Reaching for the skies, these third-generation fighters were ahead of the game in design. But it’s speed that counts and Military planes have always been the fastest.
Generations of jet fighters are hard to differentiate. From WW2 Messerschmitt 262 designers raced to overcome the limits of wings and engines. Bigger engines help, but so too does weight and the airframe itself. Swept wings are mandatory, as are afterburners to break the sound barrier.
Loosely defined by major advances in technology is where jet-fighter generations fall. Although these definitions are not concrete leading to some cross-generational designs. The English Electric Lightning is a good example.
Fast beyond belief thanks to twin engines, the Lighting at Mach 2.27 falls under the second-generation heading. In theory, a third-generation fighter “should” be superior to its predecessor. Except it isn’t guaranteed older MiGs on occasion have outperformed newer ones, ouch!
Confined to a single generation, speed is by far the best benchmark. These are the fastest third-generation jet fighters.
10/10: Shenyang J-8B Finback (Mach 1.8)
China’s first home-produced supersonic fighter? In some respects, yes, if you discount the fact the J-8 stemmed from a modernization of the MiG-21F. First shown in 1960, the J-8 appeared in various forms over two decades, with the J-8B taking to the skies in 1984. Late to the party, the J-8B was a third gen fighter while the competition had moved on.
Despite a design dating back to the early 1960s, the J-8 is a capable third gen fighter. Powered by twin Guizhou WP-13B engines with afterburners, the J-8 top out at Mach 1.8.
9/10: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (Mach 2)
Starfighter, the name alone sounds fast and deadly. In reality that’s exactly what Lockheed delivered. A single-seat missile-like tube with short stubby wings and a reputation for speed at a price. That price? A less than forgiving pitch-up attitude at high loads that claimed dozens of lives.
But for pure speed, the F-104 was matchless and could sustain Mach 2 in level flight. Unlike its peers, the F-14 used a single-engine design powered by General Electrics J-79.
8/10: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Fishbed (Mach 2.05)
The first Soviet-era speed machine on this list. The Mig-21 despite its third-gen debut in 1959 is still flown today, although its dated avionics make it one to avoid flying into combat with. Mikoyan-Gurevich’s basic design stemmed from a need for a fighter to counter the US F-104.
Introduced in 1959, MiG-21s chalked up 165 confirmed kills between 1965-72. Yet, the plane’s safety record is less than impressive. Since 1970, IAF-operated MiG-21s have claimed the lives of 170 pilots.
7/10: Republic F-105 Thunderchief (Mach 2.1)
An unsung hero of the Vietnam conflict, the Republic F-105 first flew in 1955 and operated up until 1984. Unlike previous U.S. designs, the F-105 used a wing-root air-intake system to feed its J75 engine.
As a workaround for cooling issues, the F-105 used a water injection system for its engine. Despite the limitations imposed by its design, the F-105 was unmatchable at low levels.
6/10: Dassault Mirage III (Mach 2.2)
Outside the myriad of third-gen fighters from the US, China, and Russia sits the Mirage III. First flown in 1958, the French supersonic fighter has gone from strength to strength. Oddly, Dassault Aviation followed up with the F1 a decade later. Key to the Mirage III’s success was a delta wing and SNECMA Atar 09C turbojet engine.
Sixty years later and the Mirage III is still flying. Punching well above its weight, this single-engine jet boasts Mach 2.2 performance. Despite a planned 1500 hours of flying time, most Mirage IIIs have doubled that figure.
5/10: McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom (Mach 2.23)
Coming in fourth place with an impressive Mach 2.23 performance, the F-4 Phantom is the most famous jet here. Designed to operate from land or sea, the F-4 was a two-seat supersonic fighter. By comparison, its size and weight dwarf all but the fastest third-gen fighters at 61,000 lbs at full load.
Again General Electric J79s steal the show. Punching out 17,485 lbs of thrust each, helping the Phantom set 16 records for speed, altitude, and climb.
4/10: Convair F-106 Delta Dart (Mach 2.3)
Proving good jet-fighter designs don’t age, the F-106 Delta Dart served with the USAF until 1980. This is an impressive statement considering the F-15 Eagle entered service in 1976. Six months into service the Delta Dart set the aviation world ablaze by posting a speed record of 1525 mph.
For a world-beater, it comes as a surprise to learn the F-106 uses a single Pratt & Whitney J75 rated at 24,500 lbs of thrust. Retired in 1980 by the USAF, NASA continued to operate the Delta Dart until 1998.
3/10: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 Flogger (Mach 2.35)
Although the MiG-23 first flew in 1970, this Mach 2.35 fighter wasn’t an immediate success story. The complexities of variable geometry and technical issues were a major concern. None so worrisome as the first batch of Turmansky R29 engined fighters. Overheating and engine failures were rife.
With time and testing came durability and performance. In testing, the MiG-23 could climb 45,000 per minute achieving Mach 2.35 at altitude. But, longevity hasn’t been forthcoming. The Flogger retired earlier than planned, even earlier than its predecessor the MiG-21.
2/10: General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark (Mach 2.5)
The ultimate third-generation speed machine. General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark is the fastest jet fighter here. Despite the “F” designation, the F-111 diverges from convention with a tandem two-seat cockpit. Make no mistake, the Aardvark is one of the largest fighters to fly.
Yet, size is not an issue. Operating from tree-top level through to a 60,000 ceiling this awesome jet is a potent machine. With 50,000 lbs of thrust from two Pratt & Whitney T30 engines catching, the F-111 is challenging.
1/10: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat
The fastest and baldest Cold War fighter to take to the skies. The Foxbat is a legend for one thing alone, speed. Designed to counter the SR-71 Blackbird, this soviet behemoth used brute force to reach Mach 3.2. In practice, pilots were instructed to limit speeds to Mach 2.8 for fear of damaging the engines.
Despite a performance limitation and aged design, the Foxbat remains unbeaten since. At 80,000 lbs full load, this giant’s bulk is more like a flying fuel tank with 70% of its weight given over to tankage. Even so, with two Turmansky R-15B engines at its disposal, the Foxbat is the interceptor no pilot wants to see.