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Aviation is full of firsts—first flight, first dogfight,first crossing of this or that, first jet, first widebody. And some firsts are debatable. New Zealanders still insist that secretive savant Richard Pearse beat the Wright brothers into the air by almost nine months, and many Italians remain convinced that Caproni’s 1940 Campini N.1 ducted-fan blowtorch was the world’s first jet.

Many first flights also never quite manage to set the bar for what is to follow. De Havilland Comet diehards will forever argue that it was the world’s first jetliner, which it was, but the sweptwing, podded-engine airliners that are still being built to this day sprang from a Boeing design. Heinrich Focke and Gerd Achgelis inarguably built and flew the world’s first helicopter, but four years later Igor Sikorsky flew an innovative design that turned their configuration into a dead end.

Here, then, are our choices for the 15 aircraft that have had—and continue to have— the greatest effect on the future of flight.


Wheels were used instead of skids on landplanes as early as Sir George Cayley’s mid-19th-century gliders, and Alberto Santos- Dumont made the first heavier-than-air wheeled takeoff without a ramp or catapult with his 1906 14bis, but only for a short, straight-ahead hop. It remained for Louis Blériot to demonstrate that an airplane with wheels could take off under its own power, make a cross-country (cross-Channel, in his case) flight and land elsewhere. Had Blériot wanted to tempt fate twice, he perhaps could have refueled in England and flown back to France—just as you or I might in a Cessna 172 today.

1915 JUNKERS J.1

The concept of wings held in place by external cables and struts was developed by aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, who  had, not coincidentally, been a railroad bridge engineer familiar with trusses. Wire-braced biplane wings were light and strong and could easily be tuned to adjust angles of incidence and dihedral, but the drag of all the wires needed to form a stiff, bridge-like truss limited speed. Hugo Junkers came up with the idea of providing a wing’s support entirely internally, with a strong, slightly flexible spar that absorbed both positive and negative loads. The cantilever spar also eased the transition to more aerodynamically efficient monoplane designs.


The wheels, tires, struts, oleos and linkages that enable an aircraft to take off and land create enormous drag. They can be streamlined, spatted, faired and minimized, but the only way to get rid of that drag is either to jettison the gear after takeoff and land on a belly skid—which was occasionally done but was not exactly efficient—or physically suck them up inside of an airplane’s structure. The RB-1 was a pure raceplane, though it led to the similar Dayton-Wright XPS-1 experimental fighter, which had the same hand-cranked retractable gear. Much the same configuration and retraction mechanism was used 17 years later on the Grumman F4F Wildcat.


Although the Junkers J.1 was the first all-metal airplane, it featured a conventional airframe covered with sheet metal, an approach that added some strength (and a lot of weight) but far less than a design using just enough circular formers and lengthwise stringers to define the fuselage shape, and wrapping it in a smooth aluminum skin. On the Silver Streak, the skin, not the underlying framework, was “stressed”—bearing loads. Metal-covered airplanes such as Fokkers and the Ford TriMotor persevered through the 1920s, and “Iron Annie,” the Junkers Ju-52/3m trimotor, was produced from 1931 through 1952. Virtually all modern metal aircraft, however, use stressed skin.


The DC-3 could well be the most important airplane ever built. The Boeing 247, several European designs and Douglas’ own DC-1 and -2 preceded the “Doug Racer,” but none could carry quite enough passengers far or fast enough to make a profit. The DC-3 was a near-perfect combination of airframe and engine—Wright Cyclones at first, soon supplanted by smoother-running Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps—that provided speed and luxury undreamed-of in the late 1930s and immediate postwar years. The airplane was beautiful into the bargain, with its sweptback leading edges and thrusting beak. For decades, even into the age of turboprops, manufacturers tried to come up with a replacement for the DC-3, only to conclude that the only airplane that could replace it was another DC-3.

1938 PIPER J-3 CUB

Light aircraft designed for civilian pilots—“private planes”—had been around since the 1920s; the first Cessna was introduced in 1927, the first Beechcraft in 1932. But it remained for the third general aviation stalwart, Piper, to introduce what for the time was the ideal lightplane: the Cub, an improvement of the close-but-no-cigar Taylor E-2. It was so widely popular and broadly accepted that “Pipercub” became the public’s generic label for all lightplanes and remains so to this day. A combination of performance, reliability, safety, relative comfort, good looks and—most important—value (early units sold for $995) gave the Cub a hand that no other player held. The Piper Super Cub remained in production until 1994, and several dead-accurate Cub knockoffs are being manufactured even now.


Some early airplanes, notably the landplanes built by Glenn Curtiss, had tri-gear—a nosewheel or two up front and main wheels aft, behind the center of gravity—but the convention quickly became two big wheels on struts up front, as though the airplane was doing pushups, with a little wheel or simple skid under the tail. This put the CG behind the main landing gear, making touchdowns dodgy to control. The Ercoupe was intended to be a foolproof lightplane—it was hard to stall, since it had limited elevator authority, and designer Fred Weick eliminated the rudder pedals and gave it tricycle landing gear, making the Ercoupe somewhat of a flying Chevy. Today virtually every airplane from the tiniest single-seater to the biggest widebody sports tricycle gear.

1940 SIKORSKY VS-300

Since da Vinci, aeronautical visionaries have imagined a pure vertical-takeoff flying machine, and though many sketched concepts, Focke-Wulf engineer Gerd Achgelis was the first to make it a reality, with his Fa-61. But the Fa-61 was basically an autogyro with powered rotors, two of them side by side rotating in opposite directions to cancel the torque effect that wants to spin a helo around its main rotorshaft. Sikorsky came up with the simpler and more effective concept of a single big main rotor plus a small anti-torque propeller in the tail, controlled by “rudder pedals” to both counteract main-rotor twist and give the helicopter directional control. With very few exceptions, modern helos have hewn to the Sikorsky principle.


