13 Best Airplanes of All Time

Updated on January 19, 2018
Kosmo profile image

Kelley has always been very interested in airplanes and spaceships, about which he has written many articles.

Before we venture to the stars, we must first fly above the treetops.

The author has always been fascinated with airplanes. Though he’s only flown once in his life, he found the experience exhilarating and even spiritual, peering down upon the world at 30, 000 feet, while skipping among billowy clouds. Just miles away, he saw another jet airliner traveling at the same altitude but in the opposite direction, probably traveling about 500 mph, and he thought, Wow, that’s fast!

Of course, many airplanes can travel much faster. But this story is about the history of all aircraft.

Bear in mind, this list is in no particular order because each airplane was a marvel of its own era and/or intended for a purpose whose value could be considered subjective.

1. Wright Brothers’ Flyer 1

1903 Flyer 1 in the National Air and Space Museum
1903 Flyer 1 in the National Air and Space Museum

A list such as this must include the very first airplane. Produced and then flown by Wilbur and Orville Wright on December 17, 1903, their gossamer-winged aircraft made possible the first controllable and sustainable, heavier-than-air human flight. In order to accomplish such a feat, the Wright Brothers essentially built the whole contraption from scratch, other than the light-weight, fuel-injected engine, which was built by Charlie Taylor. This accomplishment is still astonishing, though, since the time was right, somebody else would have built it soon enough.

2. DC-3

DC-3
DC-3

The Douglas-Commerical-3 is perhaps the best transport aircraft ever built. Introduced in 1935, this tough, versatile, reliable, propeller-driven airplane was one of the first used in transcontinental flights across the US. The American military’s version of the DC-3, the C-47, was widely used during World War Two. Because the plane can be landed just about anywhere, many countries throughout the world still use DC-3s for freight transport, aerial spraying and commercial air traffic. Aviation buffs say, “The only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.” This trusty aircraft may never be retired!

3. SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71 Blackbird
SR-71 Blackbird

The Blackbird was a Cold War-era reconnaissance jet that could fly so high (85,000 feet) and so fast (over Mach 3) that the Russians or other enemies couldn’t shoot it down with surface-to-air missiles. Other aircraft could travel as fast for short periods, but the SR-71 could fly at top speed for an hour until its fuel ran out. Considered by many purists to be the finest aircraft ever made, the Blackbird was one of the first airplanes to utilize stealth technology; for instance, the cross-section of the airframe was minimized to reduce radar exposure and the whole body was painted a very dark blue. The SR-71 carried no armament, just cameras and sensors, used for spying and, on occasion, scientific purposes. Hey, isn't it one of the sexiest things you've ever seen?

4. Messerschmitt-262

ME-262
ME-262

Nicknamed the “Swallow,” the ME-262 was the world’s first operational jet fighter, introduced about three months before Britain’s Gloster Meteor, the Allies only jet fighter to enter service during World War Two. Used by Germany during WWII, this formidable aircraft carried four 30 mm cannon, as well as rockets and bombs, giving it enough pop to down B-17s, P-51s and anything else the allied forces threw against it. Capable of speeds of over 500 mph, the Swallow was faster than anything flying by about 100 mph. The fighter’s major shortcoming was that the engines needed replacement after about 25 hours of flight. Unfortunately for Germany, its use came too late in the war to turn the tide.

5. B-52 Stratofortress

B-52
B-52

Since it first went into service in 1955, the B-52 has been one of the most reliable and versatile strategic long-range bombers in the US arsenal, fighting in numerous wars and conflicts from one century into the next. Designed to carry conventional as well as nuclear weapons, the aircraft uses eight turbojet engines, can carry monstrous payloads, and has a range of over 12,000 miles. Over the years, the B-52 has had numerous retrofits, including a deployment capability for cruise missiles and drones, which has extended its usefulness into the twenty-first century. Even supersonic bombers such as the B-1 have not replaced this mainstay. It may never be retired!

