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The most interesting and important aeroplanes of all time

In March 1969 Concorde made its first test flight, that’s 50 years after the first non-stop transatlantic flight happened. A lot of history has passed since both these dates with technology improving and getting bigger and better.

In April 2019 the plane with the largest wingspan in the world took flight over the Mojave desert. Records like this have been broken plenty of times over the years. 

We’re here to bring you some of the very best planes to ever take to the skies over the last few decades. 

The Wright Flyer

Of course, no list of amazing aeroplanes would be complete without the original plane. The Wright Flyer was essentially the very first to take to the skies.

This plane, designed by Orville and Wilbur Wright was the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft to make a successful flight in 1903. And thus began the future of air travel. 

Avro Avian

Another of perhaps the most significant aeroplanes of all time is the Avro Avian. This humble plane was part of some significant aviation adventures. The 594 Avian III variant of this plane held host to Amelia Earhart and set the record for the “first crossing of the Atlantic by a woman” in 1928. Of course, she was just a passenger during that flight but she would later fly from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland under her own steam in 1932.  

Blériot XI

The weird and wonderful Blériot XI is another plane to make aviation history back when it all began. In 1909,  Louis Blériot used one of these planes set the record for the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft.

While the Wright Brothers might have made the first flight six years earlier, this was still a daring feat about treacherous waters. 

Hawker Hurricane

Although the Supermarine Spitfire might be the most iconic of wartime planes, the Hawker Hurricane was actually the aircraft that did the most damage to the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. This aeroplane was so successful it went onto to fly and fight in all the major theatres of battle through World War II. There are now only 12 airworthy Hurricanes left in existence. 

Vought V-173 (the Flying Pancake)

The Flying Pancake was an experimental aircraft built for the US Navy during World War II. It featured a weird and wonderful all-wing design that was designed to help with lift. The compact design of this aircraft actually made it highly manoeuvrable and fairly sound in terms of structural integrity.

The unusual shape of this plane also led to several false reports of UFO sightings in the areas it was conducting test flights. It never saw full service but was an interesting proof-of-concept design that supported the creation of future aircraft. 

Messerschmitt Me 262

Wartime necessarily forces the fastest innovations in technology and the German forces were certainly experts at creating cutting edge tech. The Me 262 was the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. It first took flight in 1941, but didn’t go into proper production and use until mid-1944. 

It wasn’t without its faults, but the Messerschmitt Me 262 certainly presented a clear and real threat to the Allied airforces. These were the fastest aeroplanes in the skies at the time and as such, they had the ability to deal a deadly toll. Luckily for the Allies, production came too late and use of these jet aircraft was stifled by a shortage of fuel, parts and trained pilots. Around 1,400 Me 262s were produced but only around 200 were operational at any point during the war. 

Gloster Meteor

The Me262 might have been the first jet plane of World War II, but it wasn’t the last or only. Us Brits also had our own jet fighter in the form of the Gloster Meteor. This plane first flew in 1943 but didn’t see service until around three months after the Me262. It proved a successful fighter and nearly 4,000 Meteors would be produced between 1943 and 1955. 

After the war, the Meteor would set and break its own speed records, reaching a top speed of 606 mph in 1945 and 616 mph in 1946. For comparison’s sake, the Me262 had a max speed of 559 mph. Despite being a ground-breaking aeroplane, it quickly became in the 1950s as more and more jet aeroplanes appeared around the world. The Meteor would eventually be replaced by the Hawker Hunter and Gloster Javelin

Concorde

Concorde was a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that first took to the skies in 1969. These planes were a collaboration between the French and British and would only be flown by  Air France and British Airways between 1976 and 2003 when the planes were retired. 

These magnificent flying machines were capable of flying twice the speed of sound and seen as the height of luxury at the time. So much so that seats aboard the aircraft were only really available to the wealthiest of passengers. 

B-2 Stealth Bomber

The iconic Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, (aka the Stealth Bomber) first took to the skies in 1989. Only 21 of these unmistakable crafts would ever be built. Costing around $2 billion each, these bombers made use of stealth technology and were capable of carrying up to 80 JDAM bombs or 16 B83 nuclear bombs. As potentially terrifying as it was unusual, there’s no denying the significance of this aircraft. 

