In the world of aviation, one bit of universal advice is “don’t get shot down.” Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. The aircraft on this list are some of the most difficult to bring down. They represent cutting-edge modern technology as well as planes from history.
There are many different reasons why an aircraft may have made this list. Some of them are exceptionally fast, others are highly maneuverable and others are tough as nails. Many of them are all three.
The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the A-10 Warthog, is a single seat, straight-wing jet that was developed for the United States Air Force by Fairchild-Republic. It was designed for close air support of ground troops. It was built to be beefy. The pilot is shielded with titanium and its systems are redundant, meaning it can still fly even if important components are destroyed.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a modern stealth plane that has an insanely small radar cross-section. For comparison, the F-15 has a cross section of about 25 square meters. The Lightning II has a cross section of about .005 square meters, about half the size of a songbird. It was designed for both ground attack and air superiority purposes. The US Marines declared them ready for deployment in July of 2015. They are cutting-edge fifth generation aircraft whose development have been burdened with major budgetary overruns and technical problems. It is the most expensive military weapons program in history, drawing major criticism from many quarters.
The Ilyushin Il-2 was a ground-attack aircraft used by the USSR during World War II. Over 36 thousand of them were built during the war. They were so strategically critical to the Soviet war effort that Stalin called them “as essential to the Red Army as air and bread.” It was a relatively simple design, allowing it to be mass produced. The aircraft earned the nickname “Flying Tank” for its ability to take significant damage and still land safely. It featured an innovative armor plating system that made the plane unusually robust. They were one of the most-produced aircraft in history.
Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk
The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a stealth attack aircraft that was developed as a secret project by Lockheed for the United States Air Force. It was the first operational stealth aircraft, and took its first flight in 1981. The public was not made aware of it until 1988. One was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in 1999 but it was the only Nighthawk ever shot down in its entire history, thanks to its advanced stealth capabilities. The Nighthawk was finally retired in 2008, replaced by the F-22 Raptor.
The Soviet Orland 904 is one of the hardest planes to shoot down ever designed, thanks to its ability to fly at exceptionally low altitudes – sometimes as low as five feet off the ground. This places it below the detection window of most radar systems. It’s also below the floor of tracking missiles.
The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is a twin-engine tactical fighter that was designed for air supremacy. It first took flight in 1972 and entered service in 1976. It boasts more than a hundred aerial combat victories and zero losses. It is heavily used by the Israeli Air Force.
F-15 Eagle (Continued)
There could be no greater testament to the F-15’s worthiness of inclusion on this list than an incident in 1983, in which an Israeli F-15 Eagle collided mid-air with an A-4 Skyhawk during a training exercise. The Skyhawk exploded (its pilot ejected safely) and the F-15 landed safely despite missing an entire wing.
The XB-70 Valkyrie was a six-engine aircraft that could fly at mach 3 despite being monstrously heavy. It was designed to evade Soviet interceptors, as well as to be able to escape the blast zone of nuclear weapons it might drop. There were only two ever built and neither was shot down.
The Northrop B-2 Spirit, nicknamed the Stealth Bomber, is a stealth aircraft designed for the United States by Northrop. It features a flying wing design and is capable of carrying atomic weapons. It has a very low-observability profile and can fly at high altitude, making it exceptionally difficult to target and hit.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
The Blackbird is a long-range reconnaissance aircraft that was developed in secret by Lockheed in the sixties. It flew at high altitudes and high speeds. It was fast enough to outrace most missiles. Standard operating procedure if a surface-to-air missile was launched at it was just to hit the gas. The U.S. Air Force stopped using Blackbirds in 1998.
Air Force One
Air Force One is, famously, the plane that carries the president. Many different aircraft have been designated Air Force One. The current iteration is equipped with radar-disrupting electronic jamming measures and flares to trick heat-seeking missiles. It’s also attended by a phalanx of supporting jet fighters wherever it flies.
The Raptor is one of the most advanced, dominant air superiority fighters in the world. It has a stealth profile, is insanely fast, is extremely maneuverable and even increases the “survivability” rating of other aircraft through its ability to collect and immediately share important tactical data.
