In response to a Cosmic Log call for nominations, hundreds of readers sent in their personal picks for a pantheon of planes. Those nominations provided the basis for our look at “Ten Aircraft That Changed Aviation.” Many sent in lists of up to 30 planes, while others explained their single choice in detail. Here is a selection of the feedback. It’s not too late to send in your observations on MSNBC’s top 10 planes and the runners-up.
Name: Paul Lukas
Hometown: Arlington, Va., and Seattle
First, let me say how pleased I am that someone other than the Discovery Channel has finally noticed the pending 100-year anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight. As a species, we’ve been traversing the oceans for over a thousand years, but to come from the Wright Flyer to the space shuttle and beyond in less than 100 years is saying something.
For an aircraft hall of fame, I have to refer to the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bomber of World War II fame. Though the most advanced design element within the entire airframe was the Norden bombsight, this aircraft deserves mention for two reasons:
First, the sheer beauty of the aircraft, in my mind, has yet to be matched by any aircraft designed since (save for the Lockheed P-38L Lightning, or the Grumman F-4U Corsair).
The second reason is the ability of the Flying Fortress to bring aircrews home alive. Stories abound of aircraft returning on a single engine (out of four), or missing large sections of fuselage or flying surfaces (wings, tails), or crash landings that the entire aircrew was able to walk away from.
For the ability to complete its mission, and keep its aircrew safe, the B-17 Flying Fortress deserves a spot of honor in any aviation hall of fame.
Name: David Bass
The list presented by the Smithsonian is abysmally U.S.-centric.
No mention of the Montgolfier brothers’ first hot-air balloon flight? No mention of Lilienthal’s pioneering glider flights? It even fails to mention Gagarin!
Never mind — it’s a list designed to guide someone around their exhibits, but to present it as a set of “Firsts” is an exaggeration.
My list would also include:
First trans-Atlantic crossing by airship.
Alcock and Brown’s first trans-Atlantic crossing by a heavier-than-air craft.
World’s first airline (KLM?).
First flight of a jet airliner (DeHavilland Comet).
First helicopter flight.
First unrefueled round-the-world flight.
Name: Matt Parker
Have to have the Spitfire, as it was instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain. Even when vastly outnumbered, the Commonwealth pilots turned back wave after wave of German attackers due to this incredible plane. And if the Battle of Britain hadn’t been won, America wouldn’t have had the chance to ride in late to save the day.
Name: Michael Martin
I nominate the Spruce Goose. Failures, bad ideas and good ideas gone wrong are important to science as well as to humanity.
Name: William L. Jones
I pick the Douglas DC-3. It transported everything: people, animals, raw material, weapons, etc. It was durable, easy to fly, and could always do the job. It also lasted a very long time. I know of a case where one was built from parts in an overseas depot by GIs. It served them well until a brigadier general spotted it and requisitioned the spare parts for his own (admittedly critical) needs.
Name: David Kaill
Hometown: Redmond, Wash.
DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver!
The cool thing about bush planes is that the technology has not been greatly improved since the late ’30s. I can’t count how many times I have flown in Beavers (having grown up in Alaska) because they are simply the best at what they do: hauling heavy loads in and out of short unimproved strips or waterways. Now a company is retooling up the production line on the same old Beav. This plane rocks.
Name: Michael Vevera
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
There is no doubt that the best fighter plane and overall best perforance non-jet-propelled aircraft ever built and mass-produced was the P-51 Mustang.
Name: Scott Fritz
Hometown: Greenville, Ohio (yeah, just up the road from Dayton, and across the way from where Neil grew up)
Most everyone has compiled a list of all-time great aircraft, and of course, if you go to D.C., you can visit the Smithsonian and view those this country regards as the most historically valuable.
It has never made sense to me to group the Douglas DC-3, The P-51 Mustang, or the SR-71 Blackbird together with the Wright Flyer, since these planes are so very different in what they were designed to do. A commercial passenger/cargo plane, a fighter and a high-performance spy plane have vastly different missions.
But those experimental planes, those that broke boundaries, tested the unknowns, provided hard proof that an idea actually worked (or didn’t) — these are the planes that rightfully deserve a place in the holy of holies with the Wright Flyer.
Certainly the DC-3, the P-51, the SR-71 and others were important, classic, wonderful and awesome planes, touched with graceful beauty and possessed of that curious magic that fires imagination and leaves a legacy long after they have left the sky — but more sacred are those bold planes that dared to go higher, faster, farther than we had ever gone before, pushing the boundaries of the possible and doing it ways we had not tried before.
