A Brief History
On July 19, 1963, Joe Walker flew a North American X-15 rocket plane to a record altitude of 106 kilometers, qualifying him as an astronaut. The X-15 rocket plane was an extraordinary aircraft, to say the least. Over the years there have been airplanes that have stood out among the rest, for their performance, their records, their longevity or for capabilities that no planes before had mastered. Here we list 10 of these exceptional machines, real operational planes, not fantasy experimental ones, ones that caught our attention.
10. Lockheed C-130, 1956-present.
The first turboprop cargo plane in the US Air Force, this seemingly mundane aircraft has been in production longer than any other airplane, over 50 years, and adding to it as you read this. It is one of only 3 airplanes to continuously serve the same military for over 50 years. Of course, the most awesome model is the AC-130 Spectre gunship, packing 40 mm cannons, 20 mm Vulcan cannons, 7.62 mm Mini-guns and even a 105 mm howitzer, the biggest gun ever mounted on an airplane. Like the cargo version, the AC-130 has been upgraded several times and the latest version will become operational in 2017. Recent modifications include the ability to use glide bombs and guided ground attack missiles. The C-130 is also used to drop “The Mother of All Bombs” (Massive Ordnance Air Blast, MOAB) a 22,600 pound bomb, the biggest in the US inventory.
9. Boeing 747, 1970-present.
The original giant wide bodied airliner capable of carrying up to 660 passengers, it is incredibly still in production after 44 years! Good enough to fly the President of the US, despite healthy competition from Airbus it is still the premier airliner ever built. This giant set heavy lift records in the 1970’s as well as being able to fly up to 8300 miles without refueling. For many years it was capable of carrying more passengers than any other airliner.
8. North American X-15, 1959-1970.
A rocket powered research aircraft, it would be launched from a B-52 and soar as high as a world record 66 miles and fly a still world record speed (for a manned, powered aircraft) of 4520 mph. Only 3 were built, making the men who flew them elite indeed. This amazing plane had a joystick for controlling the normal control surfaces (elevators, ailerons etc) that you would find on a normal airplane for lower altitude flight, and a separate joystick that controlled rocket thrusters for controlling the plane when it was too high for air friction to permit control surfaces to operate. The 3 X-15’s performed a total of 199 flights. It was the world’s first space-plane.
7. Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka, 1945.
As a desperation measure late in World War II the Japanese came up with this rocket powered single seat suicide plane. Packed with over 2600 pounds of explosive and capable of about 600 mph in a dive, there was no realistic way to stop these “Baka Bombs” (“baka” being Japanese for “fool”) once they were launched. The way to stop them was to shoot down the bombers that carried them within range of US ships, which was not hard to do as the bombers carrying an Ohka would be heavily laden and an easy target. Ohka’s were largely stopped by shooting down their host bombers and they managed to sink only a few ships, and damaging a few more. With a bit more range they may have proven a much bigger problem.
6. Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet, 1944-1945.
The only rocket powered fighter to ever see operational use and combat, this stubby German answer to allied bombers pounding Germany had 2 X 30mm cannons for bomber hunting. Not designed to dogfight, the rocket power only lasted a few minutes, but those minutes were like nothing else in the sky during World War II. With a normal max speed of about 600 mph and a test speed of 700 mph, it was the fastest plane in history until 1947. If it had been built earlier and in greater numbers, and with fighter protection while it glided to a landing after using up its fuel it may have made a difference in the air war over Germany.
5. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, 2005-present.
The most capable fighter plane ever made, at $150 million apiece and a program cost of over $66 billion it is hard to imagine a potential enemy spending enough money to make a true competitor. With unmatched stealth capability, maneuverability (vectored thrust) and the unique ability to fly at supersonic speed without an afterburner, the F-22 will rule the air for a long time. It operates mainly in the air superiority role with the F-35 making up a less costly compliment of dogfighters and fighter-bombers similar to the F-15 and F-16 in recent decades.
4. Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, 2007-present.
Flown by the US Air Force and US Marine Corps, this airplane is the first production aircraft to operate like a military helicopter and then transition in flight to fixed wing aircraft mode. The advantages of taking off and landing troops and cargo vertically while taking advantage of the speed and range of level flight is shared by no other airplane in the world. Capable of 351 mph in level flight at 15,000 feet and with a 1000 mile range no cargo helicopter could hope to match its speed or endurance.
3. Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde SST, 1976-2003.
Although in service for only 27 years and only 20 of the planes built, while it flew it was the first supersonic civilian passenger plane in the world, flying at twice the speed of sound and carrying passengers in luxury. A high mark of prestige was to fly on the Concorde across the Atlantic. Only one crash marred the excellent safety record of this record setting jetliner and it may be a long time yet until we have another Mach 2 jetliner. It is also the most beautiful and graceful airliner ever to fly.
2. Hawker/McDonnel Douglas AV-8 Harrier, 1969-2010.
Famous for operating off small British aircraft carriers during the Falklands War, the Harrier was the first vertical take off warplane that could transition to level flight. A capable fighter bomber and credible air to air dogfighter, no other airplane has matched its capabilities, with imitators falling far behind. When first introduced, its Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine was the most powerful jet engine in the world. Hard to fly and harder to maintain, it nonetheless gave the British and the USMC (as well as Thailand and Spain) tremendous flexibility in basing and operating the jet from various cargo or warships or from unconventional airfields. The US F-35 is to have similar but greatly enhanced performance.
1. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, 1966-1999.
Created as a top secret spy plane capable of outrunning surface to air missiles and uncatchable by any enemy fighter, the Mach 3+ Blackbird never suffered a loss from enemy action. It has held the world speed record for an air breathing airplane (jet as opposed to rocket power) since 1976, 38 years and counting. Made largely of the then exotic material titanium, the jet would fly so high the pilots had to wear astronaut-like pressure suits. Swoopy and exotic looking, it remains even today one of the most futuristic looking planes ever made, and was the first to incorporate stealthy features. Capable of flying in sustained level flight over 85,000 feet, it also owns that altitude record. The fact that it is retired causes one to wonder what sort of super plane may have replaced it.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which fantastic airplanes would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Taylor, Michael. The World’s Strangest Aircraft: A Collection of Weird and Wonderful Flying Machines. Metro Books, 2001.
You can also watch a video version of this list on YouTube.