Also called the “Frogfoot,” the Sukhoi Su-25 Grach was designed as a Soviet answer to the American Warthog jet. For a time, it was extremely difficult to destroy thanks to the lower half of its cockpit being encased in welded titanium armor. However, its twin engines were designed dangerously close together, making them susceptible to the Stinger missiles the United States equipped the Mujahadeen with during the proxy war in Afghanistan.
The Junkers Cl.I was one of the toughest aircraft ever developed. It was made in Germany during the first World War. It featured a metal framework skinned with sheets of duralumin. The Cl.I was so tough that after the war, Allied forces found some of them left to decay, covered in snow, for months. They still flew.
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
The Thunderbolt was a fighter aircraft used by the United States during WWII. It was nicknamed “Jug,” short for “Juggernaut,” for its extreme weight and toughness. There were about 15,600 Thunderbolts manufactured during the War, for good reason. Despite their weight and size, they were very fast, and packed serious firepower.
B17 Flying Fortress
The B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engine heavy bomber that was used by the United States Army Air Corps. It was the third-most produced bomber in history, outpaced by the B-24 and the Ju 88. It was fast and flew at high altitude, and was renowned for its toughness. They could weather significant damage and still land safely.
This fighter-bomber was used in both WWII and the Korean War. It was instrumental in securing air superiority for Allied forces during WWII. In total, the Mustang destroyed an estimated 4,950 enemy aircraft thanks to its high maneuverability and formidable speed. Derivatives remained the fighter planes of choice by the United Nations until the advent of jet fighters.
Douglas A-1 Skyraider
The Skyraider was a single-seat attack aircraft that was used between the forties and eighties. It had unusual longevity for a fighter plane and was designed very conventionally, much like a WWI-era plane. It was built to fly low, and was equipped with upwards of 200 pounds of armor plating to weather enemy fire. It was one of the most important planes used during the Korean War.
The MiG-21 is a supersonic fighter and interceptor craft designed by the Soviet Union, nicknamed the “balalaika” after the musical instrument. It’s been flown by about sixty countries. It is blazingly fast and, for its day, exceptionally maneuverable, making it very difficult to shoot down, from ground or air.
The Sukhoi Su-27 is an extremely maneuverable fighter aircraft that was designed to compete with fourth-generation American fighters like the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle. It first entered service in the Soviet Air Forces in 1985. They have seen relatively limited combat, but have proven themselves a superior aircraft.
F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is an American multirole, all-weather fighter jet. It is one of the most common fighter jets in the world. The F-16 is often referred to as a “Viper,” both because it kind of looks like a snake and as a reference to the Colonial Viper starfighter on the show Battlestar Galactica. They are equipped with suite of countermeasures, such as radar warning receivers and radar jammers.
The MiG-31, NATO reporting name “Foxhound,” is a supersonic interceptor aircraft that was developed for the USSR by the Mikoyan design bureau. It is one of the very fastest combat jets ever made. They were also larger and sturdier than their predecessors. MiG-31s are still used by the Russian and Kazakhstan Air Forces, and are expected to remain in use through 203o.
The Sukhoi Su-57 is a single-seat stealth jet fighter produced by the PAK FA program of the Russian Air Force. It is the first Russian military jet to utilize stealth technology. It features advanced avionics, supercruise and supermaneuverability capabilities.
The North American B-25 Mitchell is a twin-engine bomber produced by North American Aviation. It was used widely in World War II. It was one of the most versatile aircraft used in the War and also the most heavily armed. Mitchells were known for being able to take a beating and stay airborne. One famous Mitchell, nicknamed “Patches,” flew over 300 missions and accumulated over 400 bullet holes.
Vought F4U Corsair
The Vought F4U Corsair is a fighter plane built for the United States. It was used during WWII and the Korean War. It was originally designed to be a carrier-based aircraft but the US military came to rely on the Grumman F6F Hellcat for that function. The Corsair was one of the most maneuverable, heavily armed and fast fighters of the War.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
The Grumman F6F Hellcat was a carrier-based fighter plane used during WWII. It was the US Navy’s dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater during the second half of the War. It was a very rugged aircraft, that quickly established dominance over the Japanese A6M Zero. They were known for taking heavy fire and still returning the pilot safely.