6. F-117A Nighthawk

F-117 Nighthawk
F-117 Nighthawk

The F-117A Nighthawk was the first stealth fighter in the arsenal of the USAF. Developed in the early 1980s, the Nighthawk was virtually invisible to radar and carried laser-guided bombs and other guided munitions or “smart bombs.” The Nighthawk was particularly effective in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, flying over 1,300 sorties, and not a single one was shot down. However, one Nighthawk was shot down in the Kosovo War in 1999, the enemy using particularly long-wavelength radar to spot it. This stealth fighter was retired from service in 2008, superseded by more advanced stealth fighters such as the F-22.

7. North American P-51 Mustang

P-51 Mustang
P-51 Mustang

This fast, long-range, powerful fighter-bomber may have won the war in Europe during World War Two. Utilizing its great versatility, P-51s helped the allied forces dominate the air during 1944, setting the stage for the defeat of Nazi Germany. The P-51 was also widely used during the Korean War, even after jet fighters such as the F-86 came on the scene. The U.S. military continued using P-51s until the early 1980s. These days, P-51s can still be seen in air shows and races, and many countries throughout the world use P-51s for civilian applications.

8. Messerschmitt Bf 109 (ME-109)

ME-109
ME-109

The ME-109 could be considered the German counterpart to the Japanese Zero, because it was Germany’s best fighter aircraft during World War Two, particularly in the early years; however, it remained formidable throughout the war, being reliable, fast, versatile, though it lacked range. Many different versions of the airplane were created, highlighting differences in armament, power train or structural characteristics. Perhaps the best was the ME-109F, for which modifications more than doubled the airplane’s range. Interestingly, more ME-109s were produced – nearly 34,000 – than any other fighter in history!

9. North American X-15

X-15
X-15

Made for NASA, the USAF and the USN, the X-15 rocket plane flew for experimental purposes from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. This long, sleek craft was designed to fly to the threshold of space, some 50 to 70 miles in altitude, technically making the pilots astronauts. In fact, it was the world's first operational space plane. To attain such heights, the aircraft was launched from the underside of a B-52, and then it fired its rocket, accelerating the craft to Mach 6.7 or about 4,500 mph. The X-15 flew almost 200 flights, and the data obtained helped the American space program. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, flew the X-15 numerous times.

10. Concorde

Although the United States and the Soviet Union had planned to build their own supersonic passenger jet airliners, only France and Britain’s Concorde was completed and went into regular service in 1976. The Concorde could cruise at Mach 2, or over 1,300 mph, and could fly nonstop from London to New York, giving it the longest range of any supersonic aircraft. The Concorde continued flying for 27 more years. But various problems ended its career. Always very expensive to operate, the plane’s avionics were analog and needed an upgrade and a fatal crash in 2000 belied its apparent invincibility. The Concorde flew for the final time in November 2003.


11. B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber

B-2 Stealth Bomber
B-2 Stealth Bomber

Also known as the flying wing and first projected during the Carter administration in the 1970s, this long-range strategic bomber is the obvious successor to the great B-52. But this bomber came at a much greater cost – over $2 billion for each plane as of 1997! The B-2 can fly at just under Mach one and carry 40,000 pounds of ordinance, conventional or thermonuclear weapons, and can fly for over 6,000 miles before refueling. About 20 of these bombers have been produced to date and they’ve been used in combat in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Military officials think the B-2 will remain useful until at least 2050.


12. F-35 Lightning II

F-35A
F-35A

First produced in 2006, the F-35, a stealth multi-role fighter, is definitely the most expensive jet fighter ever produced by the United States Air Force. Each plane costs between $90 and $120 million, depending on the variant number (the F-35B can accommodate vertical takeoff), and the total cost of production is supposed to be about $1.5 trillion, that is, projecting well into the future – 2070, if you can believe the predictions. (This cost doesn’t include the $1 trillion of projected maintenance costs). As for performance, only the F-22 Raptor compares to it, or so the reports say. Of course, this very costly aircraft has its share of critics. The common refrain regarding the plane is that "it’s too big to kill."


