircraft manufacturers’ websites, and we have used this information as a reference.
Table of Contents
What Effects Airplane Speed?
Design, engine type, wind conditions, and altitude are the main factors that affect how fast an airplane moves.
The higher the altitude, the less dense the air. This causes the wing to produce less lift. A 747, for example, may find it more challenging to maintain altitude as a result, and it may also lose speed as it battles to keep its lift.
High altitudes also cause the air passing over the wings and through the engines to become less dense, which limits the amount of thrust that can be produced by the engines.
This can result in the 747 losing speed, especially at extremely high altitudes where the air is very thin. On the other hand, as air density goes down at high altitudes, the drag on the plane may go down, letting it keep its speed or even speed up.
The performance and speed of an aircraft can also be impacted by its weight. For instance, a heavy Airbus A380 will need more power than a lighter Airbus A320 to go at a given speed. The A380 will also have a lower top speed because it has more drag when it goes faster.
The type of engine an airplane has can also affect how fast it goes.
Jet engines, like the ones in the Boeing 777, are often used in bigger planes because they are more powerful and efficient than piston engines. Jet engines can produce a lot of thrust, which makes them suitable for flight at higher speeds.
Piston engines, like the ones used in a Cessna 172, are less powerful and efficient and are typically found in smaller, slower aircraft. They can only travel at modest speeds. This is why the Cessna 172 is such a popular trainer aircraft.
The density of the air can have a big effect on how fast a plane goes. Temperature, humidity, and air pressure are the main variables that impact the density of air.
We know airplanes need lift, right? A major factor in the production of lift is the air density, as denser air produces greater lift than less dense air. If the air is more dense because of high humidity or low air pressure, the wings will produce more lift. This makes it easier for the plane to stay airborne, and with the right conditions, it may even speed it up.
But if the air is less dense due to high air pressure or temperatures, the wings of the aircraft will provide less lift, making it harder for the plane to maintain altitude and possibly slowing it down.
The air would be less dense and produce less lift for the 747’s wings if it were a cold, dry day with low humidity and low air pressure. The 747 might find it harder to keep its height as a result, which could slow it down.
Wind conditions can significantly affect plane speed. The aircraft’s ground speed (the rate at which it crosses the ground), as well as its airspeed (the speed which it travels in the air), can be influenced by the direction and speed of the wind.
The effects of headwinds and tailwinds are one way that wind conditions can affect an airplane’s speed. A wind that blows in the same direction as the motion of the aircraft is known as a “tailwind,” and a wind that blows in the opposite direction is known as a “headwind.”
Headwinds can slow down a plane’s speed because they act against the plane’s movement.
A Boeing 747 flying at 500 mph with a 100 mph headwind will have a 400 mph ground speed. As the 747 fights against the headwind to keep its speed and altitude, it will also likely use more fuel.
Tailwinds can help an airplane move faster. For example, a Cessna 172’s ground speed will climb to 150 mph if it is flying at 100 mph with a 50 mph tailwind. Private pilots like me love a good tailwind because it saves fuel costs and moves them along faster!
Design also influences how fast an airplane can go. Aerodynamics come into play. This concerns things like where the engines are placed and the shape of the wings.
The shape of the wing has a big bearing on how much drag will be generated. The speed of an airplane can also be affected by where the engines are located.
The aircraft’s thrust and drag characteristics, which have an impact on its speed and performance, can be changed by where the engines are placed.
The aircraft’s overall aerodynamic design can also have an effect on speed. Take, for example, a fighter jet with a sleek, long shape. All other things being equal, it’ll be able to fly faster than a plane with a boxy, less aerodynamic shape.
Examples of Specific Aircraft Speeds
Let’s take a quick look at how fast planes go by the specific type of plane:
Passenger planes like the Boeing 747 or the Airbus A380 usually fly at 500 to 600 mph. They’re capable of going a bit faster but it’s more efficient to cruise at these speeds.
Military jets, like the F-16 Fighting Falcon or the F-35 Lightning II are built for high-speed flight. They travel at average speeds of up to 1,500 mph or more.
Small General Aviation Planes
These are planes that are used for a wide range of things, like business, pleasure, and personal travel. Small general aviation aircraft like the Piper PA-28 and Cessna 172 are a couple of examples. The normal cruising speed for these aircraft is between 100 and 200 mph.
A small Cessna 172 takes off and lands at approximately 70 MPH. You can read our suggestions for a good cruising altitude for a Cessna 172 here.
We’ve categorized the aircraft into small private, commercial airliners, and military. As you can see from the tables below, there is a very large range in top speeds between the various classifications of planes.
