We thought we were doing something really clever when we came up with the “10 Sexiest Airplanes” idea. It wasn’t until we delved into making up the list that we came face-to-face with the need to define the term “sexy.” Right there is when we realized we had probably bitten off more than we can chew, because “sexy” is very much in the eye of the beholder. And, as we quickly found, within aviation, beholders’ tastes vary considerably.
In an effort to reach some sort of understanding of “sexy” and how it applies to airplanes, we put a poll up on our website, and asked what we thought were fairly straightforward questions. We asked which of five different airplanes (we had two lists: one military, one civilian) readers thought was sexiest, and the following were the results
In other words, the plain-vanilla Bonanza won out over all of the much sleeker, more modern aircraft by a HUGE margin. Even more mystifying, the classic Staggerwing biplane (which we dearly love, btw), with all its wires and fillets and washtub nose, handily blew the doors off the same airplanes the Bonanza did. Valuating the sex quotient of Staggerwing over a Cirrus by a nearly 50% margin convinced us that we didn’t have a clue as to what constituted “sexy” in many aviators’ minds. The term entails more than sleek lines, apparently.
The military popularity poll was equally as interesting.
Again, the hands-down winner was a classic that has been a favorite for generations, the Mustang, while the other-worldly shape of the B-2 Spirit barely got mentioned. Is this generational? If the questions were asked of a group of 25-year-olds, would the answers have been different? Are those subliminal feelings of visual enjoyment generated by our favorites because they’re what we grew up with? After all, we always see our first love in a special light, right?
After our less-than-scientific investigation of the visual preferences of pilots, we came to the conclusion that pilots pretty much like what they like, and the “whys” of why we like it defy definition. Although, certain flying machines, like the P-51D Mustang, will generally be on everyone’s lists, outside of those few favorites, all bets are off, as the favorites picked were all over the block.
Incidentally, we knew we were working with a gossamer definition of “sexy” when Editor Jessica Ambats again insisted we mention the Stemme motor glider as being one of her favorites. So, we caved in and included it. Sort of.
Okay, now that we’ve mentioned the Stemme, let’s create an arbitrary list arranged in an arbitrary manner of those airplanes that we (read “we” as this specific author) think are sexy and why (or as close to “why” as we can come).
The Convair B-58 may not have occupied center stage of the bombing arena very long (1960-1969), but while it did, it was spectacular! Using everything listed in the aerodynamicist’s book of tricks, including area rule modeling that gave it a sensual Coke-bottle-shaped fuselage, this svelte-looking honey could CRUISE at 2.0 Mach. Part of looking sexy is looking fast (read that any way you want), and this one can really haul the chili!
The Spitfire’s graceful, and wildly complicated, elliptical wing has earned it a place on every artistically oriented list compiled since it first flew in 1936. Continually updated through the war and during the early-postwar period, it took the jet fighter to end her (and it’s definitely a “she”) RAF career. The final versions with the monstrous 2100 hp Griffon engines and bubble canopies had the most balanced visual lines of the period, and blistering performance to match. How can it not be sexy?
Although the Mustang has to give up points to the Spitfire in the graceful-looks department, just as the Spitfire was England during WWII, the Mustang has come to epitomize America’s fighter effort during the same period. Of course, the Mustang wouldn’t be the Mustang we’ve all come to know and love without getting a nose job that included the installation of the Spitfire’s two-speed, supercharged Merlin engine. Progressing past the birdcage canopies of the A and B models, to the final wartime version, the P-51D, its svelte bubble-top outline grabbed a hold of American aviators’ hearts from day one and hasn’t let go yet.
You need to sit next to a Citation X in the low sun of a late summer afternoon to appreciate the art created by the Cessna wind-tunnel types. They lovingly sculpted every curve in every hidden crevice of her body to keep local airflow from going supersonic. It’s that attention to detail that makes it the fastest civilian airplane extant: When being served your coffee and croissant at 50,000 feet, you can look out at the world flashing past at .92 Mach. It’s amazing to think those curvaceous hips and finely formed wings can be as fast as many fighters in cruise.
|Staggerwing (Postwar G-Model)
In 1946, Beechcraft produced one last, thoroughly voluptuous, version of the D-17 Staggerwing: the stunning G-model. They were cranking them out right alongside the newfangled Bonanza, and, in so doing, took a classic diamond, did a little recutting and polishing and made it a forever classic. We especially love the way the cowling flows into the windshield: It’s one of the most sensual curves in aviation. Everything about the airplane reeks of class, luxury and character. Sexy? Yeah, in a lusty, Mae West sort of way.
|Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
There’s nothing Mae West about an SR-71: no curves, no bumps, no slow-talkin’ attitude. We were standing at the threshold of runway 17 at Oshkosh, when a Blackbird barely cleared the threshold lights and touched down like something from outer space. My friend looked over and said, “You can now retire the word ‘presence,’ and he was right.” Everything about the airplane is sensual in a vaguely threatening sort of way. Like that girl in class everyone wanted to ask for a date, but was afraid she’d say yes.
|North American F-86 Sabre
North American has always had a way of working art into their designs, and the art project they started with the Mustang continued on into the F-86 Sabre. This is one of those shapes that no matter how it’s viewed, from any angle, in any light, not a line is wrong. Every pilot worthy of the name lusts after just one date with two airplanes: the P-51 and the F-86 Sabre. You don’t have to know anything about either airplane to know they’re going to perform just the way they look: beautifully. And that’s exactly the way they fly: sensual promises delivered.
The Corsair is a brutish contradiction: sexy, but in a harsh sort of way. Maybe like a competition weight lifter. Or maybe like the farmer’s daughter who can pitch a bale of hay into the loft from ground level: beautiful with veins and tendons showing under perfect skin. The Corsair looks like it’s all about business and, if you’re the one holding its hand, it’s going to take care of you no matter what. Sinister sensuality.
It’s hard to classify the Nemesis NXT because, like the SR-71, there’s nothing in its class to compare it to. The NXT was racer Don Sharp’s answer to the sport aircraft racing challenge, and it looks as if the shape was carefully drafted to fit into the void left in the airflow when that gigantic spinner cleaved it aside on its way through. The airplane establishes a new level of sensuality.
|SIAI Marchetti SF.260
Three of Plane & Pilot’s contributors independently put the SF.260 on their list of sexy airplanes. Bill Cox, Marc Lee and Budd Davisson. All three felt it was the perfect airplane because of its high-performance, aerobatic capabilities and typically Italian inviting looks and terrific handling. Davisson is quoted as saying, “Within 24 hours of my winning the lottery, there will be an SF.260 in my hangar.”
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Aliens from space were involved in the design of the Starfighter, right? Put the airplane in context: When it flew for the first time, Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy were still on the air, and Chevrolet hadn’t yet produced its soon-to-be-legendary small-block V8. This long, sexy artillery shell first flew in 1954! Seems impossible, doesn’t it?
F-5 Freedom fighter
A relatively tiny fighter, the F-5 jet looks as if it were designed specifically for someone who not only enjoys her fabulous performance and handling, but intends to park it in his or her garage. Between the his-and-her Ferraris.
Looks aren’t all there is to defining sexy. There has to be an element of promise-delivered involved. And that would be the Extra 300L. Perfect lines combined with perfect performance equals a perfect date every time the lucky owner takes her aloft.
Okay, we give up: the Stemme motorglider is sexy-looking if nothing else, because its shape is among the most efficient in the world, giving it a 50:1 glide ratio. This kind of performance in a power plane doesn’t happen, if there are extraneous bumps or curves. The name of the game is efficiency, and the result is hyperslick looks.