Man at His Best

The 30 Most Important Airplanes Of All Time

The planes that defined the aerospace age.

BY chris clarke | Feb 14, 2017 | Culture

Robert Yarnall Richie/The LIFE Images Collection

While by no means definitive, the following list of flying machines is what we consider, after many grueling hours of debate, to be the most important airplanes in the course of history. Every one of the airplanes herein has left a lasting impact—not just on aviation as an industry but on the course of humanity as a whole.

From: Popular Mechanics
 

Wright Flyer

The machine that made the first successful flight in a heavier-than-air powered aircraft may be the most important airplane of all time. But don't forget, the Wright Brothers achieved an unprecedented level of airmanship—and marketing—that went far beyond those first few minutes aloft on the beaches of Kitty Hawk. The Wrights' use of wing warping to achieve bank, in coordination with yaw from the rudder, allowed their craft to be properly controlled. This concept is still used on virtually every plane in the air today.

Not satisfied with being first in flight, the brothers spent many years unsuccessfully attempting to sell their invention, specifically to the U.S. and European governments as military vehicles. They went on a public tour instead, and nearly five years after their first flight, Wilbur Wright became world famous overnight after a public showing at the flying field in LeMans, France, in 1908 before a very skeptical audience. This performance inspired an aviation revolution across western Europe that would lead to rapid advancement in the understanding and development of powered flying machines.

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Submarine Spitfire

The Spitfire was the only British fighter in continuous production throughout the entire Second World War. It became the backbone of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command and was most noted for beating back the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. The distinct elliptical wings were designed to have the thinnest possible cross section, which resulted in higher speeds than many other fighters of the day.

The airframe was so versatile that it was able to serve in many different capacities, including interceptor, photo reconnaissance, fighter-bomber, and trainer. Originally fitted with a 1,000-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine, the Spitfire was later adapted to handle the 2,300 horses cranked out by the massive Griffon engine also built by Rolls-Royce.

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Boeing 787

The Dreamliner is Boeing's first ever airliner constructed primarily out of composite materials. The fuselage is assembled by joining large composite barrel sections, as opposed to the traditional method of attaching multiple aluminum sections with thousands of fasteners. Composites were used to build parts of the interior, doors, and tail, too, and to give the all-new wing design a dramatic flex under load.

A fly-by-wire flight system replaces a traditional hydraulic/bleed air power systems in favor of electric servos to manipulate control surfaces. Major aerodynamic improvements combined with all new engines resulted in a 20 percent increase in fuel efficiency over the Boeing 767 that the Dreamliner is replacing.

Despite development woes—including five delays for the maiden flight, battery problems, and a series of cancelled orders due to overweight issues—the 787 is now setting the standard for quiet and lightweight jetliners, the kind that will increasingly fill the skies in the future.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Although the Blackbird last flew in 1999, it still holds the world record for the fastest air-breathing manned airplane in history, which it first achieved in 1976. That mark has stood for nearly 40 years, and there doesn't seem to be a challenger rising anytime soon. The Blackbird's basic stealth characteristics and ability to operate at ridiculous speeds and altitudes allowed the SR-71 to perform dangerous reconnaissance missions. If the plane were ever engaged by a surface-to-air missile (and it was), standard protocol was to accelerate and outrace any threat.

The void that the Blackbird's retirement created has many wondering what new machine can match the sheer brilliance of the SR-71's design and capabilities. Rumors surrounding the development of the SR-72 have circulated for nearly a decade, but most recently, Lockheed Martin has won a government contract to study the feasibility of building a propulsion system capable of Mach 7 for the Blackbird's successor. Sadly, the shift toward stealthy and lethal unmanned aerial warplanes may replace the need for such a complex and costly aircraft like the proposed SR-72.

Cirrus SR22

The SR22 took the general aviation world by storm in 2001, and has been the best-selling single-engine four-seat aircraft for more than a decade. With its composite construction and armed with an airframe ballistic parachute, this sleek Cirrus gave even new pilots the confidence to take the controls of such a high-performance machine. Ryan Campbell flew the SR22 in 2013 when he became the youngest pilot to circle the globe solo. Meanwhile, the parachute system is credited with saving more than 100 lives.

Josh Beasley/Flickr

Learjet 23

Back in 1960, Bill Lear moved to Switzerland from his home in California to form the Swiss American Aviation Corporation, with the intention of redesigning the FFA P-16 ground attack fighter prototype. It failed, and Switzerland eventually cancelled its order for the SAAC-23 ExecutJet. But that didn't deter Lear, who built on its potential and moved back to the U.S. to manufacture his own executive version.

Lear's insight that there was an emerging market for executive business travel led to the development of the Learjet 23, which marked the dawn of a new world of fast and efficient business aircraft. With a new name and a new country, Learjet pumped out 104 aircraft from its facility in Kansas in just two years of production, ending in 1966. The plane could carry eight passengers at 560 mph and became the first mass-produced business jet. It was so popular that the term Learjet became synonymous with the idea of a biz jet.

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Lockheed C-130

This four-engine turboprop military transport built by Lockheed Martin has been in continuous production longer than any other military aircraft. In its 50 years of service it has earned the reputation at being the most flexible and versatile workhorse of the armed forces.

Originally designed as a troop and cargo transport aircraft that could operate on unimproved runways, the C-130 has found its way into serving as gunship as well as a platform for research, search and rescue, aerial refueling, and many other roles. More than 40 variations of the venerable plane have been delivered to more than 70 nations since its first flight in 1954. In sum, the C-130 has logged more than 1.2 million hours in the air.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly

 

Douglas DC-3

It wasn't the first airliner, but the DC-3 revolutionized the way Americans think about air travel. Of any single aircraft, Douglas's may have had the most dramatic impact on the way we get around.

Before the arrival of the DC-3 in 1936, a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York required up to 15 grueling stops, airline changes, and two or three different airplanes. When the DC-3 arrived, a single plane filled with 20 of your closest friends could cross the country in about 15 hours and require only three fueling stops.

Douglas's innovations included supercharged engines, cantilevered metal wings, and retractable landing gear, all of which culminated in a passenger experience like no other. The military variant was used extensively during World War II, including for the delivery of troops via airdrop. More than 1,000 flew on the eve of D-Day, dropping troops behind the beaches of Normandy.

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Blériot XI

Aviation pioneer Louis Blériot was so inspired by the Wright Brothers' ability to use wing warping to fly an airplane that he modified his one-of-a-kind monoplane and set off to become the first person to cross the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft. His success resulted in an cultural epiphany that aviation wasn't simply a toy for rich playboys, but could be a valuable tool to shrink the world.

Demand for his design exploded and many aviation pioneers of the day flew variations of his craft. That included Clyde Cessna, the founder of the Cessna Aircraft Corporation, the company that has sold more single-engine aircraft than any other company.

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Cessna 172

More Cessna 172 Skyhawks have been sold than any other aircraft, period. First released in 1956, this four-seat, single-engine, high wing personal aircraft has been sold more than 43,000 times and is still in production today.

Reliable, affordable, and stable, the Skyhawk is the staple plane of flight training schools everywhere. Its modest performance and longevity creates the ideal mode of transportation for private pilots across the globe. Skyhawk's success drove the Cessna Aircraft Company to domination in the light aircraft market.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress

You know the B-29 because it delivered the final blow to Japan in WWII when it dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While this dubious feat would be enough to earn the Superfortress a spot on the most important airplanes list, don't forget that this bomber featured some amazing technological advancements well ahead of its time—specifically, a clever remote firing system for the turret machine guns, dual-wheeled tricycle landing gear, and a pressurized cabin.

Years later, after new engines were added and the plane was designated the B-50, this became the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop. It was also the mothership for many X-plane research aircraft, including Glamorous Glennis, the Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager used to become the first to fly through the sound barrier.

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Gulfstream G500

This private business jet, announced alongside its sister ship the G600 in fall 2014, features fly-by-wire active side-stick that provides visual and tactile feedback for the flight crew—technology previously available only for military aircraft. This feedback through the flight control stick allows both the pilot and copilot to track and feel the controls of each other and the autopilot.

Flight instruments are brilliantly displayed by Honeywell's Symmetry flight deck. There are 10 touchscreen controllers providing pilots with a tremendous amount of flight information. The integrated touchscreens will give crew access to system controls, flight management, communications, checklists, and monitoring weather and flight information.

A new wing design manufactured in-house at Gulfstream for the first time provides increased performance and passenger comfort. The G500 made its maiden flight earlier in 2015 demonstrating an unprecedented level of technology not only delivering a more fuel efficient, fast aircraft but improvements in safety as well.

Gulfstream

 

Boeing 747

Having held the passenger capacity record for 37 years, the original jumbo jet is easily distinguished by the hump created by the upper deck that's usually reserved for first class passengers.

