I've been wondering for awhile to myself, how long can one stay supersonic? How long before one ran out of fuel? What would the issues of staying supersonic be (aside from control)?


3 Answers 3


Depends on how much fuel that they have on board. You're not gonna be able to hold wing tanks or a centerline tank on that jet and still be able to fly supersonic, so we will have to assume that we can only use internal fuel. In a Block 50/52 F-16C, the jet holds about 7200 pounds of internal fuel with the tanks topped off. In full afterburner, the jet's F100 or F110 engine is burning approximately 800 pounds of fuel per minute. This gives a maximum of approx. nine minutes of flight time in full afterburner. So you have at most nine minutes of supersonic dash available to you.

As mentioned above, while an F-16 is capable of a maximum speed of Mach 2, it can't do this unless it's in a clean configuration, that is, it does not have any external stores on the jet which create a lot of parasite drag and prevents supersonic flight with ordnance on board. Typical mission speeds are high subsonic (500-600 KTAS) for cruise and combat maneuvering. Usually afterburning is utilized for brief periods in order to quickly accelerate the jet, such as to shorten takeoff distances, or to quickly replenish energy which has been bled off during maneuvering. Supersonic dash can be used to egress a FLOT or airspace deep inside enemy territory once, say a bombing mission is complete and you have been informed by an E-3 that there are enemy fighters scrambling towards your position. You jettison the external stores, save maybe a pair of AIM-9s or AIM-120s on the wingtip rails, push open the throttle and run like hell - and hope it's enough that you can make it to a friendly airbase or a tanker in time!

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    $\begingroup$ OK for the nine minutes in full afterburner, but does the f-16 need full afterburner to stay supersonic? I'm not sure it can perform supercruise (I may be mistaken), but after going supersonic, (i) it may take time to go back in subsonic after shutting down the afterburner and (ii) it may stay supersonic with less than full afterburner. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Oct 26, 2016 at 11:39
  • $\begingroup$ @ManuH i.e., how long can the F-16 "coast" while supersonic? Hit the burners, get to M1.3 (for example), shut down to flight idle, how long before the needle drops below M1... $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Oct 26, 2016 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ While the time seems not unreasonable, are you sure this fuel burn is at the altitude and not static? There will be dramatic difference between the two. And, as @Mahu mentioned, it is likely that F-16 is speed limited not by power but by other constraints (in most of its envelope). $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Oct 27, 2016 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ You can absolutely go supersonic in an F-16 while carrying wing tanks and ordnance. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Cowan
    Oct 30, 2016 at 5:22
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    $\begingroup$ If you can, it's pretty limited - say Mach 1.05 or so. I'd need the performance charts on the jet with the drag indexes, specific ordnance loadout, etc. But external stores create a tremendous amount of parasite drag on the airplane. $\endgroup$ Oct 30, 2016 at 12:43

Fuel is one limitation, structural limits are another one. Fighters with good all-around view usually feature rounded canopy designs. This may lead to a stagnation point to be located on the canopy structure. Stagnation points are characterized by zero flow velocity, the kinetic energy of the flow is converted into inner energy of the fluid. As result, the fluid temperature is drastically increased. Canopy material and Mach number determine the period this temperature load can be sustained.

As reference, check aircraft designs like SR-71, Mig-25, or Concorde whose mission is characterized by permanent supersonic operation. These designs often feature flat, angled cockpit windows to avoid stagnation points.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't worry about the materials. The simple pitot intake is what limits the F-16 to about Mach 1.6 - go faster and intake efficiency tanks. With full AB you barely make it to Mach 2, for a short while. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2016 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ "Don't worry about the materials." Did you take that from the de Havilland handbook for Comet engineers? Seriously $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Oct 27, 2016 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ "Don't worry about the materials." Did you take that from the de Havilland handbook for Comet engineers? Seriously, just because maximum performance is limited by one fact does not mean that performance endurance is limited by another fact. The limitation of the canopy temperature is caused by cumulated thermal loads, thus depends on the period of exposure. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Oct 27, 2016 at 9:44

According to a post by SCPanda on this site, the F-16 can attain supersonic speed without afterburner:

You can, and I have done it several times after I finished my missions and was flying back home.


Full throttle without the burner

Clean loadout but with LAU-129s of course.

Fuel normally below 5000 lbs (which is a lot in the viper, it can stay in the air for a long time with 5k lbs if you know how to manage your fuel).

Altitude was around 20k to 25k.

Then fly straight and level and watch the mach value, it will go above 1 mach.

If that F-16 was a version with an F100-PW-220 engine, the specific fuel burn at full military power would be 0.73 lb/(lbf * h). So with 5,000 lbs in the tanks and maximum thrust of 14,590 pounds-force without afterburner, the plane would burn through the fuel in 5,000*60 /(0.73 * 14,590) = 28 minutes

Minus some time to reach M=1 and some fuel for landing...about 20 minutes (?)


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