The X-planes, flying cars, the Russian Ekranoplan, and just maybe a few of those wildly designed paper airplanes you tried out when you were a kid, just to see if they could fly farther, faster, or do aerobatics better — these share the essence of adventure with the Flyer. Few of these planes are beautiful, many have the kind of handsomeness you have to grow to appreciate, some are downright ugly. But they were built in the spirt of hope and promise and curiosity, to test limits — and not for anything so mundane as hauling passengers, packages or bombs. That’s just work. These planes carried dreams aloft, just to see if they could fly. They’re my favorites.
Name: Dennis McClain-Furmanski
Hometown: West Haven, Conn.
“Which airplanes would you park in your personal hall of fame?”
Most definitely, the spaceworthy offspring of the X-15 project, the X-20 DynaSoar.
This was very nearly the focus of the U.S. manned space program, especially the military part of it. The craft was built, pilots picked and trained (including one Neil Armstrong), a launch platform selected (Titan 3), and suborbital and orbital missions planned. Unfortunately, it was canceled in favor of other projects.
It, and its sister craft (HL-10, X-23, X-24), were the shape of things to come. The lifting-body design proved so valuable, thanks to these test vehicles, that the concept was adopted for the shuttle, and for many of the proposed craft of the future (X-38, X-43).
Name: Nathan Morrison
Hometown: New York City, borough of the Bronx
I would add the Harrier to the hall of fame, rewarding the innovation of its vertical takeoff/landing ability. In the same vein, the Moller Skycar should have a place among the honored.
Name: Rusty O’Shaughnessy
I would begin my list with the C-130 cargo transport plane. This tough workhorse has been getting the job done all over the world for a lot of years now
My first flight in a C-130 was on May 16, 1967, my 19th birthday. It was at Fort Benning, Ga., and I was making my first parachute jump at the Army jump school. I was in training to be an Air Force Combat Control Team member. All five jumps at jump school were from C-130s.
Later, as a CCT member, we would park right next to a dirt strip in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, and C-130s would land right next to us. They were so close the wing tips passed over our heads. At other times we would be running a drop zone and have C-130s drop heavy cargo from 1,200 feet, or groups of small bundles from about 50 to 100 feet.
My last flight on a C-130 was in February of 1991. I had broken my leg while working at Palmer Station, Antarctic. My evacuation was by Argentine Navy ship to a Chilean Antarctic base, then by Brazilian Air Force C-130 to Punta Arenas, Chile. I had often seen pictures of C-130 interiors set up for litter patients, it was interesting to experience it firsthand.
I live in Oregon now and continue to see C-130s flying over about twice a week. I always stop to watch, and honor this fine workhorse and the crews that fly them.
Name: Robert Carver
Hometown: Huntsville, Ala.
As a historian of aerospace, my favorite plane is the sexy Corvair B-58 Hustler. She just looked fast sitting still. When I toured the U.S. Air Force Museum, I was just in awe of her presence. The B-58 is like a Kennedy, it just radiates charisma and power. It was a close battle between the Hustler and the North American B-70 Valkyrie, but in the end, I would rather have flown in the Hustler.
Name: Kevin Stout
Hometown: Woodstock, Ga.
My first vote would be for the B-58 Hustler — the fastest of its day. Potentially too fast for the materials available for construction. Today, the aircraft would likely be even more devastating.
No. 2 would be the SR-71. I don’t even think an explanation is necessary.
Name: Tony G.
While the Wright Flyer is the one that started it all, my favorite is the one I think reached heights and speeds not often seen ... XB-70 Valkyrie. Sure the SR-71 Blackbird was faster, but not by much, and the Valkyrie did it while being bigger and more elegant. Let’s not forget that only two were built, and maybe never reached the outer end of their envelopes. The design still has the best lift-to-drag ratios ever tested.
Name: David McDonald
I am a retired Master Navigator, a.k.a. Weapons Systems Officer and Electronic Warfare Officer, formerly in the Air Force Reserve.
My single nominee is the XB-70 Valkyrie. This is probably the most terribly beautiful aircraft ever built. My meaning of “terrible” is the more archaic sense — I mean something that is beautiful but to be feared greatly. The memory of seeing the nonflying prototype at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, will remain with me forever.
P.S.: I never flew bombers but did fly fighters (F-4, F-111 and EF-111) — all of them were wonderful aircraft.
