The 20th Century began with absolutely no airplanes, no self-powered heavier than air aircraft at all. Then the Wright brothers came along, and before long the idea seized the imagination of a great number of talented people. By the end of the century the skies were full of airplanes. The development was so rapid, and so profound, that I believe it to be one of the defining aspects of the times.
Here are my choices for the iconic airplane of each decade.
The clear choice here is the Wright Flyer, generally accepted as the first man-made contraption to fly under its own power with lift provided only by wings. It was a big box kite with a small motor and very primitive control surfaces, but it could take off, fly where you wanted it to go, and land, usually without damaging the aircraft or killing the pilot. Within ten years aircraft of many nations took an ever increasing role in the Great War.
This was a tough choice. World War I saw a great number of capable designs, and many of them were innovative and successful in their roles. I’m going for the Spad, though, specifically the Spad S-XIII. There were 8,500 made, and it was competitive over a long service life. American ace Eddie Rickenbacker got a couple of dozen victories in the type and he even lived to tell about it. That was the trick in WWI, the living part. A reporter asked another American ace what he was going to do after the war. “After the war?” he said, “there’s no after the war for a fighter pilot.” He died.
Another tough pick. The years “between the wars” were a time of great innovation, but with no war to fight and with commercial applications still to be worked out it was a tough slog to be in the aircraft making business.
I’m going for the Dornier DO-X. It was an amazing thing to see, a very large flying boat with twelve engines mounted across the middle of the high wing, six pulling and six pushing. I can tell you that it captured the imaginations of small boys for decades. My parents grew up in Queens, and they were thrilled to watch this thing land in the East River. It was displayed for months at the Curtis Air Terminal, the earliest incarnation of LaGuardia Airport. It amazed me when I discovered it in the Encyclopedia in the early 1950s. It still amazes me. They only made three, and it never performed up to expectations, but it’s still my pick for the 1920s.
Now we’re coming into a period where the picks are easier. For me, the great plane of the 1930s is the Douglas DC-3 (aka C-47 in its military role). It’s so beautiful, and it looks so modern, that it still looks like it would be hard to improve. It was highly efficient and very durable, so much so that some examples are still in use today.
The JU-87 “Stuka.” A plane that needs no introduction. Sure, it was obsolete by the beginning of World War II, but this thing was bad-ass, and it remained dangerous in the hands of a capable pilot. In an environment where air-dominance had been achieved, it was capable of causing a lot of damage. This is a very personal choice. "Bad-ass" always gets my attention.
Here I’m going to encounter dedicated fans of many different aircraft, but I’m going to choose the North American P-51 Mustang, “the Cadillac of the Air.” It was a big pilot favorite with a high kill-to-loss ratio. The design of the plane, and its capabilities, struck a chord that still rings out today. 15,000 were made, and about 200 are still flying today.
The B-52! First flight in 1952, and constructed only between 1952 and 1962, there are about eighty-five still in service with the USAF and is expected to serve in that role until the 2040s. That, you must admit, is one very successful airplane.
Here we return to the Land of the Bad-Ass. The F4 Phantom looks dangerous just sitting on the runway. The nose drops; the wings come at you from different angles. On one hand, it looks like a huge flying truck, but on the other hand, it looks malevolent and threatening. In the hands of pilots like Randy Cunningham it was the air-dominance fighter plane of the day.
The Mig-21. They looked like beautiful toys next to something like the F4, but Mig-21s were very fast and capable. They were easy to make and easy to fly, and they were very maneuverable. They were made in large numbers and they served for a long time in many air forces. F4s in Vietnam ate them for lunch, but a lot of that was due to better pilot training and superior tactics. A Great plane.
The F-15 Eagle. Undefeated in air combat! (The only plane in history that can make the claim.) Still an air-dominance fighter.
The Mig-29. A lightweight, single seat fighter, very fast, very beautiful and very, very maneuverable.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II. This plane is a sentimental favorite of mine, and one of the all-time winners in the bad-ass category. It was a tough choice for me, but I’m sticking with the F-15, based on its combat record and service life.
The Sukhoi SU-27. I think that this is one of the most beautiful aircraft ever to fly in earth’s skies, if not THE most beautiful. It looks as though the design of the Mig-29 was turned over to artists for beautification. It’s a heavier fighter than the Mig-29, and it is a faster plane, with a longer range of operation, more heavily armed, and even more maneuverable. The Chinese also make them under license, and their version is a great plane, too.
The B-2 Spirit. “Spirit” is a good name for this thing. I saw a fly-by at Dodger Stadium one time. They’d announced the direction that it would be coming from beforehand, but it was practically on top of the stadium before we could see it or hear it. Stealthy? The thing is damn near invisible to the naked eye in a clear sky. With a longer range and a bigger bomb load than a B-52, this thing is a marvel of aeronautical engineering.
Many fabulous planes get left off any list of this type, but my point has been to illustrate the supernatural development curve of aeronautics in the Twentieth Century. Did I say, “curve?” It’s been more like a straight line upwards. From the Wright Flyer to the B-2 Spirit, we’ve been treated to quite a display of human ingenuity, determination and courage. And, let’s face it, some human stupidity, too. All of this has cost a fortune, many fortunes actually, and most of that money has been spent in pursuit of military advantage over rivals, real or imagined. That money could have been spent on a better life for ordinary folks, but it wasn’t. It almost makes me feel guilty for enjoying the show so much.