As you probably know, because you’re so smart, a Mach number represents velocity divided by the speed at which sound travels in a given medium. In the sort of super dumbed-down terms that someone like a writer at an entertainment website would understand, it’s increments of the speed of sound, although sound moves at different speeds in different environments, so it varies from one place to another. By saying that Maverick was traveling Mach 10.2 at the beginning of “Top Gun: Maverick,” we’re saying that he was traveling 10.2 times faster than the speed of sound — around 7,800 miles per hour at sea level.
Why haven’t jet pilots crossed this objectively badass threshold? It’s not for a lack of wanting to look cool. The problem comes down to design complications, technicalities, and the issue of how badly a pilot wants to keep their brains from leaking out of their ears.
The difficulties of designing an aircraft capable of making it from Seattle to Chicago in roughly as long as it takes to finish a Quibi aside — more on that later — there’s the matter of G-force, the sneaky little side effect of acceleration that makes people’s faces go crazy and then fall asleep in those NASA chairs that spin around really fast. Like “Top Gun: Maverick” tells you, even highly-trained pilots have a difficult time dealing with 9G’s for more than a couple of seconds. The sustained acceleration necessary to push a person over Mach 10 would, without some really impressive sci-fi, have a pilot feeling the pull of gravity usually reserved for commuter cars and medium-sized horses.