A list of the top 10 aircraft? Talk about a fool's errand!
Ladies and gentlemen, I am that fool. Compiling a list of 10 aircraft -- 10 airplanes, as we eventually decided to narrow it -- that changed aviation seemed like an easy enough task. That we asked readers for nominations made it even easier. It would be like those days as a kid when I flipped through my illustrated aviation encyclopedia for countless hours.
But among aviation buffs there is, to be charitable, room for disagreement about such things. You, our readers, were not shy about voicing that disagreement, so we at MSNBC thought we'd share some of the thoughts you shared with us about our picks.
Two complaints were repeated with tremendous frequency.
The first: Many of you were aghast that we somehow neglected to include the 1903 Wright Flyer in our list — the plane that began it all. No, we weren't temporarily deprived of our sanity, though some might argue that the Wrights' 1908 version was far more functional and had a greater impact on the budding aviation industry. We neglected to explain that our mandate for creating the list was to pick 10 other airplanes that should belong in a pantheon with the Wright Flyer. That caveat was included in our original request for entries in Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log, but not in the piece itself. Our bad.
The other: Lots of readers overseas -- and some on these shores, too -- were upset that most of our list of 10 were American aircraft. "Considering some of the amazing Russian & German aircraft built it does seem a little insular," wrote Randal Harrison. "Nine out of ten planes that changed history are American," offered
"Was your list an attempt to claim all the first aviation achievements as American?" asked Ché Royle.
Of course not. (And to be fair, it wasn't a list of firsts.) We carefully considered the origins of the planes while we composed the list, and we received nominations from all over the world. As it became clear we had a largely American list, we considered whether we were headed for a trap.
Many British aircraft -- like the Comet (see below) -- got nominations and hearty praise. We gladly included them in the running, and two (the Spitfire and the Vickers Vimy) made the list as runners-up. At that point, we often took into account some market realities. For example, until the arrival of Airbus, we felt, European commercial jets were largely eclipsed by U.S. manufacturers.
We also worried that we gave short shrift to the Russian aviation world. While Soviet commercial jets were capable and durable, their global impact was limited -- in no small part because many countries wouldn't buy them. With military aircraft, the choices were even tougher. We'll discuss some below.
But there was one European-built aircraft that many correspondents were aghast we forgot, which brings us to ...
This was a popular entry during our initial request for nominations, but we decided from the very outset of this project that we felt the Concorde needed to be remembered in a different way, which it was on our list of aviation dreams that were deferred.
Many saw it differently.
"No list of the top 10 flying machines can be complete without the most graceful of all airliners and the only airliner to top the speed of sound on a regular basis," wrote Shriram Moharil.
It was, as Gary Topp noted, "the one and the only supersonic airliner." (The Soviet Tu-144, dubbed "Concordski" since it was largely a knock-off of the Concorde design, might also qualify, though it rarely flew in commercial service. Boeing's SST never made it off the ground, a crushing blow to many childhood dreams.)
We admittedly get chills when we think of the Concorde's amazing potential. But it was an anomaly in aviation history, planned for greatness but relegated to a sort of airline sideshow by the cruel realities of economics. Even before it hit the skies, financial problems had emerged.
Even so, many of you clearly share our dreams that new SST efforts will appear soon, perhaps in a configuration that solves the Concorde's many noise problems and ameliorates the stratospheric operating costs. "I guarantee you this," wrote Danial Beck, "that supersonic civil aviation is far from over." We certainly hope that's true.
We were roundly smacked by readers who felt we had either forgotten or had jingoistically rewritten aviation history to exclude the Comet, without question the first commercial jetliner in the world. (We did note this in our photo caption on the Boeing 707. Honest.)
While the Comet had the jump as far as timing, the 707 had the greater impact -- in sheer sales numbers, if nothing else. It also leapt ahead of its contemporary, the DC-8. Plus, it was the inspiration for pretty much ever commercial jet Boeing has since built. All those factors played a role in our decision.
But some of you clearly felt that was the wrong call. And others felt we should have at least given the Comet better mention. "I think the 707 is justified as the first globally successful jet, and the one more so than the Comet that spawned all today's liners," acknowledged Roy Dowding. "But if the Comet had not been first, to highlight the perils of metal fatigue in pressurised bodies, it could have been a different story."
Me 262 vs. B-52We knew this would be a controversial choice, given the differences between the two planes and the Me 262's role on the losing side of World War II. (To say nothing of the ethical issues that have dogged the plane and its Nazi-era construction. Wrote John Powell: "I think you should mention that this aircraft was built, for the most part, by slave labor.")
At the same time, there was overwhelming praise for the B-52's inimitable role through the years, and some frustration that it wasn't included in the top 10.
"The bomber is now equipped with GPS aligned inertial nav systems, can fly around the globe (with several refuelings), conducts sea mining and observing missions, carries long and short range cruise missiles, and can drop more bombs in one sortie than an entire squadron of F-18s or F-15s," wrote Jeff Thieret, who used to serve as a B-52 navigator for the U.S. Air Force. "The 'Buff' can do it all with pinpoint accuracy from over 40,000 feet!"
