The Most Important Planes Ever Built
Airplanes are among the most historically important inventions we’ve ever developed. Without them, the modern world would not be possible. The history of aviation began with kites, first flown in ancient China. Human beings first took to the air in hot air balloons. We then graduated to gliders, and eventually modern aeroplanes.
The aircraft on this list are the most influential in history. There is no aircraft more influential than the first proper airplane, invented and flown by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
Pictured above is the first modern airplane to ever successfully fly with a person aboard. The Wright Brothers pioneered the use of wing warping, which used pulleys and cables to manipulate the wings’ trailing edges, established a precedent that was followed by pretty much every airplane since.
After the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers pursued a marketing campaign to try to persuade the American government, as well as European states, to adopt their invention for military use. People were still unfamiliar with the Wrights’ accomplishments, and were circumspect about the possibility of manned air travel. Their doubts were laid to rest in 1908, when the Wrights flew their plane in LeMans France before a stunned crowd. That performance popularized airplanes in Europe, and changed history forever.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
The Blackbird is a long-range stealth recon aircraft that can fly at Mach 3. It was developed, secretly, by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division, based off of the Lockheed A-12 reconnaisance aircraft of the sixties. It was so fast that in the event of a surface-to-air missile launch, standard procedure was to just hit the gas and outrace the missile. The plane featured a very slim radar cross-section, making it not only blazing fast, but also extremely stealthy. The U.S. Air Force used Blackbirds between 1964 and 1998. There were a total of 32 made. Twelve of those were actually destroyed in accidents, though none were ever wrecked in combat. It still holds the record for “fastest air-breathing manned aircraft,” which it’s held since 1976.
The Hercules is a military transport plane, which was built and designed by Lockheed in the 1950s. The four-engine turboprop aircraft was revolutionary in its ability to use unprepared runways to take off from and land on. Although it was originally designed for transport, it has also been re-purposed for many other uses, including science research, search and rescue and a variety of offensive military applications. In fact, there are about forty different known variants on the Hercules. As a testament to its design, it is still heavily in use around the world and is used widely by many militaries. It was named one of five aircraft to be in use for fifty consecutive years, in 2007. Of those, the Hercules is the longest continually produced aircraft used for military purposes, with over sixty years under its belt.
The Spitfire was the most important plane used by the British during World War II. Without the Spitfire, it would have been unlikely that the Royal Air Force could have defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Spitfires were exceptionally fast, giving them a speed advantage over virtually every other military aircraft in use at that time. They were also used for bombing, recon and other purposes.
This was arguably the most influential transport aircraft ever invented, totally remapping air transport in the thirties and forties. It was a twin-engine, metal monoplane that was an update of the DC-2. It was faster, had better range and could take off from much shorter runways. It was also known as a workhorse, easily maintained and a consistent performer. Without them, transcontinental flights were not possible and passenger transport was not a profitable business.
This is the plane that made the first successful flight across the English Channel, in 1909. It made the pilot for whom the plane was named very famous, and was a pivotal moment in aviation history, that carried air flight out of the realm of curiosity and into the realm of serious public esteem. The Blériot XI subsequently saw a great deal of popularity with many pre-WWI militaries.
Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey
The Osprey is a tiltrotor military aircraft that is capable of vertical takeoff and landing. It can also take off and land on very short runways. It fills a niche between a helicopter and a turboprop plane. It first flew in 1989 and then entered into a multi-year period of refinement.
Boeing B-29 Superfortress
The B-29 Superfortress, designed and built by Boeing, is a heavy bomber that was used heavily by the United States in WWII and the Korean War. It was very large, featuring advanced (for the time) technology. It was enormously expensive to develop, with a budget that was actually larger than the Manhattan Project’s by over a billion dollars. It was the plane used to drop the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Bell X-1 was the first manned aircraft to ever break the sound barrier. It was a joint project between the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the U.S. Army Air Forces. It was designed in 1944 and built in 1945, taking its historic flight in 1948. It was piloted by Chuck Yeager.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
The Lightning II is a family of stealth fighters with three primary models: the F-35A, the F-35B and the F-35C. The US Marines announced in 2015 that they were ready to deploy the first squadron of F-35B fighters, and then declared the F-35A airworthy in 2016. The project has been enormously expensive, far surpassing original budget estimates.
