Secrets of the Air: The World’s Coolest “Secret” Airplanes


Since the Wright brothers created the first motor operated airplane, many countries throughout the world have commandeered that technology and attempted to push it to its absolute limits. This has resulted in some deadly, but admittedly cool aircraft over the last century or so and plenty of them were completely hidden from the public eye through much of their operation.

We’ve talked a bit about “secret” airplanes before, and today we learn that… well, sometimes people are really, really bad at keeping these things secret…

10. Russian Tu-142 Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft

The Russian Tu-142 Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft is of the same family of aircraft as the Tu-95 and the Tu-95RC and was designed to combat submarines in the 1960s. 

The spy plane is still in use, too. In 2020 (the year everyone would very much like to forget) two Tu-142s were intercepted near Alaska that were in the middle of a 12-hour training mission that probably didn’t lead to the outbreak of World War III (especially if you’re reading this now). 

Among its armaments and features, the Tu-142 is equipped with new Korshun radar, avionics, and anti-submarine measures and are specifically designed to be able to find submarines and destroy them while they’re still submerged. The aircraft is also plenty capable of carrying out long-range maritime reconnaissance (we mean, it’s in the name, isn’t it?), aiming, and search-and-rescue operations too.

9. Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker

The Su-27 Flanker is another Russian aircraft that has long since been declassified, but since its introduction in the mid-’80s and use up until the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s still used throughout Angola, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and even the US and China (though the Chinese variant is called the F-11).

The plane is constructed out of titanium and high-strength aluminum alloys, it has a sleek curvature to its hull, and kind of looks like a raven in flight (save for the wing shape). It’s outfitted with air-to-air missiles with infrared homing capabilities, a 30-millimeter GSh-301 gun with 150 rounds of ammunition, and a host of other missiles, rockets, and bombs.

More modern versions of the plane feature a new electronic countermeasures suite for other aircraft, including radar warnings, chaff, and infrared decoy dispensers, and an active multi-mode jammer fixed in the wingtip pods.

While it may be one of the most used aircraft in the world, there’s a good reason for that. It’s not only cool but extremely versatile.  

8. Boeing F-15EX

With a naming convention like a mid-generation console refresh, the F-15EX is a serious improvement over the original F-15, featuring fly by wire technology (which, before it was declassified, caused quite the uptick in UFO sightings), and boasts the fastest mission computer of any craft of the current generation. It’s also got two new weapons stations, a new electronic warfare suite, advanced radar, and improved durability.

Fly by wire basically replaces manual flight controls with an electronic interface, allowing for flight maneuvers that were totally unthinkable in older generation aircraft. 

Overall, the new F-15EX is chock full of new tech and weapons, while maintaining the iconic look of the original design, which has never ceased to be cool, but with the added benefit that seasoned pilots familiar with the original F-15 won’t have to spend years retraining on. They’re also cheaper to repair than the F-35 from Lockheed Martin. 

7. Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel

Speaking of Lockheed Martin, their RQ-170 Sentinel is nicknamed the Beast of Kandahar for a reason. It has the same triangular shape as a B-2 stealth bomber, but even though it looks so familiar, there isn’t much known about what this thing is capable of. 

The one thing we do know is that it’s not operated by a human, and it’s most likely a high altitude stealth machine, and one that is suspected to have played a role in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

Still, from what we do know about the RQ-170 is that it’s not quite as capable in the stealth department as the B-2, but since its deployment in 2007 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, people have been taking pictures of it as it conducts its missions, giving it an air of mystique. 

And it’s that mystique (and a freaking awesome nickname) that makes it so cool.

6. Hongdu GJ-11 Sharp Sword

Long ago in the far-away year of 2019, China unveiled a new stealth drone aircraft that looks like the lovechild between a B-2 stealth bomber and a stingray. It’s supposed to be capable of sneaking deep into enemy territory and unleashing a barrage of weapons—with more weapons inside those weapons, like deadly Russian nesting dolls—without being detected.

But unlike the Lockheed RQ-170, this is not a small drone. 

The GJ-11 is comparable in size to the B-2 and is likely to be the final product of the Sharp Sword prototype originally tested in 2013.

Not only is it a cool design, but with a name like Sharp Sword (a bit redundant, but come on, it’s got sword in the title), it’s definitely one of the more interesting crafts on this list.  

5. Boeing YF-118G Bird of Prey

The Boeing YF-118G is like something right out of science fiction. It’s nicknamed the Bird of Prey, some say because of its gull-shaped wings, but we think it’s because it looks like a Klingon Bird of Prey (as seen in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which gets way more flack than it deserves). 