The 747 was more than twice the size of any existing airliner of the day. Back before computer-aided design, engineers hand-sketched 75,000 technical drawings and built a full-scale plywood mockup to ensure the pieces would fit. Boeing even built the world's largest building at that time just to manufacture the behemoth.

The plane was a masterpiece of industrial design. So good, in fact, that it stalled further advancements in passenger aviation. The 747's passenger-carrying duties were expected to last only until Boeing finished design and development of their supersonic transport intended to compete with the Concorde and the Russian Tu-144. Instead, the 747 shattered its expected limit of 400 units. To date, 1,500 have been sold and many more are on order.

The 747 has moved more than 3.5 billion people—the equivalent of half the world's population. Its jobs have included transporting the President of the United States and ferrying the Space Shuttle piggyback-style.

Thierry BOCCON-GIBOD/Gamma-Rapho

 

Bell X-1

This supersonic research aircraft is famous for being the first manned airplane to break the sound barrier, in 1947. It was also the first X-plane, ushering in a series of rocket-powered aircraft. These experimental aircraft were used to test advanced systems and aerodynamics, and the lessons learned would propel the United States into space. Plus, the supersonic flight data collected from X-1 tests proved invaluable to those designing future U.S. fighter jets.

Underwood Archives

 

Spirit of St. Louis

The Ryan NYP, known as the "Spirit of St. Louis," carried Charles Lindbergh on his landmark 33-hour, 30-minute non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. Lindbergh, who was relatively unknown in the aviation community at the time, was unable to procure the funds to acquire a suitable existing aircraft design. Eventually the fabric-covered, single-seat, single-engine aircraft was designed jointly between Lindbergh and the Ryan Aircraft Company. Having completed only a small series of test flights and a trip from San Diego to St. Louis, Lindbergh would arrive at Roosevelt Field in New York just 10 days before he would take off for Paris.

The impact of the historic flight was immediate, and not just for Lindbergh's newfound fame. Through the rest of the year following that fateful May 1927 flight, applications for pilot's licenses in the U.S. tripled and the number of licensed aircraft quadrupled. U.S. airline passengers grew as well. Between 1926 and 1929, seats booked on airlines grew from 5,782 to 173,405. Aviation would never be the same.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone

 

Rutan VariEze

Designed by famed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, this unique composite aircraft became wildly popular among amateur aircraft builders because of its aerodynamic resistance to spins, its exotic looks, and its simplicity of design. In a departure from the traditional vertical and horizontal tail configuration similar to the tail feathers of an arrow, the VariEze received a Rutan hallmark: a smaller forewing or canard and large winglets at the tips of the larger main rear wing. Thousands of plans were sold and this became the most built kit plane of its time.

The success of this aircraft launched Rutan's career, resulting in the construction of dozens of aircraft, five of which reside in the Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum. One of these includes the SpaceShipOne, which became the first private aircraft to go to suborbital space and win the Ansari X-prize in 2004.

Peter Gronemann/Flickr

 

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Many modern fighters currently in active military roles began production in the 1970's. As many of these aircraft are reaching the end of their service life, the F-35 program is the key to replacing the Pentagon's aging warplanes with what is supposed to be an affordable alternative. The F-35 represents an entirely new class of fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Three variations of the fighter (the F-35A, B, and C) were developed to replace the U.S. military's aging fleet of F-16s, F/A-18s, A-10s, and AV-8B Harrier jump jets.

Of course, controversy has dogged the design and development of the single-seat, single-engine multirole fighter. At nearly $400 billion for 2,457 aircraft, the price has doubled the original estimates and delays to the development program have surpassed three years. In addition to cost overruns, the F-35 has been hammered by some aviation experts who say that the plane designed to do everything for multiple branches of the military is really great at anything.

The F-35 is finally flying, though. Now we're left to wait and see whether the Department of Defense's gleaming new Joint Strike Fighter can really deliver on its promise.

Gonzalo Alonso/Flickr

 

Airbus A320

To catch up to its biggest competitor, Boeing, Airbus took a leap forward in technology in the late 1980s by widely adopting the use of fly-by-wire flight controls and implementing side-sticks for improved ergonomics for the flight crew. The result is less arm fatigue and more precise control inputs that allow the crew to sit closer to larger integrated flight control instrumentation.

The first A320 was delivered in 1988 and the plane became one of the best-selling airliners of all time. The fly-by-wire technology went on to be included in Airbus's complete range of products, including the double-decker wide-body A380 and the next-generation A350 XWB.