Lockheed C-130 Hercules

Lockheed C-130 Hercules
Lockheed C-130 Hercules

In production since the early 1950s, the C-130 Hercules is another very impressive workhorse of the sky. A four-engine, turbo-prop plane with a cargo ramp in back, the C-130 Hercules has some 40 different variants and may be the most versatile aircraft ever built, having usage for troop transport, medevac, cargo transport, airborne assault, military training, search and rescue, firefighting, aerial refueling and maritime patrol. Used primarily by the United States Air Force, although greatly used by many foreign air forces, the C-130 was designed to be adequate for the needs of modern warfare. Its usage will probably continue until at least the 2030s.

Questions & Answers

    © 2009 Kelley

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      • profile image

        Joe Kack 

        3 months ago

        How about the Boeing 707 or the P-3 Orion or the F-4 Phantom or the F-4U Corsair or the F-6 Hellcat, or the Boeing 727 or the DC-9. BTW: The ME-262 was pretty much a failure.

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        3 months ago

        I enjoyed reading this article. It is a good list of innovative aircraft. Keep in mind with the Me 262 that the Me 163 was about 50 mph faster.

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        6 months ago from California

        According to Wikipedia, the ME-262 was introduced about three months before the Gloster Meteor and was also a better fighter.

      • profile image

        Kosmo Kelley 

        6 months ago

        Hey, Mike Burton, according to various sources, the P51 Mustang, also updated regularly, was the best prop-driven fighter developed during WWII. Also, I'll check to see if the Meteor was operational before the ME262. Thanks for the comment!

      • profile image

        Mike Burton 

        6 months ago

        I know this list is just personal opinion but no Spitfire! Honestly? It did so much more than just win the Battle of Britain. It was constantly updated and was always faster than the equivalent P51. It was one of the best dog fighters as well as being the best looking aircraft of all time (sorry for that last bit - personal bias showing through)

        Also, the ME262 wasn't the first operational jet fighter. The Meteor beat it to squadron service by 4 weeks. FWIW , the Meteor broke the world speed record in Nov. 1945 with a speed of 606mph.

      • profile image

        Mike 

        6 months ago

        My vote is the U2. Maybe this aircraft has prevented WWIII, at least so far. Because of the overflights of the Soviet Union and the recon of Cuba in 1962 we removed some fog of war and that power saved us AND Russia (and maybe everyone else). The Cold War is still with us and so is the U2.

      • profile image

        Jake 

        11 months ago

        Where is the spitfire!!!!

      • profile image

        Dave 

        11 months ago

        Cant.believe the C130 is not included.

      • profile image

        Hellsvien 

        17 months ago

        Where is the 747? The biggest and the best airliner for many years? What about the 777?

      • profile image

        Aakabkan 

        19 months ago

        I would have included Junkers F13, the world's first all-metal transport Aircraft.

      • profile image

        Paul 

        2 years ago

        How can Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster and Harrier not be on this list!?!

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        3 years ago from California

        Hey, islandangler, thanks for the comment. The Spitfire has gotten some votes for this list; after all, it helped win the Battle of Britain, but I've got enough WWII-era fighters on this list. Later!

      • islandangler profile image

        Simon John Attard 

        3 years ago from Malta

        Determinately got to add a Spitfire to that list :) Nice hub!

      • profile image

        judson951 

        4 years ago

        not even a mention of the superb spitfire?

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        4 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, Coolpapa. I'll have to check out your hub about this 707, a plane designed to be incapable of stalling. Later!

      • Coolpapa profile image

        Coolpapa 

        4 years ago from Florida

        Great Hub but everyone gets off on all the big military machines and forgets the pioneers who designed and built the little planes. The Ercoupe is a good example, the only airplane designed to be incapable of stalling. This little two-seater was actually used to train the first 707 pilots who had to learn to land without lowering a wing. It was truly a landmark machine in the timeline of aviation. for anyone interested, I have a hub on this little beauty.....

        https://hubpages.com/technology/Weick

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        5 years ago from California

        You're right, Wiskees, the C-130 would be a good choice for this list, but I like my picks just fine. Later!

