A little while back, Fighter Sweep ask asked about what it’s really like to take a fighter up above the Mach barrier. We asked C.W. Lemoine, author and former F-16 and F/A-18 pilot to break it down for us. Here’s what he had to say:

Dear Fightersweep,
What’s it like going supersonic? That has to be an awesome feeling.

You’re not the first person to ask this, Mr. Speed, Need4. This is probably one of the most common questions people ask when I tell them I fly fighters (How do you know you’re talking to a fighter pilot? Just wait, they’ll tell ya!). Everyone thinks breaking the sound barrier and maintaining supersonic speeds involves a certain level of excitement, danger, and hair-on-fire-ness.

If you’re a pretty lady, stop reading right here. All those things are true, and in fact, going supersonic is a feat of strength that few mere mortals have accomplished. Also, how you doin?

For everyone else, the truth is, it’s not. In fact, breaking the Mach is barely noticeable in a modern fighter. It’s just another number in the HUD.

In Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), there used to be a dedicated “Zoom and Boom” ride where students would go out, climb up to 40,000 ft or so and exceed the mach for the first time.

Ask a Fighter Pilot: What's it like to fly supersonic?
An Air Force Test Pilot School T-38C passes in front of the sun at a supersonic speed, creating shockwaves that are caught photographically for research. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Ken Ulbrich)

By the time I got to pilot training, that ride was gone. My first experience at supersonic flight was me being a dumb student solo in the area. Apparently doing aileron rolls in blower whilst pointed at the ground will result in unintentional supersonic flight. Doh. Who knew?

In both the F-16 and F/A-18 communities, exceeding the Mach is something we do on a pretty regular basis. The Viper does it much more easily than the Hornet. The fastest I ever went in the Viper was 800 knots and Mach 1.86. I’ve seen right at 1.6 in the Hornet. Other than looking at the airspeed indicator and going “Oh cool” and then looking at the fuel flow and going “oh damn” it really wasn’t much of anything.

It’s all about perspective. At altitude, there’s no sensation of speed. There’s nothing to reference. I’ve seen 900+ knot (1000+ mph) groundspeeds while flying, but it looks no different than 400 knots because there’s no reference. Flying 540 knots (or even 300) at 250 ft AGL through mountains? That’s where things get sporty. You definitely get a better sense of how fast you’re going.


Feature image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense

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