How Fast Do Airplanes Fly? Climb, Cruise & Descent


Flying for any amount of time can soon get boring so the faster it takes the better. Have you ever wondered if pilots fly planes at their maximum speed or are they limited like we are driving a car down the highway? We all know airplanes are fast, the question is though, just how fast?

At takeoff, most passenger jets are travelling around 150-180knots/170-210mph. They will then climb at a maximum speed of 250kts/290mph while under 10,000 feet and then can speed up to 280-300kts/320-345mph for the rest of the climb. Cruise speeds of most passenger jets are around 600kts/700mph.

To find out all about the different speeds an airplane flies at please read on…

Large Commercial Aircraft Speeds:

What is an Airplanes Speed at Takeoff? 

Most commercial airliners use three different speeds for takeoff. These are: V1, VRotate and V2. For the Boeing 737-8 or the Airbus A320 family these speeds are in the region of between 125knots (143mph) to 175knots (200mph).

V1 Speed:

The V1 or Decision Speed is the speed pilots calculate to know what is the maximum speed they can reject the takeoff. This speed depends on the weight of the aircraft, humidity, outside air temperature, weather, condition of the runway, length of the runway etc.

V1 speed is usually around 140knots +/- 5 knots (Around 160mph)

Vr Speed:

The Vr or VRotate Speed is the calculated speed at which the pilot flying (One pilot manipulates the controls while the other monitors the instrumentation) pulls back on the yoke or stick to lift the aircraft off the ground. Vr Speed is always equal to or higher than V1, but it can not be lower.

Vr Speed is usually also around 140knots +/- 5 knots (Around 160mph)

During Takeoff One Pilot is Flying, the Second is Monitoring

V2 Speed: 

The V2 Speed is the speed of the aircraft at 50 feet above the ground. This is the speed the aircraft uses to climb to at least 400 feet above the runway and it’s always 5 knots greater than the Vr speed. In case of an engine failure on takeoff the V2 speed will keep the aircraft safe and on a shallow climb while still avoiding obstacles.

V2 speed is usually also around 145knots +5/-0 knots (Around 166mph)

What is an Airplanes Speed During the Climb? 

The speed of an airplane during it’s climb varies greatly with the wind and the weight of the aircraft, but all aircraft must abide by maximum airspeed limitations set forth by the world’s aviation governing bodies.

From liftoff up to 10,000 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL), all pilots must NOT fly their airplane faster than 250knots or 288mph, unless they request to do so with air traffic control. This speed limit is to help air traffic controllers control the flow of aircraft into and out of airports below.

This slower speed also allows for more power to climb faster allowing the airplane to quickly climb through the busy airspace surrounding each airport. Above 10,000 feet the pilots are allowed to speed up so their speed usually increases to 280-300knots, but in doing so their rate of climb will reduce.

Once passing around 24,000 feet MSL pilots will then speed up again to around 350-430knots (400-500mph). This slows the rate of climb again but improves the time taken to complete the flight. This configuration allows for a steady climb up to cruising alititude while flying at a fast enough speed to ensure the passengers get to their destination in a reasonable time.

The faster an airplane flies, the slower it climbs. Engines can only supply a set amount of power so pilots have to select which flight regime they take.

Think of it like towing a trailer with a truck. On the flat road section you can flatten the accelerator and your truck max’es out at 100mph. You then come to a hill and still with your foot to the floor your truck can now only climb at 80mph while towing. This is the same with the airplane.

Learn More
Try These Articles:
* How Much Do Airplanes Weigh? (With 20 Examples)
* This Is Why Pilots Reduce Thrust After Takeoff?

What is an Airplanes Cruise Speed? 

The speed of a typical airliner in cruise is usually up to 600kts/700mph/960kph. In the cruise the pilots use the airplane’s Mach Number for controlling its speed as this number is not affected by atmospheric pressure at cruise altitudes.

What is the Mach Number? 

It’s basically the speed of the aircraft expressed as a percentage of the speed of sound (666 knots/766mph/1233kph). Controlling an aircraft by the Indicated Airspeed(IAS) at high altitudes is not efficient because the IAS is decreasing with increasing altitude and is also dangerous for speed control since the aircraft might find its self in an overspeed or underspeed condition.  

As you can see in this picture, in the left top corner of the right-hand screen, .77 is the selected Mach Number which results in a 244knots IAS.  

The Ground Speed on the other hand, as seen on left-hand screen, top left corner is well over 410knots or 500mph/900kph. 