"How is possible the Boeing B-52 is not included in the top 10?" asked Terry Lee. "Let alone being runner-up to the German Messerschmitt."
Some folks felt the real credit should go to Boeing's B-47 Stratojet bomber, which predated the B-52 and helped pioneer the use of swept-wing designs in jets that were replicated across the 707 and almost every other commercial jetliner. "When the B-47 first flew, its extremely high speed made it capable of cruising nearly 600 mph, a quantum leap forward in flight speed for such a large airplane," said Raymond Chuang. "Indeed, the aerodynamic principles pioneered on the B-47 has been applied to almost every modern airliner built since then."
Others, though, felt we didn't do enough to credit the Messerschmitt, which Jeffrey de Fourestier termed "the most superior fighter ever during WWII."
"The unwieldy bomb that was strapped to its underside slowed it down and caused other problems," he wrote. "When General Galland [Adolf Galland, a key Luftwaffe leader] and others finally got their hands on the planes in 1944 they were able to inflict serious damage on US bombing runs without serious casualty."
(Though few Me 262s still exist, Jim Byron reminded us the Me 262 Project is currently building new replicas in Everett, Wash.)
There was also praise for another Messerschmitt plane: the Bf 109. Joe Euchner compiled a list of firsts for the 109, including "First all-metal aircraft" and "First turbocharged aircraft engine."
Peter Kimpton, meantime, felt we should have given more due to one of the innovators of modern aircraft engines. "The single biggest factor to change aviation was the development of the jet turbine by Sir Frank Whittle," he wrote. Whittle is considered by most to be the true inventor of the turbine jet engine -- though lackluster support in his native Britain allowed Germany to be the first to fly a jet aircraft. Whittle's development allowed Britain to fly the Gloster Meteor in the waning days of World War II, the only Allied jet during the war. After the war, other jet engine builders largely took over the business, building newer versions of the designs Whittle pioneered.
Other World War II planesChoosing a single fighter and a single bomber from World War II was profoundly difficult. Needless to say, many of you felt we erred, overlooking other worthy planes for the B-17 and P-51, two aircraft that have enjoyed enormous popularity among historians.
Years before the Mustang came along, for example, Lockheed's P-38 Lightning saw glory in the war's various theaters and remained a popular pick with readers.
Dominick Iascone was among many readers who preferred the P-38 to the better-known P-51. "Here was a pre-1940 aircraft that could sustain 40,000 feet and four hundred miles per hour," he wrote. "Others eventually followed with incremental performance improvements."
As for bombers, there was plenty of debate. Steve Oglesby echoed many readers' sentiments that we should have passed by both the B-17 and the B-29 for the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. "Paving the path for the B-29s and then taking on low-level missions such as laying mines and assisting in air-sea rescue of downed B-29 crews," he wrote, "the B-24 was one of our most important weapons in all of WWII."
And Clayton Cameron, whose father piloted a B-24 over Italy, wrote: "It is a disservice to all B-24 crew members that they are rarely mentioned in history and contributed so much to the war effort. B-17 and B-29 get all the glory but the B-24 did just as much work or more."
Other readers -- many of whom felt we had ignored non-American contributions -- wanted to praise the Avro Lancaster, which exceeded the B-17 in range and payload. "As great as the B17 Flying Fortress was, the British Lancaster could carry 14,000 lbs of bombs up to 1600 miles while the B17 could only carry 6,000 lbs up to 1100 miles," wrote Greg Hughes.
Similar sentiments were noted for the Hawker Hurricane, which like the Spitfire had a key role in the Battle of Britain.
"The Hawker Hurricane played an enormous role during the war, holding off the Luftwaffe for over a year," wrote Philip Sen. "Without it there would have been no opportunity for the B-17 and P-51 to secure their claims to fame." Added Miles Thompson: "It's never had the recognition the Spitfire got, but was an invaluable fighter."
Fighter jets and moreWe noted early in our list-making that our choices were largely from the first half of aviation's 100 years. (Though, interestingly, one reader chastised us for not including more vintage planes.) One category we didn't manage to include was modern fighter jets which, as many people noted, was a rather big omission.
So which ones to choose?
To begin with, there was enormous praise for the F-4 Phantom, which was based both on land and sea across four decades of service. "The Phantom II is, arguably, the most versatile combat aircraft ever built," argues Richard Jarvis, who used to fly one.
That certainly impressed Cooper Livingston, but he had another pick in mind. "As far as Western jet fighters go, the F-4 is second only to the North American F-86 Sabre," he wrote. "The F-16 hasn't even reached the total number of Phantoms built thus far."
The Sabre, unveiled just two years after the end of World War II, got plenty of praise for its role as a MiG-killer in in Korea and for its speed and versatility. "Sports car of the sky," said Dave Wingad.
