Okay, we freely admit it: What started as a simple exercise, to select the 10 sexiest airplanes in the world, has turned out to be one of the most difficult and divisive projects in which we’ve ever been involved. Part of that was to be expected. After all, when you put “est” at the end of a word (e.g., strongest, tallest, funniest, etc.), you just know it’s going to generate controversy. When you start saying “sexiest,” however, the tension can get so high that the only things preventing fisticuffs between myself and the Plane & Pilot editors are the 400-mile distance and the fact that we’re only digitally connected.
The root of the difficulty is in the definition of “sexiest.” When applied to hardware, it connotes a level of sleek appearance that causes a pleasing visceral reaction in a viewer. Not many disagree with that. The problem develops in the individual brain chemistry that causes each of us to react differently to the same stimuli. As we were to find out, we react very differently. The Piaggio Avanti is an excellent case in point.
I knocked out my list of 10 airplanes with five honorable mentions. I wasn’t firm in some of my selections, and I thought I was capable of great flexibility until Editor Jeff Berlin said he thought we should have the Avanti on the list. My immediate reaction was “Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrghh!!” (that’s digital gagging), followed by a stream of invective having to do with a shape that reminds me of a…I can’t say it here, but it wasn’t complimentary. I’m not sure we’ve healed the rift that airplane caused in our relationship yet. Let’s face it, the guy has no taste.
Then Managing Editor Jessica started pushing for inclusion of a lesser-known motorglider, and I told her it was like a really beautiful girl (or guy) who didn’t know how to kiss. All show and no go. Now she won’t answer my e-mails.
The only solution was for us to agree to disagree. Hence the “Editors In Disagreement” sidebar. Knowing we’re that far out of synch with each other, we just know the readers are going to hand us our heads (this article was Jeff’s idea, I had nothing to do with it, so send him your nastygrams. I get enough of my own). So, go to www.planeandpilot.com and find the “10 Sexiest” button. Click on that, and let us know where we’re wrong. A few months down the road, we’ll publish the results in an issue of Plane & Pilot. If you don’t have a computer, call me and I’ll give you Jeff’s home number.
Okay, with all the caveats securely in place, here’s our rendition (at least those we more or less agreed upon) of the 10 sexiest airplanes of all time.
1 Supermarine Spitfire Mk 22
There’s no such thing as an unsexy Spitfire, but the final variations, the Mk 22 and Mk 24, carried the concept to such an extreme, that they bordered on the obscene. When Supermarine replaced the “puny” 1,650-cubic-inch, 1,500 to 1,700 hp Merlin V12 with a honkin’ 2,240-cubic-inch, 2,375 hp Griffon and then began reshaping the airframe to accommodate it, they pegged the sexuality meter. The final bubble-top machines with long snouts, some that culminated in counter-rotating propellers, like on the Seafire 47, were postwar hotrods that appeared to be pushing the sound barrier while still chained to the ramp.
2 Staggerwing G17S
Once in a while, a machine appears that has so many bumps and snags in its airframe that it couldn’t possibly be judged sexy, but in some mysterious way, it combines aeronautical elements and tugs at heartstrings worldwide. In the case of the Beech Staggerwing, that definitely applies to the postwar “G” models. To many, the G model has some curves—such as the way the windshield flows into the cowling—that are right up there with anything Michaelangelo ever sculpted. Moreover, old Mike’s sculptures couldn’t do 200 mph—there’s more to sexuality than looks. Performance helps.
3 Nemesis NXT
Can you say “speed incarnate”? The Jon Sharp–designed Nemesis NXT looks like the girl in class with the “nice but nasty” look who we were all afraid to ask for a date for fear she’d say “yes.” This isn’t an airplane—it’s a piece of highly active (and vaguely scary) art. The NXT was bred for the racetrack but made available to those within the pilot population with the correct combination of testosterone, skill and money. With a blown TSIO-540 Lyc up front, you know it’s fast, but the Nemesis Website gives only tantalizing hints of the speeds (“breathtakingly fast”). Official records at Reno, however, show it to be running around the pylons at well over 300 knots, and that’s with a totally stock engine. With 90 gallons of fuel and a 300-plus-knot cruise speed, you and (as Nemisis puts it) “an adventurous friend” could do some serious traveling. Just don’t plan on carrying much baggage.
4 Lancair 320
Do you board a Lancair 320 or do you pull it on? Lancair has fitted the smallest, most efficient airframe possible around two people and made it among the best-looking jobs in aviation. Besides being fast (very fast) and easy to fly (given the performance), it’s so slick that the wind has a difficult time finding anything on the airframe to trip it. This is another of those “almost too pretty to fly” airplanes.
5 Lear 24D/Falcon 10
Although the older Lear 24 and the initial Falcon 10 can’t perform with some of their current peer group, both are a fine combination of lines that time will never erode. For example, the lines on a Falcon 10 flow from the radome back to the perfectly swept tail as if they were sculpted by the wind itself. Although overshadowed by grossly expensive bizjets, the Falcon 10 and 20 are still considered to be among the finest-handling bizjets ever built, which is why so many corporations still swear by them.
