17 Best Airplanes of All Time
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
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.
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
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?
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. Hawker Siddeley Harrier
Commonly known as the Harrier Jump Jet, the Harrier (a bird of prey) was the first operational jet fighter capable of vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL). Introduced in 1969 and used by the Royal Air Force (RAF), this subsonic strike fighter, part of the first generation of Harriers, needed no runway for take off, only a small clearing or the deck of an aircraft carrier. In the 1970s, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) began using Harriers, considered having performance similar to F-4 Phantoms. The second generation of Harriers took flight in the 1980s. Redeveloped by McDonald Douglas, this newer version was named the AV-8B Harrier II. In 2015, the F-35B, capable of vertical takeoff, began replacing the AV-8B Harrier II.
6. B-52 Stratofortress
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!
7. F-117A Nighthawk
The F-117A Nighthawk was the first stealth fighter in the arsenal of the USAF. (Strictly speaking, though, the Nighthawk was not a jet fighter; instead, it was used for ground attack.) 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.
8. North American 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.
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!
10. North American 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.
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.
12. B-2 Spirit 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.
13. F-35 Lightning II
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."
14. 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.
15. Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady
The U-2 spy plane, that is, its various updated models, have been flying since 1955. In addition to being used in reconnaissance (or spying), the U-2 is used for electronic sensor research, satellite calibration, scientific and communication purposes. It can fly as high as 70,000 feet, a point at which the curvature of the earth is quite evident. Originally operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, the U-2 was used to photograph military installations in the Soviet Union. Infamously, two U-2 spy planes were shot down by Russian surface-to-air missiles, one in 1960 and the other in 1962. Interestingly, as recently as August 2018, the U-2 was used for mapping the Mendocino Complex Fire in California, and it could remain a viable multi-use aircraft until 2050.
16. Mikoyan MiG-31 “Foxhound”
Developed by the Soviet Air Forces, the MiG-31 replaces the MiG-25 “Foxbat" and may be the fastest combat jet or interceptor in the world. Introduced in 1981, the MiG-31 is designed to intercept cruise missiles, drones, helicopters and strategic bombers. Flying at Mach 3 or more, it has many other impressive attributes: it’s the first aircraft to use phased array radar; it’s the first operational fighter to use a passive electronically scanned array; it can track 24 airborne targets simultaneously; it can track objects, as small as five square meters, as far away as 282 kilometers; and it can carry conventional and nuclear warheads. Updated many times over the years, the MiG-31 could remain in service until 2030.
17. Solar Impulse 2
17. Solar Impulse 2
This aircraft uses no fuel; it is powered only by photovoltaic solar cells. First flown as the Solar Impulse 1 in 2009, this airplane can take-off under its own power and fly hundreds, if not thousands of miles, for up to 36 hours. But it does have limitations: it can only carry one person and virtually no payload; it can only fly in clear weather conditions and needs scores of engineers, technical and logistical personnel. Nevertheless, in 2016, the Solar Impulse 2 flew over 26,000 miles on a protracted, 16-month trip – the first such aircraft to circumnavigate the earth using only solar power. The plane’s designers envision a time when all commercial and private aircraft will fly using only solar power.
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© 2009 Kelley Marks