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I'm working on a novel that, as part of the backstory, requires samples of a biological agent to be flown from Incirlik Air Base to labs across Europe, and then finally from the UK to the US.

In the context of the story, time is critical. Using any currently available aircraft (large or small, civil or military, US or allied etc.), what is the shortest flight time that could realistically be achieved?

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    $\begingroup$ Would an ICBM launch be acceptable ? It's most certainly the fastest way to get there. After this, the fastest way would be fighter jets if refueling is available, or bomber if not. $\endgroup$ – Antzi Jul 17 '15 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ One thing to consider is how far your labs are from the airport(s) that can handle your choice of plane. For instance, you fly across the Atlantic to JFK in 3 hours, then spend 4-5 hours stuck in New York traffic. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 17 '15 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ How big is the sample though? If it's a big container then you'd have to have at least a second seat to put it in. Plus, if you're going for ultra plausible, I think you need to consider what aircraft are going to be available for the mission you are talking about. Both in terms of geographical proximity, and how long it takes to prep the plane and how willing the air force will be to let you use it... $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Jul 23 '15 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @JayCarr: Right, and don't forget the time it takes to get the tanker into its position. It needs to take off 3 hours before the F-22 to be ready, and this should be added to the mission time, too. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jul 24 '15 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - traffic? Get the appropriate people remotely scared and of course the transatlantic flight would be met by a helicopter to shuttle the sample to the receiving lab $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton May 5 at 1:13
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The fastest air-breathing aerodynamic-lift craft for which a maximum speed is known to civilians, and that can support mid-air refueling for an unlimited range, is the SR-71 Blackbird at Mach 3.3. However, all known airframes of this model have been retired and mothballed as museum pieces, and the SR-71 runs on a special blend of jet fuel called JP-7 that is no longer in use by any production aircraft (the sole remaining use is for the X-51 scramjet testbed). So not only would you have to get the planes airworthy again (which would include repairing or replacing the wing spars, which were cut specifically to ensure the planes would never fly again), you'd need a batch of JP-7 at both ends and likely a tanker in the air full of it to use a Blackbird for this hop.

The fastest aircraft readily available and best suited for the job would likely be the F-22 Raptor. It can cruise at Mach 1.82 in clean configuration without afterburners (the samples could be contained in a "personal effects pod" carried in the internal bays), and has a one-way range of about 2,000 miles between refuelings.

The Eurofighter Typhoon can supercruise at Mach 1.5 and would be a good second choice or even a first choice, seeing as most of western Europe has these in service. You wouldn't have to get an F-22 over to Europe from an airbase in the States or the Middle East; there's a couple of RAF garrisons that operate the Typhoon about 30 minutes from Heathrow in Lincolnshire, and you only lose a few hundred miles an hour on the one-way trip.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, I had considered exactly the scenario you describe with an F-22 with drop tanks and internal travel pod. I wasn't sure how long it could sustain supercruise so I didn't know if there was perhaps a better tortoise option to the F-22's hare. Regular supercruise dashes and refuelling across the Atlantic sounds like the best solution, I'll just guesstimate how long it would take. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – MG1981 Jul 17 '15 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ Well, Mach 1.82 at cruising altitude of 30,000 feet is about 1235 mph. London's Heathrow to NY's JFK airport is 3741 miles, so if it supercruised the entire way at this speed it would make it in about 3 hours. With added time to get up and down, load and unload, plus it would need a midair refueling stop, you're probably talking about 4 hours realistically for a Raptor to get from Heathrow to JFK. That's about half the time it would take an airliner like a 777 or 787, but as I said this assumes a Raptor is just sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow; the Eurofighter could probably do it in 5 hours. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 17 '15 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ What's the highest speed one modified SR-71 could mid-air refuel another SR-71, and what would this fuel transfer modification look like? $\endgroup$ – qq jkztd Nov 23 '17 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ @qqjkztd - Highly implausible; "buddy refueling" is almost always reserved for dedicated elements of a larger package that head out alongside the combat units fully loaded with droptanks. Only way it makes any sense, and even then not really anymore; you lose a lot of fuel just lining everyone up to take a drink. The A-6 used to do this a lot for carrier-based strike packages, but that airframe's since been retired. Super Hornets can do it if they have to, but having a drogue-outfitted KC-10 (or the newer 767-based KC-46) on station from the Air Force is by far the preferable option. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jan 9 '18 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ Why were they so determined to keep the Blackbirds from ever flying again? $\endgroup$ – Sean May 5 at 0:33
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If you prefer something more realistic and readily available, go with the fastest business jet, the Cessna Citation X, or if you need a little more range, the Gulfstream 650. The Cessna can cruise at Mach 0.935 over maybe 3000 miles (officially 3460 nm, but certainly a little less when flown at top speed), and the G650 has a range of 6000 nm at Mach 0.925. Thanks to @Lnafziger for helping with the facts. Bonus: Both are useable from a lot more airstrips than any airliner.

The flying time from London to New York will be less than 5 hours - still quite a bit faster than flying with an airline. By the way, the airliner record on this route is still held by the Vickers VC-10 with a tad above 5 hours. If you go from London to Boston, the Cessna will have just enough range, for all other routes I recommend the Gulfstream.

The bureaucratic procedure for making an F-22 available will give your protagonist ample time to cross the Atlantic dozens of times in a business jet. Add to this the stationing of a refueling tanker in the middle of the Atlantic (hint: That alone takes more time than what the F-22 needs to fly the full distance, so its realistic mission time will easily double).