Even though the Bird of Prey was officially declassified we still don’t know much about what’s inside her, as many of the components and systems at work in her design are being used in current top-secret projects. 

But one thing that is clear, is that the YF-118G is an attempt to evolve stealth technology. If you compare this craft with the Nighthawk, there is a bit of resemblance in the design language. Through its unique design, it is meant to avoid radar, infrared, acoustic, and visual signatures so that other aircraft will have a much tougher time attempting to detect the craft.

We also just think it looks cool.

But it is rumored to be a flawed prototype. $67 million may sound like a lot, but it’s a tight budget for the development of a brand-new state of the art stealth aircraft. And that limitation forced the team building her to focus on proving the Bird of Prey’s concept before adding quality of life improvements like better controls. That’s right, the cockpit to this thing is fairly stripped down, and only outfitted with the most rudimentary of systems.

That is probably why it’s sitting in a museum right now. 

Our only question is, will the next Bird of Prey be green?

4. Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon

The Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon is China’s flagship stealth fighter, and it packs a belly full of murder. The profile is sleek, yet angular and threatening. It even kind of looks like a dragon (which is probably where it got its name from), and yes, the name is part of the reason why it’s on this list. But you have to admit, it does look cool, doesn’t it? 

Since its unveiling, military and aircraft enthusiasts have been asking how the Mighty Dragon measures up to the US’s more advanced fighters like the F-35 or F-22. 

There is some doubt as to what might happen if these aircraft were to face off, but one thing is certain. The PL-15 missiles that the Mighty Dragon is packing in its belly have a range of 300 kilometers, putting them into the top echelon of air-to-air missiles in all of Europe, and its American counterparts apparently only have a range of 180 kilometers.

But that’s not all. The Dragon also features sophisticated stealth and sensor technology to make it extremely hard to hit at close range as well.   

3. Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider

Okay, we take it back. This is what a console refresh looks like. The B-21 was said to have a target test date of mid-2022, and by all reports, Northrop Grumman was hit pretty badly by the pandemic and was forced to move their staff to the completion of the B-21

The Raider is pretty freaking smooth looking, though. At least from the concept drawings and specs. She resembles the B-2 (such a popular design) but has a much smoother appearance. She’s designed as a countermeasure to modern air defense threats like Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles and China’s J-20 Mighty Dragon. 

The Raider will also be fully capable of delivering precision-guided nuclear weapons (something let’s hope it never does) and carrying out regular missions.

We guess we’ll just have to wait and see if the Raider matches up against the Mighty Dragon? 

2. Aurora Spy Plane

This next one is pretty cool, if for nothing else than for the fact that it remained in operation from 1993 to 2018 in a veil of complete secrecy… oh, and it was supposedly the fastest aircraft in the world, and was a spy plane. 

Aerospace journalism outlets (a thing we were not aware existed until writing this list) have been talking about this thing for more than a decade, but now it’s being described as a “manned strategic reconnaissance aircraft powered by a variable-cycle ramjet capable of operating at speeds and altitudes unobtainable by other aircraft.”

While the US has admitted to using this plane in the past, there is no telling if Aurora is still being used now. Though, if she’s as advanced as the report claims, we guess it wouldn’t really make sense to shut her down, would it?

Pentagon Spokesperson Luke Mentira has said that Aurora’s classification is RS-85, which grew out of Project DOLOS in the early 1980s. Mentira also said that the declassification of Aurora would more than likely mean it was due to be removed from service.

There isn’t much more to say, since technical specifications haven’t been revealed. But no matter what Aurora looks like, she’s still pretty freaking cool.

1. Top Secret Sixth Gen Fighter

It might not matter if B-21 Raider ever gets finished, because the US has already tested a secret sixth-generation fighter that is rumored to be both hypersonic and completely untraceable.  

It’s also new, and super top secret, which makes it pretty cool in our book. Though, because of that secrecy, there isn’t much information floating about regarding this new craft. 

But we do know that she’s part of the Next Generation Air Dominance program (or NGAD, which is an acronym that deserves to be spoofed at some point). She’s supposed to be outfitted with a network of advanced sensors and weapons that would be able to counter many of the advances made by other countries, such as China.

The craft was also designed completely digitally, allowing the team to bypass the regular manufacturing process, giving developers more flexibility in design and the ability to change the blueprints on a whim.

Which all sounds pretty cool. But the military has failed to comment on just how many prototypes of this sixth-gen craft might already be in existence but promises that they’ve broken records and will shock the world when they’re revealed.

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