Top Speeds of Popular Small Private Aircraft
|Aircraft Name||Top Speed in MPH||Top Speed in KM/H||Top Speed in Knots|
|Diamond DA40 NG||177||285||154|
|Beechcraft G36 Bonanza||236||380||205|
|Mooney M20 Acclaim Ultra||279||448||242|
|Pilatus PC-12 NG||313||504||272|
|Piper Cherokee 140||143||230||124|
Top Speeds of Popular Commercial Airliners
|Aircraft Name||Top Speed in MPH||Top Speed in KM/H||Top Speed in Knots|
|Airbus A350 XWB||562||904||488|
|Boeing 787 Dreamliner||593||954||515|
|Sukhoi Superjet SSJ100||541||870||470|
Top Speeds of Popular Military Airplanes
|Aircraft Name||Top Speed in MPH||Top Speed in KM/H||Top Speed in Knots||Top Speed in Mach|
|F-16C/D Fighting Falcon||1,320||2,124||1,147||1.7|
|F-35A Lightning II||1,218||1,960||1,058||1.6|
|A-10C Thunderbolt II||420||676||365||0.5|
|C-17A Globemaster III||590||950||513||0.8|
|F-15E Strike Eagle||1,875||3,017||1,629||2.4|
The source for all of this data is the websites of the individual aircraft manufacturers. There might be minor differences due to conversion and also the different flight configurations regarding how top speeds are measured.
I’ve written even more about how fast do different Cessna aircraft fly in another article.
The US Air Force used the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird as a reconnaissance plane from 1964 to 1998. It is the fastest plane in terms of speed. Two jet engines inside the Blackbird, which was built for supersonic flight, allowed it to travel up to a staggering 2,193 mph. It had the fastest airspeed of any aircraft at the time, a title it kept for more than three decades before being retired in 1998.
But wait for it! The NASA X-43 (an unmanned hypersonic plane) is the fastest plane ever made. The scramjet engine that propelled the X-43, which was launched from the belly of a B-52 bomber, allowed it to travel up to an incredible 7,346 mph. In 2004, The X-43 broke the previous record by flying for 10 seconds at Mach 7 (5,224 mph).
Brief History On Airplane Speed
Changes in how planes are made over time have had a big effect on how fast they can go.
From the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 to the present day, aircraft designs have changed a lot, making it possible to fly faster and more efficiently.
The Wright Flyer, the Wright brothers’ first powered aircraft, could only reach a top speed of 35 mph and was propelled by a tiny gasoline engine.
The development of jet engines in the 1950s made it possible for planes to fly far faster than they had previously been able to.
These engines are much more efficient and powerful than piston engines, which used to be the most common type of engine in planes. Jet engines have made it possible for planes to fly at speeds of 600 mph or more.
In the 1950s, the invention of supersonic flight was another important step forward in aircraft design. Supersonic aircraft can travel at speeds greater than the speed of sound, which is roughly 767 mph. The Concorde was the first commercial passenger plane that could fly faster than sound. Concorde’s top speed was 1,354 mph, and while it was in use, it broke many speed records.
Units of Measurement
There are many different units to measure just how fast an airplane is going.
Knots, miles per hour (mph), and kilometers per hour (km/h) are a few of the most commonly used units of measurement.
The speed of ships and airplanes is typically measured in knots. One knot is equal to one nautical mile per hour. A nautical mile is slightly different from a standard mile. One knot is equivalent to around 1.15 standard miles per hour, since a nautical mile is 1.15 standard miles.
In many countries around the world (mostly Europe), the speed of a vehicle is often measured in kilometers per hour (km/h), which is a unit of speed. I know I’m stating the obvious here, but the distance covered in an hour at a pace of one kilometer per hour is equal to one kilometer per hour.
When flying at high speeds, safety needs to be an absolute priority.
When flying at high speeds, one of the most important safety factors is to think about the increased stress that speed puts on the plane’s airframe.
If the plane isn’t built to handle these additional forces, the plane could literally break apart in flight. That’s not good! To keep the plane and its passengers safe, pilots must be careful not to go over these limits. This is why there’s an “overspeed” warning in most planes.
Just because a plane can travel very fast, that doesn’t mean it has to all of the time. Military jets might be able to fly at 1,500 mph, but pilots might not be allowed to do so unless it’s important to the mission or for their own safety.
Here are some instances of how quickly airplanes actually fly in various scenarios:
An airplane will normally fly at a low speed during takeoff as it speeds down the runway and rises off the ground. The exact speed will depend on the size and weight of the plane, the length of the runway, and other factors.
A Boeing 747 might take off at a speed of about 170-180 mph, whereas a Cessna 172, a smaller aircraft, might take off at a speed of about 60-70 mph.
Once an airplane has reached its cruising altitude, it will usually fly at a fairly steady speed. The precise cruising speed will be determined by the aircraft’s size and type, as well as environmental factors like wind and air density.
A military jet like an F-16 may cruise at a speed of about 500–700 mph. A commercial airliner like the Boeing 777 may cruise at about 500–600 mph.
During a landing, an airplane will usually fly at a slow speed as it gets close to the runway and touches down. A Cessna 172 might land at a speed of about 60–70 mph, but a Boeing 747 might do so at a speed of about 170-180 mph.
The Future of Aviation
Future technological advances in propulsion systems, materials, and aerodynamics might result in future planes being able to travel faster.
Electric engines are getting much better and might soon overtake traditional engines in terms of performance.
The development of new materials, such as better composites, could make planes lighter and stronger, which could help them fly faster and better.
Developments in computational fluid dynamics might help to make future aircraft more aerodynamic and capable of flying faster.
The speed at which an airplane can fly depends on a number of factors, such as the design of the plane, engine type and environmental conditions.
Stay safe if you are a pilot, because “the only thing quicker than a speeding airplane is a crashing airplane,” as the saying goes. Safe travels!
The following video gives a good insight into how fast an airplane can really go!