Few of us are old enough to remember when the phrase “Piper Cub” was synonymous with “small plane.” No matter what brand or model of plane just “crash landed” on old County Road 117, whether it was an Aeronca, Stinson or Stearman, people would voice their astonishment at the antics of that “Piper Cub,” the name in their minds being synonymous with “airplane.” In more recent decades, the honor of such familiarity has gone to Cessna. “Did you hear about that Cessna that buzzed city hall!” And, of course, when the conversation turned to jets, for many years, every one of them was a “Learjet.”
The reason for this brand-blind shorthand is easy. The planes that take on the weight of identity for an entire segment are icons—famous and widely produced models that for one reason or another have captured a place in the popular imagination reserved for the most special people, places and things. So, the images of speedy and luxurious Learjets in James Bond movies or olive-drab J-3 Cubs defending freedom in WW II Europe didn’t hurt their cases, nor did the 172’s mantle of most-produced plane ever.
When it comes to household names, it’s the largely aviation-unaware households that name the tune. Interestingly enough, though, aviation enthusiasts would almost always put the same planes on their most iconic playlists, and for good reason. The planes that have reached such status are ones that have achieved remarkable feats, extraordinary fame or some other kind of cultural significance, most of which were hard-earned and well deserved. As you’ll see.