6 Vulcan Bomber
When old A.V. Roe (hence Avro) laid down the lines for his first biplane before WWI, it was unlikely that he expected his company would someday (in the 1950s) be building something as sinister and magnificent as the Vulcan. With its huge, butterfly-like delta wings and nuclear capabilities, it lived up to its namesake, Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
“In the eye of the beholder” definitely applies here. We’re afraid to pick one over the other because our mail bin isn’t big enough to hold the nastygrams from champions of the plane that places second. Both airplanes represent quantum leaps in terms of airframe design and overall performance, although we could easily nitpick both of them, e.g., we don’t like the tail on one or the windows in the other. You decide which.
8 North American F-86
There are no questionable lines to North American’s F-86 Sabre Jet. It’s the airplane all pilots would kill to fly and the hands-down favorite of those who have flown it. There’s something about the cleanliness, the swept surfaces and a general “feeling” about the airplane, that even before you strap it on, you know it’s going to fly great. According to those who did and do fly it, it’s a pilot’s airplane: quick to the hand, completely balanced in all areas and as honest as the day is long.
9 F-22 Raptor
“Sexy” is probably the wrong word here, but it’s hard to find only one suitable adjective. Aggressively sexy? High-performance sexy? The F-22 is such a new combination of visuals that it hasn’t had enough time to settle into our subconscious and generate its own adjective. Where an airplane such as the F-86 is clean and easy on the eye, the Raptor jars our senses with its occasional abruptness of line, but that’s nothing compared to the way it flies. Watching it perform brings sensuality into the new millennium.
10 Lockheed SR-71
“Blackbird” Because of the Blackbird, you can retire the word “presence.” It’s doubtful that anyone will ever produce another form that evokes the same shiver down the spine that the Blackbird did. It’s not necessary that you understand its awe-inspiring performance (cruises faster than a .30-06 rifle bullet) for its Darth Vader shape to leave a mark on your memory.
Cirrus/Labelle Standard-Class Sailplanes
Lockheed Model 12A, Electra Jr.
It’s hard to pick from the ’70s/’80s military birds. The Tomcat, however, not only seems to have it all, but also has a great soundtrack with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.”
An attempt to do something better that wasn’t only different but beautiful, this airplane shows that neither the corporate world nor the market necessarily appreciate creativity.
Cirrus/Labelle Standard-Class Sailplanes
Standard-class sailplanes have to be the very definition of aerodynamic efficiency just to do what they do, which also says that their lines have to be nearly perfect to work. Any of them could fit on this list.
The Spartan was streamlined before the word was in common use, and fast when that meant 140 mph. 450 hp round motor, 200 mph, great lines—what else could a 1938 corporate executive want?
Lockheed Model 12A, Electra Jr.
A twin-engine companion to the Spartan, the Model 12A was the first serious step that general aviation took into the realm of multi-engine performance. Although the slightly later D-18 Twin Beech greatly overshadowed it, the Beech just didn’t have the lithe lines of the Model 12A.
A mostly composite, hyperkinetic, aerobatic machine, the Oklahoma-built Zivko Edge 540 views gravity as a minor, and temporary, inconvenience. It’s the favored mount of a good percentage of the top aerobatic champions.
Editors In Disagreement
Editor Jeff Berlin
Piaggio Avanti: They call the Avanti the “Ferrari of the sky.” To me, it looks like a shark, sounds like a turbine bandsaw and flies like, well, a Ferrari. (Davisson made a rude noise and said, “It looks like it’s a cousin to a catfish.”)
EADS Socata TBM: The flair of French style and airway-burning speed. (Davisson: It’s okay, but when it comes to sexy, okay doesn’t cut it. I want the airplane to rock my world and, to my eye, among other things, its tail doesn’t flow with the rest of the airplane.)
Pitts Model 12: I just love the Pitts Model 12. It’s kind of like a biplane Sukhoi 31, which is also pretty badass. (Davisson finally agrees: I hated to leave it out of my top 10, but there aren’t enough testosterone-driven rough edges showing.)
Managing Editor Jessica Ambats
Stemme S10-VT: With a 75.5-foot wingspan and retractable undercarriage, this motorglider’s a beauty. Plus, what’s sexier than a glide ratio of 50:1? (Davisson: It’s stuck somewhere between the sailplane and power plane, and just doesn’t have enough guts or make enough noise for me.)
Publisher Mike McMann
Cessna 120/140: I tend to think basic, so my first choice is the airplane in which I learned to fly. It sure was sexy at the time, and it got my heart going every time I walked up to it. (Davisson: As a former and long-time owner of a C-140A, I’d have to say that the word “sexy” never popped into my mind when looking at my airplane. I guess sexy is very much in the eye of the beholder.)
BT-13 Vultee-Vibrator: It was a cheap warbird after WWII, so my father bought one and it was my first airplane ride. (Davisson: Here again, my family owned one for years and I loved it, but sexy? No way. Funky? Full of character? Historic? Absolutely! Sexy? Never!)
Beechcraft V-Tailed Bonanza: It has to be on the list somewhere. (Davisson: I actually had the old Bonanza on my “B” list. Judged against what else existed at the time, it was sexy. So, only minimal disagreement.)
Advertising Manager Jeff Schroeder
B-2 Bomber: How do you describe this beautiful, technological marvel? Sleek lines; unconventional; not of this world; scares little kids. Every time I see one, I get goose bumps. (Davisson: “Sexy” isn’t a word for the B-2. Its angular shape requires an adjective all its own, but sexy isn’t it.)