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!
To those who might argue that this is more a spaceship than a plane, we’d counter, true! But the fact is, it was both a plane and a spaceship. If Concorde’s designers set out to do the impossible, the Space Shuttle’s creators were on a mission to do the impossible-er, to build and field a spaceship that could serve as a launch vehicle, orbiting space station and re-entry vehicle, all in one. The idea was really a simple one, to make a reusable space vehicle, so you didn’t have to build an enormously expensive and time-consuming one for every launch. There were 135 missions, one of which, Challenger, was a launch failure that killed seven, and one was a re-entry failure, in which the craft broke up when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. It is a huge aircraft, too, capable of transporting payloads of 60,000 pounds to low Earth orbit and 35,000 pounds to the International Space Station. The airplane part was extraordinary. After it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, the Shuttle would be a really fast glider, its pilots trained to bring that big craft back to a nose-high landing, no go-arounds available, and they nailed it every single time.
Photo by NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.