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the link on Gulfstream 650, that is truly an amazing aircraft, with a range of 13,000 km non-stop... $\endgroup$ – Firee Jul 25 '15 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ Actually the cruise figure of Mach .935 for the Citation Ten is more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. It’s true the airplane can achieve that speed but at the expense of clogging the crap out of the engines and very high fuel consumption. Max cruise is at Mach .90. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Nov 24 '17 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ A novel featuring a "biological agent" is almost certainly one where the people who can scramble fighters on a courier mission (and tankers to meet them) are going to be sufficiently worried to do so. The premise of the question explicitly included military assets. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton May 5 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ @dalearn: Thank you for letting me know. Cessna has discontinued the X because of poor sales, so they took the page down. I replaced the volatile corporate link with a more stable one. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf May 5 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisStratton Does being worried magically position tankers south of Greenland within the flight time of a supercruising F-22? Ah - I thought so! $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf May 6 at 8:20
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The shortest on record (and more or less possible) was done in an SR-71 Blackbird

Exactly 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds later, they had set a new world speed record from New York to London England. The average speed was 1,807 statute mph over the 3,461 statute mile course

The Concorde set a commercial record and is the fastest practical plane you could get ahold of

on 7 February 1996 by British Airways' G-BOAD in 2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds from takeoff to touchdown aided by a 175 mph (282 km/h) tailwind

The Areon company is working on a super sonic biz jet but it has not yet been released. For what its worth the SR-71 and Concorde are both no longer flying.

If we are talking about a science fiction setting there are faster "aircraft" out there like the X-15 rocket plane (the fastest maned in atmosphere vehicle ever built, however not air breathing) as well as many of the other planes from the X-Plane program. You could use any of the specs (or similar specs) to make up a plane of your choosing. For reference the fastest contraption we have dreamed up to date is the X-43 which clocks in at about 7000 MPH however it is un-maned.

For an added bonus effect (for realism) you can throw in something about needing to cool the biological agent in transit, in the plane since high speed planes (like the Blackbird) get very very hot at speed due to air friction.

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Project Blackstar's speed (and very existence) is classified.

You can probably assume it can go Mach 6+ for sci-fi purposes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Although the novel does contain one or two sci-fi elements I'm trying to keep the rest of the content grounded and realistic by comparison, so Project Blackstar might come across as a little too speculative under the circumstances. Thanks though. $\endgroup$ – MG1981 Jul 17 '15 at 17:10
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This depends on how much warning you have beforehand.

  • Fighters like the F-22 and Typhoon can't do the flight without refueling. The shortest route is Halifax-Reykjavik, at 2000 miles this is just about doable by F-22. That means a stop, or you have to use mid-air refueling.

  • Mid-air refueling requires a tanker to arrive in the middle of the ocean to meet up with the fighter. If there's a few hours' notice, the tanker can set off at 900 km/h a few hours before the fighter with the samples takes off. If there's no notice, you can't do that.

If your story takes place in 2013, the fastest airliner back then was the Vickers VC-10. This could do the distance without refueling in 5 hours. It's now out of service. Current airliners are a bit slower.

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  • $\begingroup$ Worst case, let's say you're flying from UAB to ATL to meet a helicopter to the CDC. Look at the great circle route and it's obvious that a slower tanker out of either the UK or Iceland has plenty of time if promptly launched or re-purposed to get in position to meet partway. Launch a second or third tanker out of the eastern US or Canada to intercept. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton May 5 at 1:10
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Getting moving now is often more valuable than moving fast.

I'm assuming this is a surprise, and the scientist runs into the ready room and say "I gotta go right now" Otherwise, if the move is expected and nation-states have a couple days to pre-position airplanes, then it's just too easy - Russian Blackjacks are stationed only a couple hours away at Engels AFB, and it would be easy enough to get B-1-B's from the US.


So you are probably better off going Right Now with aircraft already on base, rather than wait for a fast aircraft to be marshaled from somewhere else.

And you're in luck. That base has loads of KC-135's, which (with its 707 brother) are as fast as jetliners get, flying Mach 0.9. It'd fly at max speed and pay the fuel-economy penalty for doing so; fuel isn't a problem since it's a tanker.

And they're roughly the size of a 737/A320, so lots of airports can handle them. That matters because they can fly the cargo closer to the actual destination.

It defeats the purpose of flying supersonic if the supersonic aircraft can only land at an airport an hour further away by road.

The base also has F-15s good for 3000 miles one-way at best ferry speed. However, Berlin/London is 1500/2000 miles distance, so that's not a lot of extra fuel to be doing a whole lot of supersonic flight. Probably not worth the trouble, unless the F-15 was ready to go right now and the KC-135 was not.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you trying to argue there are runways that can handle a 707 but not a fighter? Also you would be meeting a helicopter for the final transfer to the receiving lab. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton May 6 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisStratton No. I'm referring to that subset of strategic bombers that can fly faster than the 707 (and hence would be worth taking instead of the 707): Blackjack, B-1, maybe Tu-22M. Those are NOT optimized for short-field performance, since they're kept at few, well controlled bases where H-bombs can be secured. Could be true about fighters though; yes, some are made for guerilla-tier war where they're landing on farm roads and parking in barns; others are hyper-performance airport queens. F-15 seems to be the latter. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 6 at 18:53
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The "White Swan" (Tupolev Tu-160) is the largest and heaviest Mach 2+ supersonic military aircraft ever built. It can reach 2,220 km/h but it is not clear what is the range at this speed. It can however cruise at 960 km/h for 12,300 km so could deliver the payload non stop, or alternatively make stops only as required by the plot.

Or let it run out of fuel while speeding at Mach 2 and it could pass the payload to F-22 arriving from another side, in some place where the both can land. F-22 could arrive a little earlier and be ready again at the time Tu-160 lands.

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