Wondering how fast exactly planes fly? This post shares how fast various planes fly including passenger jets, military jets and cargo aircraft.
How fast do passenger jets fly?
Most jet aircraft fly at a Mach number of between Mach 0.75 and Mach 0.86. Mach number is the speed of the aircraft relative to the speed of sound. Mach 0.75 equates to 75% of the speed of sound. Similarly, Mach 0.86 refers to 86% of the speed of sound.
Passenger jets typically cruise at between 400-550knots true airspeed. As the aircraft climbs higher, the air is less dense and there is less total drag, so the aircraft is able to fly faster.
Passenger jets typically cruise between 35,000 and 42,000ft. 400kts is the equivalent of around 460miles per hour and 550knots is equals around 630miles per hour.
Factors that affect how fast a passenger jet flies includes
- Wind conditions
- Cruise attitude (the higher the aircraft flies, the faster it goes)
- Cost priority for the flight
How does wind affect how fast a passenger jet flies?
A head or tailwind will impact the ground speed of a passenger jet. A headwind will reduce the ground speed slowing the aircraft down, and a strong tailwind, with allow the aircraft to cruise at a faster ground speed, in turn flying faster.
How does altitude affect the speed of jet aircraft?
As altitude increases, so does the density of air which in turn (all things being equal) creates less air resistance or reduces drag. The reduction in drag as altitude increases is the reason that as a jet aircraft climbs, the faster it will be able to fly.
How does cost determine how fast a commercial jet flies?
The speed a passenger jet flies is also determined by the cost of fuel and other aircraft costs. Commercial jets do not fly as fast as they can all the time. For example, the Boeing B737-800 has a maximum cruise Mach number of M0.82 but typically cruises at between M0.75 and M0.78
It is extremely rare that a B737-800 will be flown as fast as possible in a passenger-carrying operation. The reason is that as the aircraft flies fast, a higher thrust setting is needed, which in turn requires more fuel and increases costs.
How fast a passenger jet flies is a compromise between getting to the destination at a reasonable time but also being economical in terms of fuel and engine wear. Running the engines at lower thrust settings prolongs engine life (reducing maintenance costs).
Sometimes circumstances dictate that the passenger jet is flown as fast as possible for operational reasons (e.g. the flight is severely delayed, the crew are approaching limits of their duty hours allowed for a given day – due to unforeseen circumstances like bad weather).
How is the speed of an aircraft measured
Airspeed is the crucial measure that pilots use to measure their speed and which they are mostly concerned with. Wings generate lift (and allow the aircraft to fly) by air going over the wings. As a basic measurement, airspeed is how aircraft speed is measured, typically in knots (kts)
How fast a jet flies is affected by the wind. Ground speed is the speed that the aircraft would travel across the ground. In still wind or zero wind, the airspeed is the same as the ground speed. A head or tailwind will either reduce or increase the actual speed travelled over the ground.
True air speed
True airspeed takes into account change in density (due to air being less dense as the aircraft climbs), instrument error (instruments are not perfect when reading airspeed) and compressibility error.
Compressibility error is the error that happens as aircraft speed gets above roughly 300kts (345mph) and the air ‘cannot get out of the aircraft’s way quickly enough’ so becomes compressed.
How fast does a plane go at take off?
A piston aircraft will take off between 55kts to 65kts (63mph/102kph to 75/120kph)
Turboprop aircraft take off between 90kts to 120kts (104mph/167kph to 138mph/222kph)
Most jet planes take off between 110 to 165kts or (127mph/204kph to 190mph/306kph)
The factors that affect how fast a plane goes on takeoff include weight, headwind, noise restrictions and weather.
The heavier an aircraft is, the faster it needs to go to generate enough lift over the wings to allow the plane to get airborne. This is why large passenger jets take off much faster than, for example, a Cessna would take off.
In the same way, a 747 has a takeoff speed of around 160kts (compared to a Boeing 737 of about 140kts) because the 737 weighs less than a Boeing 747.
Runway length is often a limitation as we cant have aircraft taking indefinite lengths of runway to take off, so most aircraft are fitted with flaps and slats to reduce the speed at which they take off and land.
Flaps and slats increase the wing area, which reduces the stall speed (the slowest speed an aircraft can fly), improving takeoff performance. Flaps and slats also enhance the low speed handling characteristics of the plane, making it easier to fly.
Flaps and slats do also increase drag, so for this reason, most aircraft retract the flaps once they get airborne to reduce drag and allow the plane to fly faster.
Plane take off speeds
V1 – Take off decision speed
V1 is the take off decision speed. The takeoff performance calculations are completed once the final figures are determined for a flight (passengers, cargo, fuel). The takeoff calculation will be based on local conditions to determine the take off decision speed.
The takeoff decision speed is the speed at which if a serious problem occurs (i.e. engine failure), there would be an insufficient amount of runway left to stop the aircraft. It would be safer to take the issue into the air in this case.
VR – Rotation speed
Rotation speed is the speed at which the pilot pulls back on the control column to raise the nose of the aircraft and start the initial climb.
Rotation speeds are determined during aircraft certification, where minimum unstick speeds (Vmu) are found by deliberately scraping the aircraft’s tail on the runway until it becomes airborne.
A safety factor is added to the minimum unstick speed, which then determines the aircraft’s rotation speed based on weight (amongst other factors) for normal operations.
