A Brief History
On August 19, 1940, the B-25 Mitchell was flown for the first time. Although its service life did not extend as long as many other airplanes, this medium bomber was adapted for a huge variety of uses and configurations, making it one of the most versatile aircraft ever. We started a previous article about versatile aircraft with the first flight of the B-25, and today we take a look at another group of incredibly versatile aircraft that have made their mark in aviation history. As always, we invite you to nominate those aircraft you believe belong on a list such as this, or to challenge our choices. Happy flying!
1. Boeing B-29.
The most advanced piston engine bomber of World War II, the B-29 Superfortress was the most expensive military program of the war. Designed to be a long range, high altitude heavy bomber that could fly at fighter plane like speed, the B-29 featured nifty traits such as a fully pressurized crew compartment and remote control defensive machine gun turrets that were aimed with the first fire control computers deployed on a warplane. Using the B-29 in bombing missions against Japan revealed the surprising fact that the B-29 could actually out turn a Japanese Zero fighter at high altitude, as well as fly faster. Poor bombing accuracy due to jet stream winds caused a radical change in the B-29 mission to a low altitude night bomber instead of a high altitude daylight bomber, with all except the tail guns and turrets removed to save weight. In the low altitude night bomber role, the B-29’s caused incredible death and destruction using firebombs. The big bombers became the first nuclear capable bombers in aviation history in 1945 when they dropped Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and they served as the US nuclear deterrent until jet bombers could be developed. The B-29, like other bombers, was also developed into a cargo-transport version, the C-97, and was further developed into the first large aerial refueling tanker, the KB-29 and then the more advanced KC-97. Improved models were called the B-50, and a civilian airliner variant was made, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. B-29’s served in the US Air Force until 1960 in their bomber role but served on as hurricane hunter weather aircraft for many years beyond. Over-sized cargo versions known as the “Guppy,” “Mini-Guppy” and “Super Guppy” were also produced for service with NASA, and the Soviets copied an interned B-29 and produced a clone called the Tu-4. Other missions and configurations of the B-29 included air sea rescue, firefighting, weather observing, reconnaissance, maritime patrol, and even as an airborne carrier of “parasite” small fighters. While other bombers have also been adapted for a variety of uses, we believe the B-29 is the champion as far as the wide-ranging adaptations of the airframe of any bomber aircraft.
2. Douglas DC-3.
Introduced in 1936, the DC-3 immediately became the #1 airliner in the world, capable of carrying 32 passengers, or 14 passengers in a sleeper-bed configuration. Capable of a speed of 230 mph, the DC-3 provided rapid transport for air passengers used to travel at under 200 mph. While a modest 607 copies were produced, it was as the military C-47 Skytrain version that the DC-3 really made its mark, with over 10,000 of the cargo planes built! A heavily armed version called the AC-47 Spooky was operated by the US Air Force in Vietnam, providing incredible air to ground firepower against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers. Used as a troop transport, cargo carrier, airborne troop carrier, air ambulance, executive transport, search and rescue, electronic warfare, glider tow-tug, trainer, special cold weather operations and even a 3-engine version called the Conroy Turbo-Three. Rugged and reliable, the DC-3/C-47 was the workhorse of World War II as far as cargo aircraft go, by far the most important such plane of that war. Allied nations also flew the Skytrain/Dakota, both during and after the War, and many civilian private examples were used for several decades after World War II.