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Another of the most iconic aeroplanes of the last few decades is the unmistakably awesome SR-71 Blackbird. A high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that was originally introduced into service in 1966. This plane not only served in the American Air Force, but was also used by NASA until 1999. 

This aeroplane also holds the world record for “the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft” – a record it has held since 1976. That year it also set both speed and altitude records – reaching a staggering 2,193.167 miles per hour. 

Lockheed AC-130 Spectre Gunship

The AC-130 is a heavily armed variant of the C130 transport aircraft. This great hulking beast of an aeroplane first took flight in 1966. It was designed to provide close air support to ground troops and military forces on the ground. Packing some serious firepower that included everything up to a 105mm M102 howitzer and other smaller calibre cannons it was a force to be reckoned with. Only 47 of these planes were built but they served throughout the Vietnam War right up to the War on Terror before retiring in 2015. 

Cessna 172 Skyhawk

The iconic Cessna Skyhawk holds the record for being the most popular fixed-wing aircraft of history. Over 44,000 of these aeroplanes have been built and this is also seen as one of the most reliable, affordable and stable planes in existence. It is a trusted aeroplane of flying schools all over the world and instantly recognisable by its design. 

Boeing B-29 Superfortress

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a technological marvel of the World War II era. It boasted state-of-the-art technology for the time that included a pressurised cabin, an analogue computer-controlled fire-control system and much more besides.

One particular model of this aeroplane – the Enola Gay – is perhaps one of the most famous (or infamous) planes to take to the skies. It was this giant bomber that dropped the war ending atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. 

McDonnell XF-85 Goblin

The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin was a prototype fighter designed for the US Airforce at the end of World War II. It was built in a compact form in order to be able to deploy from the bomb bay of a large bomber. The idea being that these planes could launch from their parent craft and engage enemy aircraft in order to defend the main convoy.

Long-range fighters of the time could not manage the same distance as the heavy strategic bombers that were being built and deployed so these parasite fighters were seen as a potential solution. Unfortunately, the prototype design was deemed far too inferior to the enemy fighters it would be up against and so the project was cancelled. 

Antonov An-225 Mriya

The Antonov An-225 Mriya is an absolute monster of an aircraft. This is a strategic airlift cargo aeroplane first developed in the 1980s. It used to hold the record for having the largest wingspan of any aircraft (88 metres) but has since been bested by a plane built by Stratolaunch.

Still, the Antonov An-225 Mriya remains a significant piece of aeronautical history. It could reach an impressive top speed of 530 mph and carry around 640 tons of cargo too. Based on those stats, you might be unsurprised to discover that this craft is also on record for being the heaviest aircraft ever built at 285 tonnes. The fact that it can fly is a marvel of aeroplane engineering. 

The Beluga Airbus

The Beluga Airbus is officially a Super Transporter it’s also thoroughly unusual and conjures up visions of the Whale from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – though hopefully, this plane is better at staying airborne. 

The Beluga Airbus is a wide-body variant of an Airbus airliner. It’s specifically designed to carry larger than normal cargo. This weird and wonderful looking plane had its first flight in 1995 and has been used multiple times since. It has even played a part in transporting various space vehicles. We just think it looks fantastically cheerful. It is brilliantly designed though and its nose even opens to let out its impressive cargo

MD-160 Lun-class ekranoplan

This is an MD-160 Lun-class ekranoplan. A special type of aircraft that’s designed as a ground effect vehicle – built to have the capacity of a large ship but the speed of an aircraft. It’s essentially a more efficient and swifter method of transporting cargo and can theoretically travel high-speed above the water thanks to the power of the eight jet engines on the front.

This sort of design also allows planes with this design to pass below enemy radar while also being far enough away from the surface of the water to avoid sea mines that would present issues for normal waterborne craft. This video explains the design in much more depth and shows how fascinating these aeroplanes are. 

Bartini Beriev VVA-14

This brilliant aeroplane looks like something out of a Sci-Fi flick but is actually a vertical take-off amphibious plane built for the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The Bartini Beriev VVA-14 had an Italian designer and was crafted in order to counter the perceived menace of US Polaris missile submarines. It was built to be able to take off from water and either fly at high altitude or across the surface of the ocean (much like the MD-160 Lun-class ekranoplan). 

This aeroplane held just three crew members and was capable of flying at up to 472 mph over a maximum range of 1,522 miles. 