Name: Dave Pickel
I’d say the Boeing 367-80 Prototype. It was built with Boeing money, and provided the foundation for both the KC-135 tanker and the Boeing 707 commercial airliner. Jet airliner travel resulted in an approximate 200-knot increase in cruise speeds, and increasing cruise altitudes from about 20,000 feet to 39,000-41,000 feet. I don’t believe there has been a such a revolutionary advance in aviation since the introduction of the 707 in commercial service.
Name: Maksim Shligold
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York City
First I would like to say that if we are talking about a plane as an airplane, and its mechanical evolution, then I believe that one single plane that has impacted our lives the most is the Boeing 707. This plane has started civil jet-powered aviation as we know it today.
If, on the other hand, we are talking about any mechanical device that has left the surface of this blue planet, then Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok wins hands down.
Name: Larry M. Robinson, Captain, USAF (Ret.)
Member, Air Force Association and Air Force Museum Association
My pick would be the Curtiss P-40, a plane that many people never heard of, unless associated with the movies “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” “Pearl Harbor” or “Flying Tigers.”
In the very early days of World War II, the Curtiss P-40 was it. Period. It was American Fighter Aviation, at least for the Army. The Bell P-39 was a miserable failure (due to Air Corps changes) and there were very, very few of the better P-38 Lockheed Lightnings. The P-47 wasn’t ready yet and the P-51 was severely underdeveloped. In service (eventually) with about 15 countries, the P-40 was the aircraft that made the North Africa landings possible, kept the Germans in check in northeast Africa (in British and American service), kept the Japanese from expanding into China, Australia and Burma, and (strangely, a latecomer) to the South Pacific. It served valiantly at Pearl Harbor, in the Philippines and Java, the last two places until overwhelmed by Japanese numbers.
The P-38 was a vastly superior plane, but it couldn’t be everywhere, was hard to produce, and suffered its share of teething problems, some of which went on longer than they should because of war pressures. So my vote goes to the P-40.
Name: Merle M. Clark, Lt. Col. (Ret.)
Hometown: Calhoun, Ga.
In that the U.S. government took delivery of the first one in 1954, which was not retired until the mid-’90s, and in that an improved version of the same basic design is still rolling off the assembly line and is likely to last another 40-plus years, the same basic design will likely serve this country, and many others, for a century! And, by the way, performing more varied missions than any other aircraft, ever.
How can you not include the Lockheed C-130 Hercules?
Name: Mark Rossmore
Hometown: Miami, Fla.
Which planes sit in my personal hall of fame? Hands down, the Cessna 152-182 series. Nearly every pilot who has taken to the air in the past 50 years did so for the first time behind the controls of a Cessna. They aren’t sexy, fast, or expecially sleek — but they get you off the ground in reliability and safety at an attainable expense.
The Wright brothers may have opened the door to flight for the world, but the Cessna series have made that dream accessible to everyone.
Name: Ted Berner
Hometown: Bensalem, Pa.
When I think of the most advances made in the design and production of a single aircraft, the choice is easy for me: the SR-71 Blackbird.
Although its initial concept was in the role of high-speed interceptor, that need was reassessed and it was designed for Cold War reconnaisance instead.
The SR-71 was a product of the “Skunk Works,” a clan of DOD-contracted companies who work on black project aircraft which don’t exist until many years after their airframes first take to flight. Although having been designed and built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the SR-71 didn’t officially “exist” until the 1980s!
When you consider the extremely short period of time from drawing board to flight, its polysonic speed, its truly unique titanium construction, two incredibly powerful Pratt & Whitney engines and its regular ventures toward the stratosphere, it’s easy to get agreement that there’s nothing else that compares. All this from a plane designed and built many decades ago — it was truly way ahead of its time.
I was fortunate enough to see one on display at Warner-Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia once. I was most surprised by its size, having expected it to be only about two-thirds of the plane that it is.
The SR-71 from a project standpoint is the standard by which I measure all aircraft development. If all aircraft were designed and built as efficiently and well as the SR-71, we’d be a lot better off.
Name: Frederic Bourbeau
A couple of ideas for the 1945-1975 era:
Definitely atop of it all is the CF-105 Avro Arrow, magnificient and ahead of all other planes of its time, as well as its younger if larger brother, the X-B70 Valkyrie. Mammoth planes but terrific designs and visionaries in their times.
Other favorites includes the Mes 262, “die-hard” planes: Delta Dagger/Delta Dart, of course the magnificient Concorde for civilian entries.
Add the YB-49, ancestor of the B-2 and the French Mirage serie. And also for the record, the oddball Leduc 022 prototype, testing the principles of the ramjet in the 1950s.
Name: Mike Bryga
If I could only have one aircraft in my collection it would be the Avro Arrow. The first aircraft to have more thrust than weight — it could accelerate going straight up! Unfortunately no examples of this aircraft survived — one of the darkest stories in Canadian aviation.
Name: David Montedonico, NDT Inspector, Delta Air Lines
I believe that the Douglas DC-3 should be one of the choices for the pantheon. It is a timeless aircraft whose usefulness, in its 60-plus-year existence, has not in the least diminished. It is one those aircraft which, when flying over, still turns heads.
Name: Randolph Jones
My vote goes for the 747. It opened up many markets for commercial aviation and was the first “jumbo” in the industry. Some versions, the 747SP, set world records, while others, the 747-400D as flown by JAL and ANA, set passenger records. I think that the 747 should be on the list.
Name: José Velasco-Veyro
My vote for the most forward thinking design, and therefore the most influential plane of the first 100 years of aviation is: Jack Knudsen Northrop’s Flying Wing.
Mr. Northrop’s early designs, his Wings of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and the modern B-2s are but a hint of what his innovative concepts may yet contribute to the world of aviation.
Let us keep in mind that Mr. Northrop designed the first truly viable full monocoque fuselage aircraft, the DC propeller-driven planes while a project designer at Douglas Aircraft, and later became one of the founders of Lockheed Aircraft, as the ways and means of funding the research and development expenses of his true love, the flying Wings.
No doubt that we will see Wings in the commercial and military skies of future worlds, once our concepts and designs advance to higher paradigms, parallel to those of Mr. Northrop.
Three cheers for the Wings, past, present and future!!!
Name: Anthony Dooley
My top picks are:
Wright Flyer: Obvious — the first powered aircraft.
X-1(a): Sound breakage.
X-15: Going beyond the atmosphere.
SR-71: Routine service at high speeds and altitude, helped to cool some Israeli and Egyptian heads.
The overall requirement here is this: pushing the limits of manned flight. However, the SR-71 could do something no other military aircraft (including the U-2 spycraft) did: stop a conflict from starting without using extra military deployment.
Name: Lindsey (Jim) Chew
Hometown: Murray Hill, N.J.
The space shuttle gets my vote.
The space shuttle is one of the great triumphs of modern technology. One hundred and twenty-two feet long, capable of carrying 65,000 pounds of cargo and weighing in at 90 tons, Rockwell’s Orbiter stands alone as the world’s only aircraft capable of flying into space and returning at speeds exceeding 18,000 miles per hour.
When John Young and Robert Crippen climbed aboard Columbia for its maiden flight, no one had flown an aircraft anywhere near the speed/altitude envelope they were committing to. The X-15 had flown at Mach 6, but they would re-enter above Mach 18!
No one had flown a manned spacecraft using solid rockets. No one had flown a composite structure at Mach speeds like the Columbia mated with its main tank and boosters. No liquid-fueled engine had been designed to work from sea level to space for manned spaceflight.
The list of “firsts” on STS-1 is much longer. For sheer audacity in the willingness to explore the unknown, the space shuttle gets my vote for the aircraft hall of fame.
Mankind’s dream to “loose the surly bonds of Earth” and explore the heavens beyond is fraught with danger and sacrifice. When humans shake free the sun’s gravity well and gaze back from interstellar space along the history of manned spaceflight, they will marvel at the bravery, commitment and sacrifice of those who designed and flew Earth’s first Space Transportation System.
Name: James DeRuvo
J.D.’s Top Ten Aircraft of All Time:
10. Sopwith Camel — If it’s good enough for Snoopy, it’s good enough for me.
9. Moller Skycar — It isn’t operational yet, but when it is, man, I know I want one!
8. B-58 Hustler — Sleek, sexy, nuclear. When it absolutely, positively needs to get there on time. Too bad it’s a flying coffin.
7. Lockheed Comanche helicopter — The coolest whirlybird never to make it to the front line.
6. B-17 Flying Fortress — Europe owes Boeing big time for what this baby did in WWII.
5. Hughes HK-1 Hercules (you know her as the Spruce Goose) — Look at the size of that thing!
4. Gemini spacecraft — With a cockpit designed by astronaut Gus Grissom, it’s the two-seat hot rod in space, without which America couldn’t have made it to the moon.
3. Thunderbird 2 — Who wouldn’t want the Jolly Green Giant?
2. North American P-51D — They don’t call it the Cadillac of the Skies for nothing.
And No. 1: Incom X-Wing fighter — It toppled an Empire. And hey, it was in the Smithsonian for a while, I saw it!