The F-117 Nighthawk, a classic invention of Lockheed's Skunk Works, was another popular pick for its construction and its radar-evading capabilities. "The sheer technological advances made in the production of the F-117 will forever change the way future wars are fought," suggested Amrita Deshpande. "The design and architecture is a modern marvel in itself," wrote Michael Rudolph.
Others would have liked to see the new F/A-22 Raptor included. Same with the trusty A-10 Thunderbolt II ("Warthog"), which has provided crucial close air support since Vietnam. "I crew these in the U.S. Air Force," wrote Jacob Laduke. "This airframe is old but it still gets the job done. She's slow, ugly, and can take hits and bring her pilot back."
Gary Stevenson mentioned several military craft he felt we gave short shrift, including the F-111. But he was truly stunned at another omission. "The F-16 has literally re-written air tactics and continues to make aviation history," he wrote. "Since its inception the F-16 has been what every other aircraft producing country in the world has tried to match in performance, economy, and capability."
Many readers put a bid in for the AV-8 Harrier and its vertical take-off capabilities. While VSTOL is certainly an incredible technology, we did feel its application has been limited thus far. Still, Joe Galli thought "the Harrier could have replaced" any item on the list.
Speaking of the Harrier, we got plenty of responses criticizing us for not choosing a single sea-based aircraft, or a seaplane for that matter. Many Phantom and Harrier fans pointed this out, as did advocates of the F-4U Corsair (a personal favorite, incidentally), which rivaled the Mustang in speed and utility.
"The Corsair exceeded 400MPH before the Mustang existed, was in production longer, also served on all fronts, carried the largest payload of a single seat fighter ... in WW2, and bested the P-51 the only time the types met in actual combat (
Stephen Crane felt we should give some due to the Navy's
Finally, there was one fighter that generated enormous amounts of mail -- much of it from our friends up north who felt we should give note to the CF-105 for its impressive flight abilities, including the ability to pass Mach 2 during its late-1950s flight testing, rivaling and perhaps trumping the performance of planes like the F-4 and the F-111.
"The Avro Arrow CF-105 was/is the most revolutionary fighter jet ever invented. Most of today's fighter jet designs are based upon the initial characteristics of the Arrow," said Ron Capone. "I would encourage you to research the history and technology behind this incredible aircraft. I am sure you would reach the same conclusions."
"The people involved went on to be the brains behind the Space Shuttle and the Concorde," noted Kurt Dixon, lamenting that "most people have little or no knowledge the plane ever existed."
Many Arrow fans, incidentally, remain suspicious of the program's untimely demise. Some question whether it was U.S. pressure for the Royal Canadian Air Force to use American aircraft. In any case, its fate was sealed after just six planes had rolled off the assembly line.
Another decision we made about our list -- but neglected to share -- was limiting our picks specifically to fixed-wing aircraft. That didn't sit well with many helicopter enthusiasts, and we certainly sympathize.
Our consideration of adding rotorcraft to the list made clear we would never narrow it down to 10. But their complaints are certainly valid. "I believe," wrote Ray Fahringer from Sikorsky Aircraft, "any list of 'aircraft that changed aviation' is incomplete if it contains no vertical lift aircraft."
Steve Collinsworth offered some excellent suggestions that we had included while sifting through our original options: "I wish your list would have included two helicopters, either the Bell H-13 (civilian version Bell-47), or the Bell Huey (UH-1). ... Both have arguably made great contributions to aviation, not only in their Medevac roles in Korea and Vietnam, and in military combat scout & troop carrying roles, but also in civil aviation."
And more ...There seemed to be endless compromises in composing the list. We hated to pit the SR-71 against the C-130 -- since they were so different save for their deployment timeframe. Many of you agreed, and had enormous praise for the reliable Hercules. "It never failed to accomplish the missions assigned, up to and including landing and taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea!" said David Howard. "After my wife and children the C-130 is the love of my life."
For that matter, we didn't get a chance to mention business jets, which have emerged as a huge growth market since Bill Lear unveiled the first Learjet in 1963.
In fact, the list of planes suggested to us seemed never to end.
We know everyone has his or her own favorite plane, and that was evident as we sifted through all manner of suggestions: the Beech 18; Fokker D.VII; F-82 Twin Mustang; the B-25 bomber; the MiG-17 and MiG-27; the XB-70 Valkyrie; the Beech Starship; Mitsubishi's Zero models; the rocket-powered Me 163; Amelia Earhart's beloved Lockheed Electra; Dassault's
We even got a mention for the Horten flying wings; a query as to why we ignored Russia's Caspian Sea Monster and even several nominations for Howard Hughes' H-4 Hercules. The Spruce Goose certainly takes the prize for the largest airplane ever built, though its aerodynamic contributions remain a matter of debate.
As Glen Boyd suggested: "Maybe the '12' or even '15' aircraft that changed aviation would have been a good idea!"
We like that, though given how tough it was to choose just 10, we can't imagine trying to pick just 15. Or 20. or 30.
You get the idea.