Nov. 30, 2003 — Some planes are meant to accomplish something new and great; some are meant to perform a modest task over and over again, without fail, thousands of times. And some airplanes, regardless of original purpose, change the way we think about flying. Aviation halls of fame mostly honor aviators — not aircraft. So, with the help of readers, we’ve selected 10 planes that shaped modern aviation, and 10 runners-up that also played a major role.
1. DOUGLAS DC-3
Claim to fame: Defined commercial aviation.
It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t glamorous, but the durable DC-3 set the template for commercial aviation as we know it. Its origins were pragmatic, all the way back to the day in 1935 when American Airlines convinced Donald Douglas to build an aircraft that could accommodate sleeping berths and more passengers. Other airline executives quickly appreciated the plane’s flexibility and affordability and filled out their fleets with DC-3s.
Customers clamored for seats and executives willingly paid for its fold-down sleeper beds and luxury service. But as the Depression deepened, the Douglas Sleeper Transport model was reconfigured to pack in 28 passengers. The DC-3’s affordable tickets and proven safety record convinced Americans who had never flown before to take to the air. And with the DC-3 priced at about $120,000, half the cost of other transports, airlines could buy more planes and add new routes. Soon the airlines were showing some of their first profits ever — proof that flying could in fact make money.
After the war, the airlines built up their fleets again with DC-3s and surplus C-47s, sometimes buying them for just a few thousand dollars. As the airlines developed hub systems, DC-3s remained mainstays of commercial fleets and survived in mainline service well into the jet era. Dozens remain in service today.
With its remarkable flying record and comfortable ride, the DC-3 demonstrated that air travel could be for everyone. History has largely borne that out.
Runner-up: Boeing 747
Claim to fame: Flew more passengers farther than ever before. Made it possible to quickly travel almost anywhere.
As jets became popular in the 1960s, fares dropped and airlines wanted to carry more passengers over longer distances. Pan Am pressed Boeing for a plane that would push the limits of passenger travel. Boeing tweaked plans for a massive military transport and turned out the 747 in just over two years.
The first wide-body passenger jet, the 747-100 could carry nearly 500 passengers across 6,000 miles. Its modern incarnation, the 400 series, remains the largest passenger plane ever assembled. (The Airbus A380 will take that crown when it enters service in 2006.) With the 747, the farthest distances on Earth became just a day’s flight away.
2. BOEING 707
Claim to fame: First major success of the jet age. Set template for most commercial jetliners.
The first U.S. commercial jet aircraft, the 707 — and its oft-overlooked prototype, the 367-80 (“Dash 80”) — has been the basis for every Boeing jet since the Dash 80’s maiden flight in 1954.
Runner-up: Boeing 737
Claim to fame: World’s most-produced jetliner.
The 737 represents today what the DC-3 used to: Air travel that’s safe, cost-effective and immensely popular. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, chances are it was on a 737. Originally conceived as a shorter-range jet that would complement the 727, modern versions can now provide transcontinental and intercontinental service. Its affordability prompted the creation of low-fare airlines like Southwest. With more than 4,000 having rolled off the assembly line, the 737 is now the default for short- and medium-haul flights around the world. The six-abreast seating and scant legroom of most current configurations may be a far cry from the luxury that once defined jet travel, but that too is why the 737 is a symbol of modern air travel.
3. BELL X-1
Claim to fame: First piloted supersonic aircraft.
A plane built for superlatives, the X-1 didn’t disappoint. It was still known as the XS-1 on Oct. 14, 1947, when pilot Chuck Yeager took the first of two aircraft built for the program by Bell Aircraft (with a rocket engine from Reaction Motors) on the ninth powered flight of the Air Force’s joint test program with NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s precursor). Few other single flights have ever been as important.
Other models like the X-1A would carry pilots over 70,000 feet and Mach 2, but Yeager’s moment would never be trumped. The X-1 set the path for modern military aviation and space flight, along with commercial aircraft that would break the sound barrier for anyone who could afford to ride it.
Runner-up: North American X-15
Claim to fame: World’s fastest airplane. Only aircraft to fly itself into space.