Convair XFY Pogo

This brilliantly quirky and unusual aeroplane represented an experiment in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) designs. It was crafted specifically for use by the US Navy in the 1960s and designed to be able to take off (and land) on small warships. The intention was to make it possible to launch high-performance fighters without the need for a nearby aircraft carrier. The Convair XFY Pogo could be the first line of defence and provide air cover when scrambled into action. 

Alas, the Convair XFY Pogo’s lifespan was short as several tests proved the design had several flaws that made it unfit for use. It was hard to land, difficult to fly and considerably slower than jet-engined fighters of the time. As such, only one version was ever built and it never saw service. It is, however, an awesome looking and thoroughly interesting aeroplane. 

 

Harrier Jump Jet

While trials of the Convair XFY Pogo might not have gone well, that same decade the Harrier Jump Jet first took to the skies. This jet aeroplane was designed with a vertical/short takeoff and landing capabilities and was the only successful design of the time to do so. It was designed to take off from all sorts of locations including makeshift bases, small forest clearings and aircraft carriers. 

The Harrier would see use by both the British and US Navy and, thanks to being so successful, would see production from 1967 right up to 2003. The fastest variant of the Harrier – the Sea Harrier FA2 would also be capable of a top speed of 735 mph, making it a force to be reckoned with. 

Grumman X-29

The Grumman X-29 was an experimental aeroplane developed in the 1980s. It was used by both the US Air Force and NASA. This plane featured a forward-swept wing design which shows that the underlying lifting properties of the wings wouldn’t be negatively impacted by such a wing design. 

In 1985, this aircraft earned the title of the first forward-swept wing aircraft to fly at supersonic speed (Mach 1) in level flight. However, the design of this aeroplane made it inherently unstable and it needed clever computer technology to compensate for the instability. These computers made 40 corrections a second to keep the plane flying properly. The two airworthy versions of this plane would make a total of 437 flights during their lifetime before being retired in 1992. 

Scaled Composites White Knight Two

This impressive craft is essentially a cargo plane. The Scaled Composites White Knight Two is a plane that’s designed to lift and carry the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft to suitable launch height. It’s also built with a “multi-purpose” design which means it can be used for zero-g training, scientific flights and to carry other payloads as well. 

The Scaled Composites White Knight Two has even been considered as an option for forest fire fighting by using a large, centrally slung water tank to make repeated runs over fire zones. Certainly, an impressive design and one that can reach 70,000 ft at its top ceiling. 

Solar Impulse

This gargantuan aeroplane is a long-range solar-powered aircraft designed by the Swiss that first took flight in 2009. The design of this plane was privately financed and is thought to have cost around $170 million. 

Solar Impulse is a single-seater monoplane that’s capable of taking off under its own power. The original design was built to remain in flight for as many as 36 hours. In 2015, the second variant of this plane, aptly named Solar Impulse 2, broke the record for the longest solo flight. It managed to stay in the air for over 117 hours and 52 minutes without landing or refuelling. During that time the plane journeyed over 4,481 miles at a max speed of just 87 mph. 

Aero Spacelines Super Guppy

The Super Guppy was a version of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser that was its fuselage adapted (lengthened, widened and inflated) in order to accommodate large and unusual cargo. 

It was further enhanced with improved turboprop engines and built to carry 54,000 pounds (24,000 kg) while cruising at a speed of 300 mph (480 km/h). These weird looking aircraft were often used by NASA to transport parts and spacecraft for the Apollo missions. 

Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is known for being the first successful tilt-rotor aircraft. It had both vertical takeoff and landing and short takeoff and landing capabilities thanks to its unconventional design. 

Design of this aircraft began in the 1980s but the Osprey wouldn’t move into active service until 2007. Despite initial teething problems, this tilt-rotor craft proved an incredible success and is capable of impressive airborne feats. 

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

Many have referred to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor as the most capable fighter in the world. The F-22 Raptor is certainly a formidable force with a stealth design that marks it the radar equivalent to a “steel marble” and an impressive armament too. This is a single-seat, all-weather, tactical stealth fighter built to aid America’s air superiority. It is also multi-role though, with the ability to attack in a ground attack mode, carry out electronic warfare and signal intelligence duties too.

Only 195 F-22 Raptors were built from 1996 until 2011, but the program is estimated to have cost close to $70 million. The Raptor has since been replaced by the F-35 Lightning, but it’s still a marvel of aeronautical design. 


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