A Brief History
On May 12, 1926, just a few days after Richard Byrd allegedly flew over the North Pole, the semi-rigid airship, Norge, did fly over the North Pole with 16 men and a dog, becoming the first men to reach the North Pole. (Previous efforts have been discounted as failures due to inaccurate navigation or fraud.) The Italian designed and multinational manned Norge did not get the fame it deserved, so here we list 10 of the most famous aircraft in human history.
10. Vostok 1, 1961.
This Soviet space capsule was the first one to carry a human into orbit around the Earth. Piloted by Yuri Gagarin, the Soviets beat the Americans into space. Later in 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard Freedom 7, although he did not reach orbit. The first American to orbit the Earth was John Glenn in Friendship 7 in 1962.
9. Memphis Belle, 1942-1943.
A Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress based in England, it carried the first US Army Air Force crew to complete 25 missions over occupied Europe and Germany. A documentary was made of those exploits in 1944 and a major motion picture in 1990. This grand war bird now resides at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
8. Glamorous Glennis, 1947.
Flown by pilot Chuck Yeager and named after his wife, this Bell X-1 rocket plane became the first supersonic plane to break the sound barrier in level flight. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C..
7. Sputnik, 1957.
The first man-made object to be launched into orbit, Sputnik is the only unmanned aircraft we feel worthy of this list. Americans felt intimidated and humiliated that the Soviets had beaten them into space, and did not regain the bragging rights to space travel until 1969 when our astronauts walked on the moon.
6. Enola Gay, 1945.
Piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets and named for his mother, this B-29 Superfortress was the bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. It now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution and is on display at their Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
5. Spruce Goose, 1947.
Actually named Hughes H-4 Hercules, the Spruce Goose name was a nickname given by the press because of its wooden construction. It made only one short flight, piloted by Howard Hughes, and then went into storage. It now is on display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon. Its fame is way out of proportion to its importance.
4. Hindenburg, 1937.
The largest airship ever by volume, this Zeppelin was over 800 feet long, about 3 times the length of the longest fixed wing airplane. Famous for its spectacular destruction by fire at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the pride of Nazi Germany was filmed and sound recorded as it met its flaming end. Photos of the disaster and the film and radio recordings are displayed time and again on television, in movies, and in books.
3. The Eagle, 1969.
The immortal words, “The Eagle has landed” announced to the world that man had landed on the moon for the first time. The portion of the Apollo 11 spacecraft that actually landed on the moon, the Eagle was made in 2 parts, half of which stayed on the moon, the other half launched back up into moon orbit to dock with the command module, with astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong transferring back to the command module, at which time the upper half of the Eagle was ejected. Thus, we do not have the Eagle on display in a museum.
2. Wright Flyer, 1903.
The product of the Wright brother’s genius, this airplane became the first heavier than air aircraft to fly in powered flight in history. Incredibly, it weighed only 605 pounds and its engine produced only 12 horsepower, giving it a top speed of 30 mph! It is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
1. Spirit of St. Louis, 1927.
Flown by Charles Lindbergh (known as “Lucky Lindy”) from New York to Paris in the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight between America and France. Manufactured by Ryan Airlines, the Spirit of St. Louis was a single production airplane based on the Ryan M-2, modified to fly much farther. It cost just over $10,000 and was powered by a single 223 horsepower engine. It could fly as fast as 133 mph, but its cruising speed was only 100 mph. This one man, high wing monoplane weighed in at 2150 pounds empty, was 27 feet long and 46 feet wide. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Question for students (and subscribers): What others would you include? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Handleman, Philip. Flying Legends of World War II: Archive and Colour Photos of Famous Allied Aircraft (Images of War). Casemate Publishers, 2011.
Ulldemolins, Jose Maria Chaquet. Famous Aircraft in Origami: 18 Realistic Models (Dover Origami Papercraft). Dover Publications, 2008.