      • profile image

        Wiskees 

        5 years ago

        How in the world could you have missed the C-130. I might have even given it the #1 spot.

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        6 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, Randy Godwin. I really enjoy hearing from someone who has flown in a P-51! Of course, the Mustang could have been put on this list. It won the war, didn't it? Well, a lot did. My metal shop teacher said steel won it. Also, you gotta love the DC-3. Later!

      • Randy Godwin profile image

        Randy Godwin 

        6 years ago from Southern Georgia

        Having flown in a P-51 two seater model piloted by a WWII fighter and test pilot I can attest to the superiority above any other prop driven airplane. I also flew with the same pilot on a DC-3 and had the honor of being allowed to take the controls on both.

        But my biggest thrill was flying in a former Russian Yak with my cousin and going through the complete list of aerobatic maneuvers. I wrote a hub about this last aircraft called: Why Do They Call It A Yak? LOL!

        Enjoyed the read!

        Randy SSSSS

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        6 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, RT. You have some quality information to offer. You're right about the Me 262; its engines only lasted about 25 hours, and that's when the pilots were nice to them! Apparently the British design was better. Nevertheless, it was the first operation jet. Hey, wouldn't you like to own one? As for the Me 109, the engineers were constantly improving it. Later!

      • profile image

        RT 

        6 years ago

        contd...

        The B-52H would qualify in the combat arena somewhere, but more as an airframe than a single actual production aircraft. It has received more money in development and redevelopment than any other.

        The Me 262, aka the messofshit. Remarkable aircraft, pure garbage for engines. (They ate themselves)

        SR 71. Not an aircraft. A Kelly based contrivance that rewrote avionics as understood today. It wasn't a true aircraft but a gigantic multi-operation involving world wide alerts each time it went airborne. Flight distance to losses ratio is unrivaled.

        F-117A Most unstable aircraft ever made. Cannot remain airborne without unprecedented amount of computer assistance. Described as a museum piece waiting to happen.

        ME 109. Well made aircraft but way over-hyped. It achieved it's combat achievement records due to the fact there were so many built (over 33,000) and at the time Germany had exceptionally well trained pilots.

        X-15 X, not a production aircraft. Separate category.

      • profile image

        RT 

        6 years ago

        The criteria is missing. Best performance, longevity, reliability etc. The best airplane taking all factors into account was the DC-3, without any close rivals. This is based on the criteria of longevity which takes into account more factors than specifics such as speed or performance. The DC-3's airframe was so solid and reliable it is being rebuilt and re-certified today. a feat no other aircraft can claim.

        Second to the DC-3 is the 747 for similar criteria. It's service mileage is second to none. However, it's airframe must be scrapped as it cannot be feasibly rebuilt and returned to service.

        The best combat related planes are, in no particular order, the Spitfire -20,000+ produced, the P-51 - 10,000+ and the Zero, based upon reliability and performance.

        Always keep in mind when espousing a plane, the objectivity of those who promoted said aircraft. Political noise and personal preferences should never be allowed in judgment criteria.

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        6 years ago from California

        Thanks for the comment, TheodoreOctavian, the DC-3 is perhaps the greatest commercial airplane of all time. I'd like to own one. Wouldn't you? Later!

      • profile image

        TheodoreOctavian 

        6 years ago

        informative hub kosmo...the DC - 3 was the workhorse of it's time...truly revolutionized commercial air travel

      • profile image

        Reinaldo Barros 

        6 years ago

        lol! Are you kidding friend?

        Learn with me:

        PA-11 CUB SPECIAL- The Ultimate Flying Machine!

      • profile image

        John 

        6 years ago

        this site is helping me on my reasherch paper. THAKE YOU!!!!

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        7 years ago from California

        No problem, Johnny boy, lists are made for having fun and generating lively debate. Later!