Think of speeds like this:

  • Ground Speed is the speed the airplane’s shadow is moving over the ground
  • Indicated airspeed is the speed of the airflow hitting the nose of the aircraft

The arrow in the top left corner is showing the wind outside. In relation to the aircraft, the wind is blowing from the pilots’ 10 o’clock position at about 27knots. This makes the airplane fly slower because it is a headwind.

If the wind was blowing from behind the aircraft this is known as a tailwind and will give the airplane a push resulting in a faster speed over the ground for the same indicated airspeed.

Usual cruise speeds are in the region between 400kts/450mph to 560kts/650mph and it is greatly affected by the wind.

The stronger the tailwind, the faster the airplane moves over the ground, the stronger the headwind the slower the airplane moves over the ground for the same indicated airspeed.

What is an Airplanes Speed During Descent? 

The speed on the descent is somewhat like the climb speed. Initially the aircraft descends from its cruising altitude by the pilots changing its Mach number. The slower the speed, the less lift the wings produce and gravity does the rest.

Once the airplane passes through 29,000 feet the pilots start using the Indicated Airspeed again.

Ground Speeds during the descent usually vary between 345kts/400mph to 435kts/500mph depending on if the airplane has a headwind or a tailwind.

Passing through 10,000 feet MSL, the same Air Traffic Control restrictions apply as the climb, so the pilots have to slow down to a maximum of 250knots (300mph). Ground speeds again vary between 300mph to 400mph depending on the wind.

What is an Airplanes Speed at Landing? 

The landing speed of a commercial airliner is greatly affected by the actual weight of the aircraft. The higher the weight, the higher the speed needed. More lift is required for the heavier load. To get more lift the airplane needs to be flying faster.

The typical speed region at landing for a large airliner is usually 120kts/140mph to 155kts/180mph.

What is an Airplanes Speed During Taxiing? 

Since we are talking about speeds in flight it would be appropriate to at least mention the speed of aircraft on the ground. Aircraft inside the apron usually taxi with 10 mph maximum. Outside of the apron this speed is increased to maximum 30 mph.

The apron is the area immediately surrounding the terminal gates and where ground personnel are scurrying back and fourth servicing the waiting aircraft. Once the airplane gets out onto the less busy taxiways the pilots can then speed up.

Light Aircraft Speeds:

Although the skies are dominated by the ‘Heavy Iron’, there are a tonne of light aircraft flying around and they too have certain speeds the pilots have to maintain to ensure safe flight.

Light aircraft like the Cessna 172 or the Diamond DA40 only use one speed – The Indicated air speed. They do not have the need for V1, Vr or V2 like large commercial aircraft do, simply because they only have one engine, plus they are not going that fast.

What is a Light Airplanes Speed at Takeoff? 

The take off speed for light aircraft can be as low as 45mph. One of the biggest things affecting the take off speed of a light aircraft is the size of the wings (wing span) and the engine power. Both can significantly decrease the take off speed.

Large wings produce lots of lift meaning the aircraft needs less airflow over them to get airborne.
Powerful engines mean it can accelerate the plane to lift off speed in a much shorter distance.

Typically most small aircraft lift off around 60mph. This gives a good buffer between the power it can produce and its stall speed.

The stall speed is the airspeed at which there is not enough air flowing over the wings to lift the aircraft into the air. An aircraft stalling close to the ground usually ends in a wreckage of the aircraft.

What is a Light Airplanes Speed During Cruise? 

Cruise speeds for most light aircraft vary between 70mph to 120mph. The Cessna 172 has a cruising speed of 110knots (125mph). If you ever flown in one you would know that it is not at all about the speed in a light aircraft but the convenience and freedom it provides.

The larger the airplane, the more power its engine can produce which also allows for a faster cruise speed. Some light aircraft are designed specifically for a fast cruise to get its occupants from point A to point in the shortest amount of time, whereas some aircraft are designed to be easy to fly and land.

What is a Light Airplanes Speed at Landing? 

The landing speed for a light aircraft are usually the same as take off speeds. Between as low as 45mph to 80mph. Usually a small increment is added on the approach to land speeds to have a margin from the stall speed and also have some extra speed in case of a go around.

Some small airplanes are designed to be able to touchdown with almost zero forward speed if they have a good headwind. There is a competition in Alaska to see who can land in the shortest distance and you will be amazed just how short some of these aircraft can do it!

Learn More
Try These Articles:
* How Long to Refuel an Airplane? – 15 Most Common Planes
* How Do Pilots Know Where to Taxi Around an Airport?

Vasileios Papadiamantis

Vasileios is a 26-year-old First Officer flying the Boeing 737-800 and 737 Max for one of the biggest airlines in Europe. Based out of Vienna, Austria he can be found all over the skies of Europe while bringing his expert knowledge and experience of commercial airline operations to your articles.

Recent Posts