3. Junkers Ju-88.
A twin engine medium bomber called by the Germans a “Schnellbomber,” meaning “fast bomber,” when the bomber was introduced in 1936 it was about as fast as the fighter planes of the era at 290 mph top speed (although soon to be eclipsed with a new generation of fighters), with a considerable bomb carrying capability of 3100 pounds internally or over 6000 pounds of bombs externally. The Ju-88 relied on speed and maneuverability, which was superior to most other bomber aircraft of its day for defense, as it was lightly armed with defensive machine guns compared to American medium bombers such as the B-25 and B-26. An aspect of the Ju-88 missing in the medium bombers of Allied nations was the ability to operate as a dive bomber, a capability that required an extra-strong airframe which increased weight. Had this capability been deleted, the performance of the Ju-88 may have been considerably enhanced. A rugged, reliable and versatile aircraft, the Ju-88 was readily adapted to serving as a torpedo bomber, a reconnaissance aircraft, a night fighter equipped with radar and heavy anti-bomber armament, and as a “heavy” fighter, a heavily armed interceptor for attacking allied heavy bombers that were resistant to the armament found on single engine German fighters. Produced in many variations, the basic structure of the Ju-88 remained the same, testament to the inherent soundness of the design. Germany built over 15,000 Ju-88’s, more than any other multi-engine German bomber and as many as the US B-25 and B-26 production combined, in fact, more than any other twin engine bomber in history. Adapted for both destroying Allied heavy bombers and Allied armored vehicles required heavy armament, and the Ju-88 was a prime candidate for this role, removing the glazing from the normal “bomber” nose and replacing it with all metal, where forward firing heavy guns were located, and underbelly armament included a 75mm anti-tank gun adapted for aerial use! Another version utilized twin 37mm or 50 mm anti-tank automatic cannons for use against Allied armor vehicles, especially on the Eastern Front. The original 7.92mm (rifle caliber) machine guns that equipped the original versions of the Ju-88 gave way to heavier machine guns and 20mm cannons as the War progressed. Some night fighter models were equipped with upward firing arrays of guns to shoot down Allied night bombers from underneath. Special long range models were built for marine patrol, and perhaps the weirdest variant was the Mistel, an unmanned flying bomb drone that had an FW-190 fighter plane attached to the top of the bomber (which was laden with explosives) to serve as the command module until over the target when the fighter would separate from the bomber.
4. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
While other fighters have been adapted for a variety of roles, this expensive piece of gear was intended from the very start of the design process to serve many roles. As a stealth aircraft, the F-35 is particularly deadly in the air to air role and hard to shoot down in the ground attack role. Separate versions are being built for the US Air Force (conventional take off and landing), the US Navy (built for aircraft carrier flights), and a vertical take off and landing model for the US Marine Corps. Many other fighter jets have taken on both the air to air fighting role as well as the ground attack mission, usually as an afterthought through clever adaptation, but the Lightning II is made to be superb in both roles right out of the box, hence its price tag, currently about $100+ million apiece! A supersonic fighter, the F-35 has the ability to exceed the sound barrier even while carrying ground attack bombs and missiles, something other fighters cannot do, a capability due to the internal storage of weapons. The F-35 is also the first vertical take off and landing fighter to achieve supersonic performance. Although primarily built for the ground attack and air to air roles, the F-35 was also designed to perform electronic warfare and reconnaissance missions as well and will not have to be re-designed or rebuilt to perform those tasks. The British Royal Air Force and the Israeli Air Force are among the foreign countries purchasing and fielding the F-35, which is an indication of the value of this airplane in a war theater.
Honorable Mention: Hawker Siddeley (later also McDonnell Douglas) AV-8 Harrier.
The Harrier was the original vertical take off and landing jet fighter and served many military forces quite well, enabling smaller navies to field a ship-borne jet plane capability and larger navies to deploy the versatile jets on ships other than large carriers, such as amphibious ships, greatly enhancing the flexibility of the military of the countries that operated the Harrier. In fact, even cargo ships have been adapted as makeshift aircraft carriers to field the Harrier! Although not supersonic, the Harrier was capable enough to perform quite well in the air to air role during the Falkland Islands War (1982) and has seen combat in the ground attack role as well.