The British and Americans both had single-seat experimental jets, the RAF was about to put the comparatively slow and stodgy Gloster Meteor into service and the Germans already had the Me-163 rocket plane. But the Me-262 was the world’s first jet fighter to actually go out and mix it up with the enemy, relying on a 100-mph speed advantage to engage and disengage at will, and to do serious damage to Allied bombers and fighters. It was precedential in a number of ways, but interestingly, its swept wings were not among them. The Me-262’s wings were cranked back 18.5 degrees not for a supersonic advantage but to shift the airplane’s CG aft, since its Junkers Jumo engines turned out to be heavier than expected.

1954 BOEING 367-80

As pioneering and praiseworthy as the de Havilland Comet was, it advanced the state of airliner art only incrementally. It was essentially a conventional 1950s airliner with jet engines buried in the wings, initially just 44 seats, nearly straight wings and a pressurized cabin. The Comet would never, as overwrought commentators at the time put it, have given Britain a monopoly on civil jet transport. Boeing was already building the sweptwing B-47 and had decided the worst place to put jet engines was inside the wings, where they were difficult to service and could do terminal damage if they came apart or caught fire. Boeing’s next step was the “Dash 80” four-engine prototype of an aerial refueling tanker for the Air Force, and that led to the prototypical Boeing 707.

1961 HAWKER P.1127

Convair’s XFY-1 Pogo tail-sitter was the first airplane to take off and land vertically, while also transitioning to and from horizontal flight. But the pilot had to look over his shoulder to judge his distance from the ground when landing, a dangerous practice. Hawker used the Bristol Pegasus vectored-thrust engine to develop a practical vertical takeoff aircraft that stayed horizontal while the swiveling jet nozzles did all the grunt work. The P.1127 led to the Hawker-Siddeley Kestrel and then the classic Harrier. When they’re heavily loaded, vectored-thrust VTOLs can also make short, rolling takeoffs using aerodynamic lift (plus, in some naval applications, ski-jump carrier ramps) and vertical landings when the airplane becomes light enough.

1963 LEARJET 23

Lockheed’s 1957 JetStar, North American’s 1958 Sabreliner and Dassault’s 1963 Mystére 20 all beat entrepreneur Bill Lear into the business-jet market with heavy, military-grade airplanes. But when Lear introduced the stunning little Model 23 in 1963, based on a stillborn Swiss fighter design, “Learjet” became the synonym for bizjet. It climbed and cruised like a rocket, yet it was comparatively inexpensive. What had flown earlier were corporate jets; the Lear 23 was the first true private jet, snug as a sports car with performance to match. Another far less successful attempt was the first personal jet of all, the little-known 1954 Morane-Saulnier Paris Jet, a four-seater with a sliding canopy and a step-over-the-sill lightplane cabin.


Plastics can be strong, stiff, light, easy to mold into complex shapes and—a big advantage for an airplane—smooth and slippery, seamless and rivet-free. The first fiberglass airplane was the 1957 German S-24 Phoenix single-seat sailplane, but its practicality was limited. A decade later, a Texas husband-and-wife team of dentist-pilots, Leo and Fairfax Windecker, launched the shapely, innovative, four-seat Eagle, but their company failed before more than a handful could be produced. The Windeckers weren’t particularly interested in producing civil lightplanes; they believed that radar-invisible composites could be used to build stealthy planes for the military. One prototype Eagle, the YE-5, was sent to the Air Force for testing, then transferred to the Army, but it seemed uninterested.

1981 LOCKHEED F-117A

The F-117A Nighthawk did get the military’s attention. Stealth was not new— painted camouflage was one way to make an aircraft stealthy, mufflers and quiet props another—but Lockheed used novel technology that flat-faceted every external surface of the F-117A so that each of them reflected radar energy away from the radar receiver. It was a technique based on computations by a Russian mathematician that, it was long assumed, would never be applicable to aircraft. But with the prototype Have Blue, essentially a half-scale Nighthawk, Lockheed proved it worked. Popularly known as the “Stealth Fighter,” the F-117A isn’t a fighter at all but a night-attack bomber. It’s unarmed, not particularly maneuverable and subsonic. But in the dark, no Mach 2 superfighter will ever know it’s out there.

1987 AIRBUS A320

“Fly by wire” replaces the mechanical linkages between the cockpit and an airplane’s ailerons, rudder, spoilers, engines and other mechanisms with electrical wires carrying signals to small motors. That eliminates weight and vulnerable hydraulic and pulley-and-cable systems. Better yet, working an aircraft’s controls and engines electronically allows the imposition of powerful digital computers between pilot and airplane—computers programmed to fly the airplane automatically and to prevent a pilot from performing maneuvers that exceed an airplane’s limits. NASA’s experimental DFBW Vought F-8 Crusader was, in 1972, the very first digital“electric airplane,” and Airbus Industrie revolutionized airliner design when it adapted the concept to its now-ubiquitous A320 narrowbody.


Frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson has personally piloted three of the 15 aircraft he covers here—the DC-3, Ercoupe and Cub—and like most of us has served time in the economy-class cabin of A320s. Additional reading: 50 Aircraft That Changed the World, by Ron Dick and Dan Patterson. AIRBU

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.