How fast is Mach 10?

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Mach 10 is a benchmark in aircraft engineering, a velocity no manned jet has ever achieved, until the world of Top Gun: Maverick introduces the experimental and perilous Darkstar jet. Collaborating with Lockheed Martin, the film’s producers crafted a stunningly sleek and realistic design for this theoretical aircraft, purportedly capable of soaring beyond Mach 10. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, portrayed by Tom Cruise, briefly pilots the jet, hitting Mach 10.2 during a test run in the movie.

In the dialogue, Maverick’s friend, Hondo, exclaims, “He’s the fastest man alive,” highlighting the breathtaking speed at which Maverick appears to travel.

Yet, how fast did he truly go?

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In the context of Mach numbers, indicating the speed of an object relative to the speed of sound, Mach 1 signifies the speed of sound (767 mph at sea level). Each successive Mach number represents a multiple of the speed of sound, with Mach 2 at twice the speed (1534 mph), and so forth. Maverick’s purported Mach 10.2 equates to a staggering 7826 mph. If sustained, this velocity would allow circumnavigating the Earth’s equator in just three hours.

However, the feasibility of achieving Mach 10 presents immense challenges. At this velocity, an aircraft teeters between hypersonic and high-hypersonic speeds, grappling with severe thermal control issues akin to those faced during space vehicle re-entry. Designing an aircraft capable of handling the intense heat generated at these speeds necessitates expertise akin to rocket science.

Moreover, the human body’s endurance under such extreme conditions poses a critical obstacle. The G-forces experienced during acceleration at Mach 10 would be monumental. While an average person withstands around 6 Gs briefly, highly trained fighter pilots condition themselves for up to 9 Gs in short bursts to execute high-speed maneuvers.

However, prolonged exposure to the sickening G-forces at Mach 10 would likely cause a pilot to black out within seconds, endangering both pilot and aircraft. In reality, only unmanned aerial vehicles approach Mach 10. The North American X-15, the fastest manned aircraft to date, achieved Mach 6.7 in 1967, significantly slower than Maverick’s cinematic feat.

Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s airborne escapades in the film may push the boundaries of velocity, but the challenges and limitations of achieving Mach 10 underscore the vast disparities between cinematic portrayals and real-world aeronautical capabilities.