Nakajima G8N Renzan
The Nakajima G8N Renzan was a four-engine bomber used by the Imperial Japanese Navy. It carried heavy offensive and defensive armaments, built of thick metal plate. It would have posed a serious threat to the Allies had production not been curtailed by material shortages and encroaching defeat. Only seven were ever made, including prototypes.
General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark
The General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark is a tactical bomber used by the United States and Australia. It is extremely fast, able to fly at mach 2.5. It could also drop up to roughly 31,500 pounds of bombs. They were retired in 1998.
Bell X-2 Starbuster
The Bell X-2 Starbuster was a research aircraft that was retired in 1956. The Starbuster flew at a record-shattering mach 3.196, though the flight ended tragically when the pilot made a fatally sharp turn, sending the aircraft spinning out of control. The program was suspended. No missile would have been able to keep pace.
The Lockheed YF-12 was a prototype American interceptor jet that could fly at mach 3.35. It closely resembled the SR-71 Blackbird, which was modeled after the YF-12. The YF-12 boasted the highest speed, highest altitude and biggest interceptor records, which were subsequently broken by the Blackbird. Only three were ever made.
North American X-15
The North American X-15 currently holds the world record for fastest manned aircraft, able to travel at mach 6.70. It flew at such extreme speeds that it had to be maneuvered using rocket thrusters. It could also fly at extreme altitude, at heights of up to 62 miles. Needless to say, it would have been nearly impossible to shoot down.
The Grumman X-29 was an experimental NASA aircraft that was one of the most maneuverable aircraft ever built. The plane was very unstable, however, requiring a triple-redundant fly-by-wire control system to impose stability. It was retired in 1992.
The McDonnell Douglas AV-88 Harrier II
The AV-8B is a second-generation Harrier Jump Jet that is able to take off vertical or short takeoff and landing. It is a highly maneuverable jet, thanks, in part, to its moveable exhaust nozzles, which enterprising pilots discovered could be incorporated into tricky maneuvers. It was a happy design accident.
The Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23 was a twin-engine stealth fighter that never entered full production, with the USAF green lighting the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor instead. Some people still believe that the YF-23 was the superior aircraft. It was faster and had more stealth capabilities than the Raptor, but was less maneuverable.
General Atomics MQ-1 Predator
The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator is the backbone of the American drone fleet. It has been used in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia. Drones are occasionally lost but it’s rarely due to being shot down.
The Culver Cadet is a monoplane built by the Culver Aircraft Company. It was a radio-controlled aircraft that was used for target practice. They were surprisingly resilient.
Northrop Grumman X-47B
The Northrop Grumman X-47B is a highly advanced, maneuverable stealth drone that was designed to launch from aircraft carriers. It took its first flight in 2011 and the test phase was declared over in May of 2015. Surprisingly, the US government has repurposed the X-47B from an offensive craft to serve as a midair refueler.
The Boeing X-45 is another new drone, developed by Boeing’s Phantom Works as part of DARPA’s J-UCAS project. It features a swept lambda wing, a very small exhaust outlet and zero vertical control surfaces. It’s about the same size as the Nighthawk, but is stealthier, has better range and has equivalent performance, all without a pilot.
Cessna 172 (As Piloted By Mathias Rust)
Sometimes, it’s not the plane that makes an aircraft hard to shoot down, but the pilot. Mathias Rust was a German man who flew his Cessna through what was allegedly impenetrable Soviet airspace during the Cold War, to land near the Kremlin. The Soviets spared his life, and the landing had far-reaching political consequences, allowing Gorbachev to fire many of his political opponents.
Boeing Phantom Ray
The Boeing Phantom Ray is a demonstration stealth unmanned combat air vehicle being developed in-house by Boeing on the company dime. The Phantom Ray is a flying wing that is roughly the same size as a manned fighter jet. It first flew in 2011. Boeing claims it can carry up to 4,500 pounds of munitions. Serious firepower, with a very advanced stealth profile.