Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

10 Perfect Airplanes For Special Missions

Okay, nothing’s perfect, but these airplanes come about as close to perfection as possible for specific missions

Don't believe those naysayers who continue to claim aviation's glass is half empty. According to these pessimists, technology is still heavily entrenched in the last century, and there's not much reason to even celebrate the best, much less a "perfect" airplane. Forgive me, but that's pure bull. In the first place, we're not suggesting these are examples of perfection, just perfect designs for our chosen missions. Second, the amount of aviation innovation demonstrated in the last 30 years has been nothing short of phenomenal. There have been new and more efficient airplanes, airfoils and engines, full-airframe parachutes, wildly improved avionics and a level of gizmology that pilots from the '50 and '60s wouldn't even recognize. These have pushed aviation at least three steps forward for every step back that the current administration has tried to force us.

So, grant us a little editorial license in naming what we regard as the 10 most perfect airplanes for our special missions. You won't agree, of course (what fun would that be), but the process of winnowing down the selection from, oh, perhaps 100 or so models, has been barrels of fun.

We can almost anticipate the response from some readers. "You idiots! How could you possibly leave out the Funk B and the Fox Jet?" "What? Where's the Champion Lancer and the Antonov Flying Tank? You guys have totally missed the really impressive machines."

Our choices are, by definition, subjective, but there's a reason the car magazines always seem to name BMWs and Porsches to their Top 10 list every year, and we have our favorites, too. Despite the pigeonhole tasks we've chosen for our selections, these airplanes often are called upon to fly missions they were never designed for.

We've tried to confine our choices to general aviation machines, but we just couldn't resist throwing in one selection well outside the GA market. Here's our list of 10 iconic airplanes, pulling from the best of the world of general aviation and, oh yeah, one 70-year-old military fighter.

1 Perfect World War II Fighter
North American P-51 Mustang

Sorry to be so predictable, but piston fighters don't get much better than the P-51 Mustang. Personally, I loved the Grumman F8F Bearcat, and I know some Navy types who claim an F8 could wax a P-51 in a flat-out dogfight. Still, in the final analysis, I had a hard time choosing anything other than the Mustang. Today, the price of P-51 perfection is probably $2 million to purchase one of the remaining 100 or so refurbished Mustangs, plus plan to burn a gallon a minute at mid-cruise, much more if you're determined to fly acro.

I'm not old enough to have flown P-51s during the Big War, so perhaps my choice is skewed by the dozens of interviews I've done with fighter pilots of that period and a couple of hours of stick time in Lee Louderback's Crazy Horse at Stallion 51 in Florida. Still, practically everyone agrees the Mustang was and remains something special, perhaps the ultimate development of a piston fighter before the age of jets. Its bubble canopy provided 360-degree visibility, control response was superior to anything else, speed and climb were unmatched, and the P-51 could outdive practically any enemy aircraft. With 430 mph speed and range from England to Berlin and back, the Mustang literally saved the lives of bomber crews.

The Mustang's response in every mode was so outstanding, fighter pilots stepping up from the P-40 or P-39 thought they had died and gone to heaven. Fortunately, that's exactly what the talented P-51 allowed them to avoid.


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