The world’s first hypersonic airplane (built to travel over five times the speed of sound), the X-15 was created for research. It proved itself on 199 flights from 1959 to 1968 and its rocket systems propelled pilots up to speeds as high as Mach 6.7 (4,520 mph) and over 354,000 feet, some 67 miles high. That exceeded the U.S. definition for flying into space, which meant X-15 pilots could qualify as astronauts. At least one man who flew the X-15 would go on to even higher speeds and more glory: Neil Armstrong. The X-15 research helped create the space shuttle and will be crucial to future space plane development.
4. BOEING B-17
Claim to fame: Helped the Allies win the war in Europe. Set a standard for military bombers.
The prototype to what would become the Flying Fortress initially lost out to the Douglas B-18 in competition. But after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, orders began rolling into Boeing from a nervous Washington and from the Royal Air Force in Britain.
Perhaps most important, it could drop 6,000 pounds of bombs at a distance of 1,100 miles from its base — which gave it a key role (along with the long-range B-24) in raids on Berlin, Dresden and Rome. Though more than 12,000 were produced, most B-17s were scrapped after the war — largely relegating the planes’ flying days to the memories of the men who flew them.
Runner-up: Boeing B-29
Claim to fame: Helped the Allies win the war in the Pacific.
Even as the B-17 went into production, the U.S. government asked for a bomber with even more range. Building on the successful concepts of the B-17, Boeing created a new plane that could go twice as far (2,200 miles) and carry even more bombs. The Superfortress didn’t fly its first mission until 1944, but American generals quickly amassed fleets of the B-29 within bombing range of Tokyo; on some missions, over 1,000 B-29s were sent to bomb the Japanese capital.
Of more than 4,000 B-29s built, one retains a certain notoriety: the Enola Gay, which released the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
5. NORTH AMERICAN P-51
Claim to fame: Heroic air power in World War II.
The British were originally responsible for the P-51 Mustang (their designation) when they commissioned a new fighter in 1940, to be built by North American Aviation from an original Curtiss blueprint. U.S. officials took two to evaluate and eventually were won over. By war’s end, the NAA factory — a model of efficiency — had turned out some 15,000 of these versatile planes, which in just two years took down nearly 5,000 enemy aircraft in the European theater, more than any other aircraft.
The P-51’s real value was as a bomber escort: Crews of B-17s and B-24s found the Mustang an essential “little friend” that could pick off Luftwaffe fighters prowling the edges of bomber formations. Its long-range cruise capabilities allowed it to join the bombers on runs from British bases. That dazzling performance and power earned it another nickname: “Cadillac of the Sky.”
Runner-up: Supermarine Spitfire
Claim to fame: A versatile fighter-bomber throughout the war.
Though American aircraft won much of the glory, the various designs of the British Spitfire proved invaluable throughout the war.
Eventually able to top 400 mph, the plane’s elliptical wings and maneuverability pushed the edges of Allied technology and were an able match for Germany’s powerful Messerschmitt fighters and their fuel-injected engines. Spitfires were essential in almost every major engagement, including the Battle of Britain and D-Day.
6. CURTISS JN-4 JENNY
Claim to fame: First mass-produced airplane. First U.S. airmail service.
A slow, if solid, plane that redlined near 75 mph, the Jenny never found combat glory. But thousands of these sturdy biplanes were used for military training; most U.S. and Canadian pilots in World War I trained on them.
Thousands of of Jennys were produced during the war. As peace returned, the Army sold off many for surplus, dirt-cheap, and pilots grabbed them up. If you were a pilot in the early days of flying, a Jenny was likely your first plane. (It certainly was for Charles Lindbergh.) Jennys could soon be found almost everywhere as daredevil pilots spread airplane gospel in the barnstorming years of the 1920s. During those years, many Americans got their first glimpse of a flying machine when a Jenny appeared overhead.
Runner-up: Vickers Vimy
Claim to fame: First nonstop transatlantic flight.
Designed as a World War I bomber, the Vickers Vimy was put into service in 1919, too late for much use in the war. But just 14 days before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, British flyers John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown took their Vimy from the Newfoundland coast to a crash landing in Galway, completing the first successful nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 2,000 miles in just over 16 hours. In December 1919, the Vimy went on to win an England-to-Australia air race and again proved its amazing endurance.
Charles Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP — “The Spirit of St. Louis,” that is — was specifically built for his long overwater flight. With a periscope instead of a windshield, it helped Lindbergh perform his extraordinary feat but had little adaptability for other uses. The Vimy completed a similar feat eight years earlier with only small changes to its original configuration.
7. MESSERSCHMITT ME-262
Claim to fame: First production jet aircraft. First jet fighter.
Though the experimental Heinkels He-178 — the world’s first jet aircraft — first flew in 1939, Germany showed little interest in turbine technology until several years later. Berlin eventually turned its attention to jets, but engineers couldn’t get a prototype of the Me-262 into the air before mid-1941 and couldn’t start full production until 1944 — too late for jets to play a major role in the war.
Though U.S. engineers had been working on their own jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80, in the waning years of the war, the advances made in Willi Messerschmitt’s factories were scrutinized by the Allies after the fall of the Reich. Those designs helped pave the way for many of the jet fighters that have staked claim on the skies in the 70 years since the Me-262 was developed.
Runner-up: Boeing B-52
Claim to fame: A versatile cornerstone of U.S. military power.
Born out of the end of World War II, with the Army Air Corps looking for a bomber that could fly farther and with more bombs than Convair’s massive B-36, the B-52 Stratofortress was destined for a completely new type of fight. By the time the first production B-52 was delivered to Strategic Air Command in 1955, the Cold War was under way and the eight-engined bomber’s payload was to be nuclear. For the next four decades, B-52s constantly patrolled the skies on alert for any Soviet threat, the keystone of the U.S. strategy of nuclear deterrence.
Over the years, both the missions and the aircraft evolved. The Air Force also wanted B-52s for reconnaissance and for payloads of conventional bombs. The Arc Light program brought the B-52 to the skies over Vietnam, from which they could level large swaths of jungle.
In-flight refueling allowed the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fellow, an apt moniker for a half-million-pound aircraft) to fly nonstop for over a day, striking targets around the world from bases on U.S. soil. It rained munitions on Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in the first Gulf war, was key to air support in Afghanistan and helped military planners carry off their “shock and awe” assault on Baghdad last March. Newer technology has arrived, but has never supplanted the B-52.
8. CESSNA SINGLE-ENGINE AIRCRAFT
Claim to fame: The planes that gave many pilots their wings.
Clyde Cessna’s company had been building utilitarian aircraft since 1927, but in 1946 he unveiled his 120 and 140 models: high-wing, lightweight, two-seaters that could be used for personal transport. With the Depression and the war behind them, aviation entrepreneurs figured Americans would soon take to the skies in their aerial versions of the family car. A popular four-seat version, the 170, came two years later and Cessnas’ fabric surfaces were converted to metal.
The Skyhawk went on to become the most-sold aircraft in general aviation. Hundreds of thousands of pilots have learned to fly behind the controls of a 150 or 172; any pilot you meet has probably flown one. More powerful models, like the 182 Skylane and the 206 Stationair, are in wide use by private pilots and companies. Cessna even produces a 12-seat single-engine prop, the Grand Caravan, for commuter and cargo airlines. Though liability concerns halted its single-engine production from 1986 to the mid-1990s, pilots today can still buy a new Skyhawk nearly 50 years after it was first designed.
Runner-up: Piper Cub
Claim to fame: An invaluable small airplane for over 70 years.
Long before the Cessna factory began churning out personal airplanes, the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company was tinkering with designs sufficient to power a two-seat trainer. William Piper bought out the firm and by 1936, the J-2 Cub was in steady production. Soon after, the J-3 was unveiled. It was modest, with a 65 h.p. Lycoming engine and a top speed slightly above 80 mph.
But as hints of war emerged in the late 1930s, the J-3 Cub was chosen for the Civilian Pilot Training program and eventually put into the war for scouting and light transport. Thousands of Cubs rolled out of the factory — over 14,000 by the end of production in 1947. Most military pilots in the war got their first training in a Cub.
