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Unfamous Aviation Seconds

We all know the planes and pilots that were first to do something monumental. But do you know who the second ones to those same achievements were? Neither did we. But their stories, when we can dig them up, are very cool.

The Douglas Skyrocket is the second supersonic plane model. Photo courtesy of NASA.
The Douglas Skyrocket is the second supersonic plane model. Photo courtesy of NASA.

We live in a country and a world that attaches big bonuses to finishing first, and that includes record-setting feats. In baseball, Babe Ruth’s name is famous. And if you’re a fan, and maybe even if you aren’t, you might know that Ruth was, in 1927, the first player to hit 60 home runs in a season. Did you also know that Ruth was also the first in the modern era of Major League Baseball history to reach the milestones of 30, 40 and 50 home runs in a season? But who was second? Off the top of my head, I know that Roger Maris, also a New York Yankee at the time, was the second to hit at least 60, in 1961. The other seconds? I’d have to look them up and likely wouldn’t recognize the names once I found them.

As far as aviation milestones are concerned, it’s pretty much the same deal. Chuck Yeager was first to bust the sound barrier (aka Mach 1), but who was second? And what was the second supersonic plane? Chances are you don’t know—we didn’t. Even more than that, it’s often really hard to find out who those unfamous seconds were. So, here, we salute those who came in second in the race to immortality.

1. Second plane to fly

1. Second plane to fly
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1. Second plane to fly

What was the first plane to fly? Duh. The Wright Flyer, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on Dec. 17, 1903. And to be honest, the second plane to fly was kind of a rerun. The Wright Flyer II first took flight in 1904 in Huffman Prairie, near Dayton, Ohio. It was just months after the brothers’ first successful foray into the wild blue in Kitty Hawk. The new plane, made mostly of pine instead of spruce, wasn’t much of an improvement, though its more powerful engine was a welcome addition. Still, with 200 pounds of extra weight and a less-efficient wing, the Flyer II made clear that the Wrights were still learning the most basic elements of aerodynamics and materials in their quest for a great flying airplane. The first successful plane not built by the Wrights is a much harder call to make. There are arguments that the New Zealander Richard Pearse flew second. Some say his flights preceded the Wrights. And experimenters in France and Denmark made short hops. But without much debate, the second successful airplane (if not the first really successful one) was Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis, which first flew in September of 1906. The plane was an oddly configured mishmash of shapes and angles, but it flew pretty well. It could, in fact, take off on its own gear and fly for what were then considered great distances.

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