Iron Man-style armor can turn virtually anyone into a superhero, but there are some major benefits to piloting a fighter jet instead of Tony Stark's jaw-dropping suit.
Billionaire, philanthropist, and superhero Tony Stark seems capable of anything, but the Iron Man suit is his crowning achievement. Capable of turning anyone into a nearly indestructible warrior, the technologically advanced armor protects Stark while giving him super strength, flight, and access to a variety of weapons. The latest version in the Marvel movies is powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with godlike villains like Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, so it's seriously powerful technology.
Although the armor is the stuff of comic book science fiction, real-world fighter jets provide much of the same power. So, how do the two stack up against each other?
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Iron Man vs Machine
Stark designed a huge variety of armors and upgrades over the years, many purpose-built for specific situations. One version named Veronica stood its own against Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron. So, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll mainly stick with the Mark II armor featured in the 2008 Iron Man movie. Made from a chromed titanium steel alloy, the armor is light while at the same time strong enough to protect against bullets and extreme impact.
Its weapons include repulsors on each palm, which are for flight and stability but pack a big punch in combat. The suit also has a unibeam that fires from the chest. Meanwhile, the armor has a host of gadgets and hidden weapons, including a battery of micro-missiles and other projectiles such as flares and at least one anti-tank shell, but Iron Man often prefers to get up close with enemies to put his enhanced strength to use. All of the armor’s systems are backed by a sophisticated voice-responsive artificial intelligence that monitors the suit’s performance, performs complex calculations, activates weapons, and tracks targets with pinpoint accuracy.
The Iron Man armor features unmatched versatility. It is able to fly into virtually any situation and engage with foes up-close to minimize the potential for civilian casualties and collateral damage. Even if the powered armor couldn’t fly, the extra protection and enhanced strength alone would be a massive gamechanger in most combat situations.
But while a flying suit of armor may be a scalpel, a fighter jet may be regarded as a super-precise hammer in comparison. With the obvious exception of landing and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, jets are capable of many of the same things the Iron Man suit can achieve, except bigger. A jet can be equipped with a variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, including high caliber guns, bombs, and missiles.
Stark faces off against a pair of F-22 Raptors in the first movie, which were new to the US Air Force at the time. As stealth fighters (described by some as one of the best jets ever built), they’re able to exceed Mach 2 to keep up with the suit at supersonic speeds and deal significant damage using their M61A2 Vulcan 20 mm Gatling guns. While the Iron Man suit’s size is small enough to elude radar, Raptors use a special radar-absorbing coating to make it near invisible to detection. To radar, the 43,000 lb plane appears to be the size of a bumblebee. Ultimately, Iron Man had the edge because he could cling to the bottom of one of the planes to hide from the pilots.
If Iron Man had been serious about fighting the jets, he most likely would have won by simply tearing the wings off with his bare hands or landing on top of the cockpits to forcibly remove the pilots. But that’s not to say that the suit is necessarily better because it does have a host of significant drawbacks.
Colonel James Rhodes – who later dons armor to become War Machine – notes in the film that human pilots are better than autonomous drones because they have the skills, insights, and judgment needed to complete missions. While that’s true, it’s important to note that humans are fragile and need a lot of maintenance.
For instance, let’s take Iron Man’s trip from his home in California to the fictional town of Gulmira, Afghanistan in the movie, which is around 7,524 miles (12,109 km). Even while traveling at his apparent top speed of 1,672.6 mph (2,691.8 km/h), which is around Mach 2, it would still take about 4.5 hours to get there – making the round trip nine hours in total. That might be a relatively short amount of time for a cross-continental flight, but it might feel twice as long inside a human-shaped suit.
Imagine having to tilt your head to look up while keeping your body completely straight and rigid. Then imagine being suspended horizontally with no support, and gravity constantly pulling down on your arms, legs, and head. That’s what flying in an Iron Man suit is like, and you’d have to maintain that position for hours at a time.
Unlike birds, humans were designed to walk vertically with our heads facing forward. Our necks don’t have the flexibility needed for aerodynamic flight. Some of those issues might be resolved if the joints locked into place, but the pilot would still need to use his arms to stabilize and steer. Locked joints would also reduce the pilot’s ability to react if something suddenly happened.