Other factors, including terrain in the initial climb phase in determining take-off speeds, come into play.
If there is high terrain in the initial climb, although the airport may have a long runway, the aircraft would be weight limited for the take off. i.e. the plane would be restricted on the amount it can carry to ensure it has sufficient performance to clear the terrain.
V2 – Take off safety speed
V2 is the take off safety speed and is determined by the stall speed with a margin of safety applied to it. Aircraft will typically perform the initial part of the climb at a speed above V2. V2 guarantees the aircraft will climb safely and have a certain amount of roll control.
In the initial part of the climb (close to V2), the bank angle is normally limited to 15degrees. The reasoning for this is to reduce the risk of stall close to the ground.
How weather affects how fast a plane will go at takeoff
Temperature and wind are significant factors determining how fast a plane will take off. Higher temperatures make the air ‘less dense’, so the aircraft will need a faster take off speed to get airborne.
Having a headwind for take off will reduce the ground distance needed for take off and reduce the take-off roll’s ground speed. Taking off with a tailwind will increase the ground speed (and runway length) required to take off.
One of the limiting factors when trying to take off with a tailwind can be the maximum energy the brakes can absorb in the event of a rejected take off close to V1.
Elevation on how fast a plane will take off
The high elevation also reduces the air density, so the aircraft will need to fly faster to be able to get airborne. The reduced density of high elevation airports around the equator makes them challenging to get airborne from, particularly when warmer temperatures are thrown into the mix.
How fast does a plane go at landing?
Most jet aircraft land between 125kts to 150kts (144mph/231kph to 173mph/278kph).
Turboprop aircraft land between 80kts to 110kts.
Light piston aircraft land between 50kts to 65kts.
Aircraft will try and land as slowly as possible to reduce the landing distance required, minimise brake wear, and vacate the runway in the minimum amount of time.
Like how fast planes go during take off, weight affects how fast planes go during landing.
The higher the weight, the faster the landing will be as the weight increases the aircraft’s stall speed.
Leading-edge and trailing edge devices through flaps and slats reduce the landing speed.
Having flaps and slats has the additional benefit of increasing drag which helps the aircraft slow down for landing and reduces the amount of runway needed for the plane to come to a stop.
The flap setting also alters how fast a plane goes on landing. On the Boeing 737, for example, the aircraft normally lands at either flap 30 or flap 40. the difference in have fast the plane lands between these flap settings is around 10-15kts for a flap 40 landing vs a flap 30 landing.
Although a flap 40 landing offers a lower landing speed, flap 30 has slightly less drag, reducing fuel consumption and noise doing the final stages of the approach.
How fast does a 747 fly in mph
The maximum operating speed of a 747 is 705.89mph. This is Mach 0.92. Most 747’s will typically cruise between Mach 0.82 to 0.86 which equates to around 630mph to 660mph
Can a plane fly at 1000 mph
Planes can fly at 1000 mph. Excellent examples of planes that could fly at 1000 mph include:
- Lockheed SR71 Blackbird (2193.2mph)
- Concorde (1341mph)
- Most supersonic fighter jets
What is the slowest a plane can fly
The slowest an aircraft can fly is the stall speed. The stall speed is the speed at which a critical angle of attack is reached – the angle between the airflow and wing incidence. Reach the critical angle of attack and the airflow over the wings starts to break down and become turbulent.
Without smooth airflow being generated over the wings, lift (that allows the aircraft to fly) is diminished and the aircraft is no longer able to fly.
A stall is when the aircraft is no longer producing lift to allow the aircraft to fly. One of the main indicators of the stall is described as the pre-stall buffet.
The stall speed of the aircraft depends on the weight of the aircraft. The slowest small piston engine aircraft can fly will be just above its stall speed. This can be as slow as 45knots or 52miles per hour.
In situations where there is a really strong headwind that exceeds the groundspeed, some aircraft can actually fly backwards!
Modern passenger jets typically have a stall speed of around 115kts in a landing configuration (depending on weight) which is around 132miles per hour. Flying close to the stall speed is not the safest mainly because of control difficulties.
The slowest a passenger jet will fly will be at its final approach speeds which will be around 130kts (150miles per hour).
Why do planes not fly at full speed?
Planes do not fly at full speed because it would be expensive to do so (as speed increases, more thrust is needed increasing fuel consumption and cost). The other problem with flying at full speed is that the fastest speed an aircraft can fly is normally an aerodynamic structural limit.
Fly any faster than the maximum operating speed and there is a good chance of encountering flutter, which could cause structural damage or control issues to the aircraft.
Planes avoid flying too close to the maximum speed they are allowed to operate as not to exceed their aerodynamic speed limits. In smooth conditions, one can get fairly close to the maximum speed, but when conditions are turbulent it is best to leave some margin from the maximum operating speed allowed.
What is the fastest jet
The fastest jet used to be the Lockheed SR71 Blackbird (2193.2mph or Mach 3.3).
Since the Lockheed SR71 retired, the fastest jet in the world today is the MiG-25 Foxbat (2,190mph)
Do cargo planes fly faster
Cargo planes may fly faster than commercial jets where they are carrying time-critical and commercially sensitive cargo. Typically cargo planes are variants of commercial passenger aircraft so would have similar speeds to passenger commercial aircraft.
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Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 pilot with over 2,500 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.