Flickr

 

Lockheed Constellation

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator

The Predator was the first military "drone" (though the more accurate term would be "unmanned aerial vehicle"). It became famous famous for its role in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Predator can be remotely piloted to fly over a 400-nautical-mile course, circle its target for up to 14 hours, and return to base. The extensive use of the Predator not only to gather intel but also to fire Hellfire laser-guided missiles marked the beginning of the modern era of extensive drone warfare by the U.S. military.

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This high endurance one-of-a-kind aircraft was originally sketched on a napkin by Burt Rutan. It went on to be piloted by Burt's brother Dick and Jeana Yeager, to become the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe without the need to stop or refuel. Powered by one forward and one rear-facing propellor attached to separate engines, the aircraft would average an altitude of 11,000 feet and a speed of 116 mph during its nine-day non-stop journey from Edwards Air Force base in California.

Piper J-3 Cub

The first bright yellow J-3 went for sale in 1938 pumping out a whopping (for the time) 40 hp and costing a mere $1,000 dollars. With war looming in Europe, the little Cub became a primary trainer for the Civilian Pilot Training Program. By the end of the Second World War, 80 percent of all U.S. military pilots received their primary training in a J-3.

The Piper's simple construction, low cost, and docile handling made it one of the most popular light aircraft of all time. Due to increasing demand from bush pilots, the classic design has seen something of a modern renaissance. Manufacturers are adding onto the time-tested platform by adding modern conveniences like increased horsepower and electrical systems.

Skyscan
Van's Aircraft

 

Gossamer Albatross

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon

A top of speed twice the speed of sound, a ceiling of 50,000 feet, and an ability to pull nine times the force of gravity with just a single engine—all these features rocket the F-16 to its status as one of the most important planes ever built. The frameless bubble canopy gives pilots unprecedented and unrestricted visibility. A gently reclined seating position reduces the effects of extreme g-forces on the pilot, thereby allowing for more aggressive maneuvering.

The F-16 was the first fighter designed to be aerodynamically unstable. This improves maneuverability, but decreases controllability. A side-stick is connected to a computer-augmented fly-by-wire system that accepts input from the pilot. This system manipulates the aircraft to attain the desired results without loss of control. More than 4,500 of these aircraft have been built since 1976, and today the F-16 is a staple in the military fleets of more than 25 nations.

Wikimedia Commons

 

Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star

Despite its very dangerous development period, which killed two top aces and broke the back of another test pilot, the United States' first turbo-jet powered combat aircraft helped to bring about the jet age. Beginning its service at the close of World War II, the aircraft was used extensively during operations in the Korean War. But its straight wing design was no match for the swept-wing transonic MiG-15. The jet fighter went on to perform ground attack missions and serve as an advance trainer until it was replaced by the swept-wing F-86 Sabre.

Underwood Archives

 

Dassault Falcon 7X

This French-built business jet used a fly-by-wire flight control system adapted from Dassault's Mirage military fighter jet. Also borrowed from the Mirage was the extensive use of three-dimensional visualization software for all phases of design. It was so extensive, in fact, that Dassault claims to have created the first aircraft to be designed on a virtual platform. The so-named Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) was developed in-house at Dassault to design jet fighters, and this same software was used by Boeing to design both the 777 and 787.

The 7X's other hallmark? That trijet engine configuration, which is available on only one other jet in production.

Aero Icarus/Flickr

 

Gulfstream I

When the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation came up with the brilliant idea to turn its robust line of warplanes into a fleet of scaled-down airliners to accommodate the post-war economic boom, the business jet was born.

In the GI, the twin turboprop engines were mounted on a low wing that expanded cabin height and allowed passengers to completely stand up while inside the plane. Where the plane was designed to carry up to 24 passengers, it could transport 12 comfortably when in an executive configuration.

An auxiliary power unit was another design feature contributing to the aircraft's success. Air conditioning and other systems could be powered prior to engine start. This also allowed the plane to operate at small airfields with limited facilities. The large fuel tanks gave the GI extended range. All of these facts were appealing to a budding business industry that desired a more private and flexible means of travel.

Rob Corrin/Flickr

 

Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey

The ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter but cruise at high speed and long ranges like a turboprop became an important need for the United State military in the early 1980s. Boeing and Bell were jointly contracted to develop such a craft to replace the aging fleet of CH-46 Sea Knights. Their creation was the now-famous Osprey.

Despite controversy about cost overruns and allegations that the V-22 was unsafe and inadequate for the mission, the Osprey survived and even flourished in active service with both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force while deployed in transportation and medevac operations over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Kuwait.

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