Jet pilots, by comparison, are strapped tightly into reclined seats for comfortable flights that could potentially last for hours. The only issue is when the pilot enters into combat and needs to lean forward at 7 or 8G (g-force). This causes the majority of fighter pilots to suffer from neck and back pain. A flying armor that forces them to look upward most of the time while g-forces and wind resistance pull their heads backward could make this problem even worse.
Then there are unavoidable biological needs, like going to the bathroom. While some Russian jets have “personal convenience” systems built into the flight suit so that pilots can fly comfortably, it only happened because the pilots flat out refused to wear diapers while flying. The US Air Force, conversely, does not use any such systems. Female pilots wear disposable diapers while in flight, which might offer some new perspective on Captain Marvel, while men strap on a plastic “piddle pack” filled with compressed sponges to soak up the urine.
Meanwhile, as demonstrated in Iron Man 2, the armor has a full filtration and recycling system that turns urine into pure water like on the International Space Station. So, at least in that regard, the armor scores major points.
One of the main reasons why human-shaped mechanized armor like the Iron Man suit doesn’t exist is because it would either require a massive battery or for the suit to remain plugged in. Tanks and jets have large fuel tanks and the benefit of wheels, wings, and treads instead of energy intensive legs.
Fortunately, Stark has a mini arc reactor in his chest to provide all the energy he needs to fly, communicate, keep his onboard AI running, power his weapons, and so on. Without that power source, there is no Iron Man. But as powerful as the reactor might be, it has repeatedly proven to be the suit’s most critical weakness.
As seen in the 2008 movie and others, especially Captian America: Civil War, the suit becomes completely immobile if the arc reactor runs out of juice or is otherwise compromised or damaged. If the light goes out while the suit is in flight, then the whole thing plummets to the Earth. Without wings, there isn’t even a hope for gliding in for a crash landing.
To that end, while the armor is incredibly sophisticated in a number of ways, it completely lacks safety features like a parachute or backup battery.
The suit of armor sports an impressive array of weapons that can cause massive damage despite their small size. But that also means that a jet could potentially carry more of them, or bigger-sized versions, for an even more devastating impact.
Then there’s the matter of Stark’s viewscreen, which often throws a ton of information at him at once while Jarvis (the suit’s AI) reports in his ear. A fighter jet’s cockpit, by comparison, offers more room to spread the gauges and data without cluttering up a pilot’s view of the environment.
Size is also a major issue when it comes to propulsion. Today’s jet planes suck air into a chamber where it is compressed, then fuel is added and ignited. The engine channels that hot compressed air out the back for high pressure as more low-pressure air is continually taken in from the front, creating forward movement. An afterburner, which ignites more fuel at the rear of the plane for an extra boost, is needed to reach supersonic speeds. The F-22 Raptor stands out as an exception because it is capable of "supercruise," which allows it to sustain supersonic speeds without using an afterburner. Still, it's engines are extremely hot.
The Iron Man armor is all electrical and uses repulsor technology for flight and acceleration. It must be an incredible piece of technology if it’s powerful enough to reach supersonic flight, blast bad guys, and weld metal without burning the wearer’s hands, back, and feet.
But the risk of burning hasn’t stopped people from trying to build suits in real life. In 2017, a British inventor named Richard Browning set a world record for flying a body-controlled power suit. The suit was mainly comprised of a jetpack for vertical flight and large fiery thrusters affixed to his arms. Although it is nowhere near as sleek looking as an Iron Man suit, it can reach an altitude of 12,000 feet and achieve a top speed of 32.02 mph (51.53 km/h). Even Browning describes his suit as an “indulgent toy,” but he believes the concept may be more useful in the future. If you want that high-flying action for yourself, you can purchase Browning’s suit for £340,000 (about $442,396).
A Hero No Matter What
It’s important to note that Tony Stark never gave up on using traditional aircraft after building the Iron Man suit. He still sits comfortably on a plane or car to get where he needs to unless there are people who need saving or villains to fight. In fact, Stark Industries makes the majority of its profits by selling planes, weapons, and other equipment to SHIELD.
If a real Iron Man-like combat suit is ever created, it would most likely be flown into locations using traditional aircraft before being dropped in. That would conserve the suit’s energy and help ensure the suit pilots aren’t too fatigued to fight. So, even if the military did have powered armor, they would probably still support it with heavily armed aircraft.
With that being the case, let’s call this one a tie.
Source Credits: Air Warriors, "F-22 Raptor" (Season 3, episode 4)