      • profile image

        Johnny boy 

        7 years ago

        First of all, I heartily apologize if I offended you. You know, you can always ammend the list. Or, even gooder, concoct "the other ten." Anyway, you're cool.

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        7 years ago from California

        Right, Johnny boy, the C-130 is another great plane. Put it on your list. Cool? Later!

      • profile image

        Johnny boy 

        7 years ago

        Just a second here. Why is the C-130 Hercules mysteriously absent here? As far as successful airplanes go, I'd have ta rank it at #1. Flown by over 60 countries worldwide, In production for more than 50 yrs, and still produced. What's wrong with you people?

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        7 years ago from California

        Hey, I'll admit I'm not exactly an expert on aircraft; I'm more of an enthusiast, you know? Anyway, this list was fun to make and not meant to be comprehensive in any way. But if you don't say best or greatest this or that, many people won't read the list. Nevertheless, most of these planes have their numerous fans, especially the DC-3 and the Blackbird. Later!

      • profile image

        Peter 

        7 years ago

        I'm surprised that the Spitfire did not get in here with the German fighters it was up against. Both the ME-109 and ME-262 got a mention but not the legendary Spitfire, or any British fighter of WW2 for that matter. Not plugging for the British here, just thinking the list is unbalanced. And while the wonderful DC-3 Dakota is listed, others like the Concorde and X-15 could have been dumped in favour of other contenders if the list was going to be limited to just 10 aircraft. There's a difference between "greatest" - the best known, fastest, most successful, most useful, most life saving and most legendary, and the "most revolutionary" such as Concorde and the "most experimental", such as the X-15. I could name enough "best airplanes" to delete at least half the list here - Sopwith Camel, Catalina and Meteor just to name a few. But your enthusiasm and effort is appreciated just the same.

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        7 years ago from California

        Yeah, Mike, the Spitfire helped win the Battle of Britain, so it was a very good fighter. Of course, there were many others during WWII. Thanks for the comment. Later!

      • profile image

        Mike 

        7 years ago

        During WW2, The sound of a merlin engine in the legendary Supermarine Spitfire struck fear into the German frontline, Powerful and fast, It is loved by the British(Myself included) and other alled countries, It gets my vote every time.

      • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

        Kelley 

        7 years ago from California

        Thanks for your comments, Kurt. Keep in mind, of course the P51 was better than the Zero or the ME109, but it was produced years after those two. Get it? After. Moreover, a rocket plane is still an airplane. Hey, maybe I should just forget this whole list and show the F22 Raptor?!... I almost did. I also indicated that the list was in no particular order. Later!

      • profile image

        kurt 

        7 years ago

        Here are a few you forgot and some that shud be lost...747 which changed the way we all fly...same could be said for it's earlier brother the 707. What about the F15? Deadliest air superiority fighter to date in real combat. The X15 is more rocket than airplane....the Zero and BF109 both were inferior compared to the P51, Spitfire, F6F, and Corsair. Overall not a bad list though as I have the SR71#1, the DC3#2, the 747#3, the F15#4 and the P51#5 with the B52 a close 6th. Longevity means something!

      • av8erprince profile image

        Manpreet Prince Singh 

        8 years ago from Sacramento, CA

        Nice job here Kosmo. Here check out my comparison between Globemaster (C-17) and Galaxy C-5. I am sure you would love it: http://iflyasa.com/general-aviation-news/boeing-17...

      • profile image

        Duchess OBlunt 

        8 years ago

        I would just like to put in a plug here for Canada. The Avro Arrow was for Canada a benchmark in aerospace achievement.

        She was the fastest interceptor and most maneuverable plane of her time, with a maximum speed of mach 2. (1953-1960).

        Canada could have been one of the front runners in the world in military aviation development, but they destroyed them all and all the plans. I still have not found a reasonable explanation for that. It remains a mystery.

      • tony0724 profile image

        tony0724 

        8 years ago from san diego calif

        Kosmo thank you for a truly educational hub . I love those stealth fighters In particular . And we always gotta give a shout out to Wilbur and Orville ! Good job

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