Though Piper hoped to market the Cub to pilots coming home from the war, sales fizzled. But thousands of Cubs remained in service for decades and many still fly, offering passengers a fun-filled glimpse at aviation’s past.
9. BOEING B314
Claim to fame: First transatlantic passenger airplane. Most luxurious airplane in passenger service.
If the DC-3 and 737 shaped what air travel has become, Boeing’s Clipper ships represent what might have been.
Boeing responded with the B314, which would be the largest passenger craft until the 747 was introduced nearly three decades later. Its four 1,200 h.p. engines could carry 74 passengers over 3,500 miles at 183 mph.
More importantly, it could carry them in unparalleled luxury. With two decks (one just for the crew), it contained a dining room where four-star hotels catered meals from a fully stocked galley, separate dressing rooms for men and women and a private suite in the rear. Overnight flights provided berths for 40 passengers.
The Clippers launched the first passenger service across the Atlantic on June 28, 1939, from New York to Southampton, England. A one-way ticket cost $375. Franklin Roosevelt became the first sitting president to fly when a Clipper carried him to the an 1943 Allied summit in Casablanca. (Winston Churchill also arrived on a B314, his preferred airplane.)
Limited passenger service continued through World War II, even as the military took over most of Pan Am’s 12 Clippers. But after the war, interest in the high-priced luxury of a Clipper flight was replaced by demand for more efficient, cheaper land-based models. The era of flying boats, and of true luxury for air travelers, was over.
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Runner-up: Lockheed Constellation
Claim to fame: Last of the piston-engine passenger craft. One of the most stylish airplanes ever built.
Though early versions were used during the war, Lockheed’s Constellation and Super Constellation got their real start in 1946 when they were put to use on both domestic and international routes.
Able to cruise well over 300 mph, it made long-range flights feel routine. Lockheed’s final version, the 1649 “Starliner,” was easily able to reach Europe from most U.S. cities.
The Connie could breed both love and frustration. Use of the troubled Wright Cyclone engine led to frequent flame-outs and failures — including one engine that fell off on a transatlantic Pan Am flight to London. But its sleek, refined looks matched the aesthetics of the times and many consider it the most beautiful airplane ever constructed.
But by the time airlines got the Starliner in 1956, jet travel had become the clear future of passenger aviation and the Connie’s time was up.
10. LOCKHEED SR-71
Claim to fame: Fastest and highest-flying production aircraft.
Since its predecessor A-12 was tested in 1962 and revealed to the world in 1964, the SR-71 “Blackbird” and its family of aircraft — once shrouded in Cold War secrecy — have become renowned for speed and sheer power. Yet much of what they achieved during high-flying reconnaissance missions remains a mystery.
The Air Force was forced to cancel the Blackbird program in 1990, then brought them back briefly in the mid-90s before they were permanently retired. NASA also flew versions of the SR-71 for research, first during the 1970s and then again in the 1990s, before ending flights in 2001.
Forty years after it was engineered, its speed and altitude records remain unparalleled.
Runner-up: Lockheed C-130
Claim to fame: A life-saving airlift that can land almost anywhere.
Big, bulky and never glamorous, the C-130 and its variants have provided a half-century of unfailing service into some of the most hostile places on Earth. It can carry over 41,000 pounds of people and cargo and has been used for every imaginable task — from resupplying the DEW line in the Arctic to evacuating casualties in Vietnam. A C-130 was the first plane to land after U.S. troops stormed the Baghdad airport earlier this year.
Outside of military service, the Hercules flies cargo operations and even firefighting missions for the U.S. Forest Service. In other configurations, it has served as an air tanker (KC-130), flying command-and-control center (EC-130) and hard-hitting gunship (AC-130). Loaded at nearly over 150,000 pounds, it can still land in about 2,000 feet — an astounding feat for an aircraft its size. No runway? No problem — the C-130 can ease onto a dirt strip.
Like the B-52, it serves as proof that the most durable technology doesn’t need to be new.
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