5. McDonnell Douglas (Northrup and Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet.
Before the F-35 and after the F-16, the Hornet was designed from the start to serve both as an air to air dogfighter and interceptor as well as attacking ground targets with missiles and bombs. A versatile aircraft carrier jet, the F/A-18 got its designation for the “F” as in “Fighter” role and “A” as in “Attack” role, a label to signify its versatility. The Hornet first entered active service in 1983. Capable of flying off smaller aircraft carriers than the F-14 Tomcat, the F/A-18 was thus a more flexible platform in terms of deployment by the US and Royal Australian Navies, as well as the US Marine Corps, the Spanish Air Force, Swiss, Finnish and Kuwaiti Air Forces, and the Canadian Air Force. Boeing is courting other countries in an effort to sell the Hornet and Super Hornet. The Hornet is given a wide range of missions, from fleet defense to close air support and interdiction to air superiority to reconnaissance and suppressing enemy anti-air defenses. Of course, the Hornet is fully capable of serving in the nuclear bomber role as well. A supersonic single pilot fighter bomber, the F/A-18 also comes in a 2 seat trainer version and has been developed into the vastly improved “Super Hornet” model, with the single seat version designated F/A-18E and the tandem seat (2 person) version designated the F/A-18F. The Super Hornet is so named because it is larger, faster, and much more capable than the original Hornet and costs a whopping $70 million apiece! The Super Hornet entered service in 1999. So versatile is the Hornet, it replaces the A-4, A-6, A-7 and F-14 jets for the US Navy aircraft carrier air wings.
6. Boeing 737.
By far the most produced jet airliner of all time, despite the last couple years controversy about the 737 Max version, the 737 has had a stellar reputation for safety and service. First entering service in 1968, the plane originally carried less than 100 passengers, but has been updated to remain commercially viable in spite of all sorts of competitors emerging over the years. Production numbers are approaching 11,000, with another 4000 copies on order! (Note: The Airbus model A320 family of jets has just recently overtaken the 737 in total orders, though more 737’s have been delivered.) The US Air Force military version was known as the T-43 (19 built) and served as a navigation trainer. (Note: The author once took a ride on a T-43.) Other versions include the 737 AEW&C, or Airborne Early Warning and Control, with orders from Australia, Turkey and South Korea, and the C-40 Clipper military model, capable of carrying passengers and cargo for up to 5000 nautical miles. Although primarily a medium range people carrier, the 737 is readily adaptable to carrying cargo as well. Another military model is adapted for anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol, known as the P-8 Poseidon. Many older 737 airliners have been converted to serve as commercial cargo carriers. The 737 Max represents the 4th generation of the 737 and can carry up to 230 passengers with a range of up to 3800 nautical miles.
Bonus Entry: Cessna 172.
As the most produced aircraft of all time (by a lot!), that fact alone qualifies this wonderful little 4 passenger airplane for this list. A single engine driving a propeller with a high wing (parasol configuration) provides excellent pilot and passenger visibility to the ground. First flown in 1955 and produced from 1956 until the present (still pumping them out!), over 44,000 of these great planes have been built. The 2019 price is about $89,000, which is no more than a modern luxury automobile. Amazing Feat of Aeronautics: In 1959, a Cessna 172 took off in Nevada and did not land until almost 65 days later, a world record endurance flight! Obviously, the record setting flight involved aerial refueling. The flight was staged as a fund raiser for anti-cancer research and treatment. Yes, the Cessna 172 has been made in a float-plane configuration and the military model was known as the T-41 Mescalero. Top speed is nearly 150 mph, with a stall speed of 54 mph. Ceiling is a modest 13,500 feet. Normal range is about 700 nautical miles.
Question for students (and subscribers): What airplane do you believe is/was the most versatile of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Jackson, Robert. Civil Aircraft: 300 of the World’s Greatest Civil Aircraft. Sterling Publishing, 2018.
Phelps, Mark. Flight: 100 Greatest Aircraft Hardcover. Weldon Owen, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Lukas skywalker of a North American B-25 Mitchell during the International Air Show Góraszka in 2007, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.