10 Great Airplanes That Served Civilian and Military Needs

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A Brief History

On July 15, 1954, the first prototype of what became the Boeing 707 and US Air Force C-135 family of airplanes made its first flight.  Many airplanes have served a dual role well, moving cargo and people for civilian purposes or the same for the military.  Sometimes a military airplane might be an ideal test aircraft for scientific purposes, or as a weather observing plane.  Here we list 10 of these airplanes that have done double duty, and of course there are many more.  

Digging Deeper

10. Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny.”

The most widely produced North American airplane of World War I, the Jenny was not capable enough to serve as a front line fighter or bomber, with a top speed of only 75 mph.  It was a rugged and reliable bi-plane, with 2 cockpits and 2 sets of controls, one for the pilot in the rear and one for the student in the front.  Serving the militaries of 9 countries as a trainer and utility aircraft,  they were occasionally modified to carry guns or bombs.  With many being declared surplus after the war, they became the basis for the US civilian air fleet, carrying mail, training civilian pilots (including Charles Lindbergh), performing demonstrations and giving rides, exciting a new generation of future pilots.  After World War I they could be bought for as little as $50, brand new, still in the box!  Over 6100 were made.  Cracked fact:  The rarest and most valuable US postage stamp features an upside down Jenny mailplane.

9.  Boeing 747.

Introduced in 1970, this giant double decker airliner could fly over 8300 miles and carry up to 660 people.  It was the biggest and most powerful airliner for years, and set records for weight carrying as well.  Used as a passenger airliner and civilian freight hauler, the military had actually been behind the development of this great 4 engine jet in its search for an ultra-heavy lift cargo transport.  The Air Force chose the C-5 as its giant cargo plane, and the 747 was primarily an airliner.  Rediscovered by the military, the 747 sees use today as Air Force One presidential jet, VIP transport, Civil Reserve Airfleet Troop transport, Airborne command post, Laser Weapon carrier, Space Shuttle carrier, and was considered for carrying mini-fighter jets or cruise missiles.  Also developed as an aerial refueling tanker, only Iran bought that version.  The 747 has also been used for scientific research and for firefighting, carrying 20,000 gallons of water and fire retardant.  Almost 1500 have been built, and it is still in production.

8.  Douglas DC-10.

A 3 engine wide body airliner capable of carrying almost 400 passengers as much as 6600 miles, the DC-10 was sold to airlines (386 aircraft) and to the US Air Force as a tanker, the KC-10 Extender (60 aircraft).  Introduced in 1971, it still serves as a civilian cargo aircraft, but the passenger versions have been replaced by an upgraded MD-10 conversion or the revised MD-11 evolutionary replacement model.

7.  Heinkel He-111.

Called “A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the He-111 was introduced as a civilian cargo and transport plane rather than as a bomber as a deception plan when the Nazis were fooling the world about their intent and adherence to the Treaty of Versailles.  Only a dozen of the airline versions were built out of the 6500+ made by Germany from 1935 to 1944.  Spain manufactured the plane after World War II, calling it the Casa 2.111 and building 236 of them, keeping them in service until 1973. 

6.  Douglas C-54/DC-4.

The 4 engine big brother to the C-47 workhorse, the C-54 was the heavy lift troop carrier and cargo aircraft of the US and allies in World War II.  It also served as transport for the president (the first plane known as “Air Force One”) and civilian and military brass.  The DC-4 was the civilian airline version, and 30 countries eventually used one version or another of this great plane.  Only 1170 were built from 1942-1947, but it was the star of the Berlin Airlift.  Some of these were still in service until 1975.

5.  Junkers Ju-52.

A tri-motor airplane built from 1932 to 1945, this rugged and dependable airliner flew for over 12 airlines and served the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) as a cargo and paratroop carrier and even as a bomber (limited use).  Called “Iron Annie,” this plane was reliable enough to be the transport for Adolf Hitler.  After World War II it was built in France and Spain and served with civilian users until into the 1980’s.  4845 were built.

4.  Lockheed C-130 Hercules.

Starting production in 1956, Lockheed is still making this great plane!  In production longer than any military aircraft of all time, it is one of only 5 aircraft to serve over 50 years with the same military it started with (Boeing B-52, Boeing C-135, Tupolev Tu-95, and English Electric Canberra are the others)  A 4 engine turboprop cargo plane, the Hercules has been used to carry cargo, troops and paratroops, aerial refueling, electronic warfare, fighting fires, search and rescue, weather observing, scientific research, maritime patrol, and the biggest, baddest airborne gunship ever conceived (AC-130 Spectre).  It serves 30 air forces as a primary tactical cargo plane.  This plane has even been used to spread chemicals over oil spills.  By 2009 over 2300 had been built, and more are being built still.  The civilian model sold directly to airlines is the L-100, of which 114 were built.  Plans for starting production of 75 more civilian models are in effect.

2.  Douglas DC-3/C-47.

The DC-3 made its debut in 1936 and immediately became the premier American Airliner.  The C-47 military version was produced starting in 1941, and between the 2 versions, well over 16,000 were built.  Almost every allied country used them during World War II, and scores of countries put them to use in military and civilian roles afterwards.  A particularly notable version, the AC-47 Spooky (AKA, Puff the Magic Dragon) was a beloved friend of the infantry during the Viet Nam War with its awesome array of firepower as a gunship.  These incredible planes are still in use today.  (Note: The Curtiss C-46/CW-20 was a similar 2 engine airliner converted for military use as a cargo and troop carrier, but did not get as extensive use as the C-47.  From 1940 to 1945 3181 were built.) 

1.  Boeing 707/C-135.

Built from 1958 to 1979, over 1000 civilian airline versions were sold and over 800 military versions.  Serving the military as the C-135 family of aircraft, notable versions were the KC-135 tanker, giving the Air Force a tanker that was appropriate for jet fighters and bombers, the E-3 AWACS early warning command post, and modified airliners as presidential transport  Air Force One (until 1990).  Other airborne command post versions, the E-6 and E-8 are also in use.

Question for students (and subscribers): How many more can you think of?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Winchester, Jim.  The Encyclopedia of Modern Aircraft: From Civilian Airliners to Military Superfighters.  Thunder Bay Press, 2006.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.