With the tens of thousands of airplane models that have been built and flown since the days of the Brothers Wright, how is it even possible to come up with a list of the greatest planes of them all?
It’s a fair question, and it’s one we’ve spent a great deal of time discussing before we even embarked upon the journey. At first glance, the exercise seems a bit silly. After all, planes come in so many different shapes and sizes, with an equal number of mission types to match. How could you possibly choose just one?
But the more we thought about it, the more sense it made to us. To start with, we needed to acknowledge that there are a lot of great airplanes. There are also a lot of historically significant airplanes, which is a more exclusive club, we decided. But finally, there is a level of greatness that you can indeed measure using a few distinct and, in most cases, at least somewhat quantifiable categories, such as how many were built or what its top speed is or how long it was in service.
But looking at the different kinds of mission types, i.e., training, personal transportation, commercial transportation, fighters, bombers, reconnaissance and more, we decided to narrow things down even more by asking ourselves if there were a top dog among those planes.
Surprisingly, the answer to that question was often an unequivocal, “Yes!” That surprised us to no end, but the more we reflected upon it, the more we knew it was true.
So without further ado, we proudly present our list of the Top 25 Planes of All Time. Enjoy!
What in the world is this plane doing on this list? The DC-3, a radial-engine-toting, taildragging, mud-bellied, heavy-hauling twin designed in the mid-1930s surely doesn’t belong on a list alongside supersonics and space planes, does it? It does. Launched as a domestic airliner in the days when piston engines were a clearer choice than turboprops for the important reason that turboprops didn’t yet exist, the DC-3, with its seating for up to 32 passengers, immediately earned a lot of business from the fledgling U.S. airline industry. And when World War II started heating up, Douglas went into overdrive, producing around 10,000 DC-3s for the war effort—in all, the company cranked out more than 16,000 of the aircraft, which were known as the Gooney Bird, Dakota and C-47 (the latter among numerous other military designations). The Soviet Union built almost 5,000 of them under license, and even Imperial Japan cranked out nearly 500 DC-3 clones. In addition to its passenger-carrying pedigree, the DC-3 has been a parachute jump plane, an agricultural sprayer, a freighter and an executive transport. As of the turn of the century, there were nearly 500 DC-3s still in commercial use in dozens of countries around the world.
Photo by Acroterion, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons