In the relatively short span of aviation history, invention—usually driven by the necessity of war and/or competition—has accelerated the growth of aircraft performance at an amazing pace. In less than 40 years, in just the speed category, we went from the Wright Flyer topping out at 30 mph in 1903 to the first-ever operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, which clocked speeds over 550 mph. In the next 35 years, jet performance took off and peaked in 1976, when the SR-71 Blackbird sped to a still unsurpassed (as far as we know!) record 2,193 mph.
You can’t achieve that type of growth rate without having “game changers” along the way. A “game changer” would be an aircraft that redefines an ability and/or performance in its category by accomplishing something that previously wasn’t feasible, practical or even safe. Examples include the 1915 Fokker Eindecker with it’s then-new ability to fire a gun through the propeller arc straight ahead, defining the airplane as a weapon. In the early ’30s, response to fears about wooden aircraft being safe airliners brought about the innovative all-metal construction of the DC-2, changing the airline industry forever. The perfect combination of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang with its laminar-flow wing, allowing for speed, maneuverability and the range to escort bombers all the way to target and back, changed the tide of World War II. Bill Lear and his Model 23 jets showed the world that if time is money, now there’s a class of business aircraft that can save gobs of it with speed and luxury. And in the world of aerobatics ruled by the biplane, Leo Loudenslager and his custom Laser 200 won a still-unprecedented seven U.S. Aerobatic Championships, showing the sport-aircraft world that the monoplane was going to be the new direction for competition and air-show flying in the future.