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!
It’s impossible not to include on this list one of the fastest and highest-flying planes of all time, though there were two things about it that we weren’t crazy about: It didn’t take off by itself, and it was a glider for most of its trip. The North American X-15, as was the case for the Bell X-1, which was the first supersonic airplane, was launched by a mother ship. The X-15’s boost was courtesy of a Boeing B-52 specially outfitted to carry the X-15 aloft. But apart from that, this thing is mind-bogglingly awesome. It holds the record for the fastest aircraft—in fact, it holds all 199 top spots. In climb, it was faster than the next-fastest plane ever, the SR71, was in level flight. It was also the highest-flying plane ever, with a ceiling of better than 350,000 feet. Several of its dozen pilots earned astronaut wings for their flights. After the X-15 ran out of fuel, it became, like the Space Shuttle, a really bad glider. Landings were made on Rogers Dry Lake on skids at about 200 mph. Its pilots call the X-15 the most challenging and rewarding plane they ever flew.
Photo by NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.