Top 5: The Oldest Fighter Jets Still In Active Service

Some of the oldest fighter jets that are still operated by various air forces date back to the 1950s

Have you ever thought about how much effort must be put into designing, developing, and manufacturing a fighter jet? Quite a lot! Therefore, once a solid and efficient design is found, there’s no point in getting rid of it just after a relatively short period.

Although one might think that an old fighter jet must not be suitable for a world-class air force, this is not always the case. Indeed, military jets regularly undergo thorough revision, and their components are constantly updated to ensure the highest levels of efficiency.

Consequently, most military aircraft undergo upgrades of many of their core components, including engines, avionics, and weapons. What one is left with is an old-looking fuselage hiding state-of-the-art technology. Furthermore, it should be noted that most military aircraft are newer and more advanced versions of old jets that were introduced before the original model went out of production.

A SEPECAT Jaguar about to take off.
Photo: Dean West Photo/Shutterstock

For instance, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 was first launched in 1959. However, the most active aircraft of this type are the MiG-21bis or other variants from the 70s. Many of them were also updated with new technologies in the 90s and 2000s. Although age is just one of the many variables contributing to the success of a fighter jet, it is undoubtedly an interesting one to investigate. Do you know which are the five oldest military jets still in active use?

1The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17

The oldest fighter jet you can see flying nowadays is most likely the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17. This military jet was developed from the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, a top-rated aircraft with the Korean Air Force. The success of the -17 variant relied on being faster and more powerful, with the possibility of using air-to-air missiles in some of the latest versions. This aircraft was first introduced in 1952.

A MiG-15 flying close to the ground.
Photo: BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock

The air forces of Madagascar and Uganda still operate the aircraft. However, this model has been in storage for decades, waiting to serve in a mission. On the other hand, the Shenyang J-5, the Chinese-built version of this jet, might have proved even more popular, with half of North Korea’s J-5s reportedly still operational.

2Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19

This aircraft holds the record of being the first Soviet supersonic fighter jet. It started flying in 1955, and although the original model is no longer operated, its Chinese version, the Shenyang J-6, still plays a relevant role in the air forces of various countries.

A Bangladesh Air Force Shenyang FT-6 flying above the clouds.Photo: Shadman Samee via WikimediaFor instance, it is one of the most popular jets in North Korea’s air force, with other countries like Sudan and Myanmar flying this jet. The Chinese Naval Air Force also keeps some for training purposes.

3Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21

The MiG-21 is perhaps the oldest widely-used fighter jet, with the aircraft and its numerous variants flown by several air forces.

An Ex-Russian Soviet Cold War Romanian MiG-21 Fishbed flying in the sky.
Photo: AMMHPhotography/Shutterstock

Also known as “Fishbed,” this famous military jet was first introduced in 1959 in the Soviet Union. Its success mainly depends on its ease of maintenance and operativity. Although very simple in its concept, the MiG-21 is particularly cost-effective while providing high-performance, supersonic capabilities as a fighter or attack aircraft.

4Northrop F-5

Northrop produced the F-5 as an inexpensive, easy-to-operate lightweight supersonic fighter.

Many Northrop F-5s parked in a line at an airfield.
Photo: Ryan Fletcher/Shutterstock

It entered service in 1959, and in 1962, it was identified as the perfect military jet to be exported to those countries once under the United States Military Assistance Program (MAP). After being operated during the Vietnam War, the F-5 was developed into the F-5E Tiger II in the mid-70s.

Around 2,700 Northrop F-5s were built until production ended in 1987. Some of these are still operated as fighter bombers, reconnaissance planes, and flight trainers after being upgraded to new avionics and armament.

5Chengdu J-7

To round out our list, the fifth oldest active fighter jet is a Chinese variant of the Soviet MiG-21. The first flight of the Chengdu J-7 dates back to 1966.

A Chengdu J7 flying in the sky on a partly cloudy day.
Besides being operated mainly by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), i.e., China’s air force, other countries worldwide have used this jet, including Iran and Egypt. China developed 54 variants of the J-7 to meet the different requirements of the defense forces. However, one could group all those variants into two main areas: a domestic version to be used in China and another to be exported, with the former counting 28 arrangements and the latter 26.

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