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
The Fighting Falcon is a multirole fighter aircraft that was designed by General Dynamics for use by the United States Air Force in 1976. The USAF no longer uses it, but it’s still being produced for international customers. Its top speed is two times the speed of sound. It also flies with a ceiling of fifty thousand feet and can pull with nine times the force of gravity.
Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star
The Shooting Star was a jet fighter used by the United States Army Air Forces, originally designed and built by Lockheed. It first saw use in 1943. Two of them were used in Italy just before the end of WWII. They were, however, heavily used during the Korean War. It was the first successful turbojet-powered combat aircraft design used by the US military.
The 787 Dreamliner is the first airliner ever built mostly out of composite materials, instead of metal or wood. As a consequence, they were lighter and more flexible than their predecessors. The 787 also implemented a fly-by-wire system, along with other technological improvements and better engines that yielded major fuel efficiency advantages over the 767 and other aircraft contemporary with it.
The Cirrus SR22 is a single-engine composite aircraft that was first built in 2001. Since 2002, it has held the distinction of being the best-selling general aviation plane in the world, year after year. Between 2001 and 2017, there were 5,194 SR22’s delivered, making it one of the most-produced aircraft of the entire century.
The Learjet 23 was, for a time, synonymous with the jetsetting high life. It is an American-built plane, first introduced in 1964 and pitched to high powered business people and other hoi polloi. It created its own market. Before it, there was little precedent of private business aircraft. The Learjet 23 was actually only produced for two years, between 1964 and 1966.
The Cessna 172, nicknamed the Skyhawk, is the most-produced aircraft in history. It first took flight in 1955, with the first production model debuting in 1956. It has been in continuous production ever since. In terms of popularity and longevity, it is the world’s most successful aircraft.
The Gulfstream G500 and closely related G600 are twin-engine private business jets that were designed by Gulfstream Aerospace. The G500 is set to replace the G450. It is significantly faster and can travel about 18% farther than its predecessor.
The 747 is known affectionately by the nickname “jumbo jet,” which has since become a general term for large passenger airliners. It was the first wide-body airplane ever produced, featuring an iconic upper deck hump that makes it easily recognizable. It took its first commercial flight in 1970. It held the passenger capacity record for the subsequent 37 years.
Spirit of St. Louis
The Spirit of St. Louis was a single-seat, one-engine monoplane that was flown by Charles Lindbergh on the first ever solo nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927. Lindbergh flew from Long Island to Paris, winning the $25,000 Orteig Prize in the process. It took him 33 and a half hours to make it to Paris. The trip was about 3,600 miles.
The Rutan VariEze
The VariEze is a composite canard aircraft that was designed by Burt Rutan. The design was later modified to make the Long-EZ and other similar craft. The VariEze was the first airplane to popularize the canard configuration. It also popularized moldless composite construction for the burgeoning niche of DIY aircraft.
The Airbus A320 is a family of twin-engine jet airliners built by Airbus. They can seat up to 236 passengers, and have considerable ranges of up to 6,500 miles. The first A320 took to the skies on February 22, 1987. The plane made Airbus a major competitor of Boeing. It was one of the best-selling airliners ever.
The Constellation, nicknamed the “Connie,” was a four-engine airliner built by Lockheed Corporation from 1943 to 1958. It was the first pressurized airliner to see popular use. Three Connies were also the official aircraft used by Dwight D. Eisenhower during his presidency.
General Atomics MQ-1 Predator
The Predator is the most famous military “drone,” or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, used by the American military. It was first conceived in the nineties, and has been used for air strikes abroad since 1995. Drone warfare is marketed as resulting in less net loss of human life, but that claim has come under repeated and intense refutation from advocates who claim they cause far more civilian casualties than claimed.
Scaled Composites Voyager
The Voyager was the first aircraft to ever circumnavigate the globe in a single flight without refueling or stopping. Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager were its pilots. It took off from Edwards Air Force Base on December 14, 1986 and flew for nine days before the flight was complete.
Piper J-3 Cub
The Cub was a light aircraft that was built from 1937 to 1947 by Piper Aircraft. It had very exceptional low-speed handling thanks to its light weight. It is among the most iconic aircraft ever designed, thanks to its simplicity and relatively affordable price. There were about twenty thousand of them built in the United States. Many consider it the Model T of air travel.
Messerschmitt Me 262
The Me 262, nicknamed “Schwalbe,” German for “Swallow,” was the first jet-powered fighter aircraft ever built. It was designed before WWII but plans to produce it were thwarted by multiple hiccups. The Luftwaffe started producing them in 1944. It was faster, and more armed, than Allied fighters.
The Van’s RV-3 is a kit aircraft that was designed by Richard VanGrunsven and sold by Van’s Aircraft. It was the frontrunner in the RV series and made Van’s Aircraft the most popular aircraft kit-building company ever.
The Gossamer Albatross
The Gossamer Albatross was built by AeroVironment, a company helmed by Dr. Paul B MacCready, an American aeronautical engineer. The Albatross crossed the English Channel in 1979, winning a thousand pounds in the process. It was notable for being entirely human-powered.
Dassault Falcon 7X
The Falcon 7X is a business jet manufactured by Dassault Aviation. It debuted at the 2001 Paris Air Show and entered into public use in 2007. Its design is an adaptation of Dassault’s Mirage fighter jet. It is notable for having three jets, a rarity.
The Grumman Gulfstream I is a twin-turboprop aircraft used primarily for private business. It first took to the sky in 1958. It was an innovative idea – take plane designs used in World War II and repurpose them for passenger transport. It was the birth of the “business jet.”
Sikorsky Ilya Muromets
This was a Russian four-engine commercial plane that was used before World War I. They were also used as heavy bombers during the War. They were named for Ilya Muromets, a figure in Slavic mythology. During the early part of the War, it provided air supremacy for Russia, as there were no enemy aircraft that could rival it.
The Junkers F.13, or F 13, was the first all-metal transport aircraft ever built. It was designed near the end of World War I by the Germans. It featured a cantilevered wing and could carry four passengers. More than three hundred of them were sold and it remained in production for over a decade.
Handley Page Type W
The Handley Page W.8, W.9 and W.10 planes were biplane airliners that were all designed by, go figure, Handley Page. The W.8 was Page’s first civil airliner, capable of carrying two crew and fifteen passengers. The first W.8 flew in 1919, after being put on display at the Paris Air Show. It was the first airliner to ever have an on-board lavatory. Imagine flying without one.
The 247 was a very early airliner, the first to use all-metal construction, cantilevered wings and retractable landing gears. They also had an autopilot feature. They first took to the skies in 1933.
Boeing 307 Stratoliner
The Stratoliner has the distinction of being the first aircraft to ever have a pressurized cabin. Pressurization allowed it to cruise at 20,000 feet, allowing it to avoid weather hazards. It could carry up to six crew and thirty-three passengers.
The DC-6 is a transport aircraft that was built by the Douglas Aircraft Company between 1946 and 1958. It was designed as a military transport craft during WWII but was retooled post-war as a civilian plane. It was competed with the Lockheed Constellation, with over seven hundred planes built. Many of them are still operational.
De Havilland Comet
The Comet was the first commercial jetliner ever put into service. It was built by de Havilland in the United Kingdom, first taking wing in 1949 and went into commercial use in 1952. The plane was beset by serious problems. Three of them crashed within a year. They were grounded and reworked. The Comet 4 came out in 1958 and stayed airborne for more than three decades.
The Tu-104 was a Soviet airliner, which entered commercial service right behind the de Havilland Comet. During the Comet’s safety debacle, it was the only operational jetliner on the planet from 1956 and 1958.
The 707 was a narrow-body jet airliner that was operational between 1958 and 1979. They can carry between 140 and 219 passengers and can fly up to 5,750 nautical miles. It was the first jetliner to be successfully marketed in the west. It was the jetliner of choice during the sixties and early seventies. It made Boeing the giant it is today.
The Concorde is a unique British-French supersonic passenger airliner that was retired in 2003. It traveled at a max speed that was more than twice the speed of sound. It took its first flight in 1969. It was one of only two supersonic transport planes to ever be operated commercially. A ticket was exorbitantly expensive.