Where does your favorite land on our top-12 list—or is it up in the air?
Everybody has their favorites, and they’re beloved for many different reasons. The B-24 that brought your grandfather home from every mission over Germany might be yours. The A-10 Warthog that a son flies over Afghanistan is certainly somebody’s candidate. A stumpy Grumman Bearcat that exudes raw power turns that into beauty for others. And even the Cessna Skyhawk that is your very first airplane draws backward glances every time you walk away from its tiedown.
There’s no accounting for what one aviation enthusiast will consider beautiful while another snickers at its ungainliness. At the other end of the spectrum, some airplanes that have considerable grace and attractive lines become everybody’s butt-ugliness dumping ground: Consider the widely derided Airbus A380, “the Whale,” which has become conveniently laughable for many, while the humpbacked Boeing 747 is regarded as the essence of jumbo pulchritude.
So here are our picks, ranked 1-12, for the airplanes that we consider to be timeless in their beauty, paragons of grace in flight regardless of their commercial success, combat record or public praise. A few of our selections are inarguable. Others, we’re frankly delighted to say, will open the floodgates of indignation. So keep those e-mails and letters coming; we want to hear from you.
- SUPERMARINE SPITFIRE
There are Englishmen who wouldn’t know an Airbus from the Brighton bus yet can instantly recognize a Spitfire. Easily the most famous aircraft in the history of the British empire, it is our pick for the most beautiful airplane of all time.
The Spitfire had a simple and spare fuselage, particularly the versions before the bubble canopy was added, but the wing’s the thing—the Spitfire’s trademark. Elliptical. Curved along both its leading and trailing edges. This shape created certain aerodynamic advantages, it was claimed, but those benefits might well have been illusory and irrelevant. Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell actually chose the elliptical planform to allow the chord length of the airfoil to increase more rapidly— thus making the wing at the same time fatter—toward each wing’s root. This opened up space inside for the retracted landing gear as well as for a wide variety of guns and cannons.
Unfortunately, the aircraft was also fiddly to manufacture. One estimate puts Spitfire construction man-hours at 13,000, versus 5,000 for a Hurricane and 4,000 for an Me-109. Beauty does not come cheap.
- LOCKHEED CONSTELLATION
Some stylists used a straightedge, others couldn’t resist that voluptuous drafting instrument—before computers, of course—called a French curve. Though the cylindrical fuselages of competing Douglas and Boeing airliners of the time (and of jets to come) made more sense ergonomically and structurally, the winged mailing tubes had little of the grace and unforgettable stance of the Connie, shaped like a skinny dolphin in mid-leap. Some claim the gently arced fuselage, which they see as airfoil-shaped,“adds lift,” which is nonsense. Others aver that the classic triple tail was selected so the airplane would be low enough to be towed into airline hangars, though Douglas and Boeing certainly managed to prosper with single-fin airliners. The truth is that Lockheed was already a twin-tail company, with its various Electras and Hudsons, and the Constellation simply added a third central vertical fin and rudder.
The fuselage shape was itself dictated by the airplane’s then-enormous engines—Curtiss-Wright R-3350 radials—and consequently huge propellers, which required substantial ground clearance. With a straight fuselage, the nosewheel leg would have been impossibly long to keep the prop tips from carving concrete divots.
Thousands of fliers remember their first airline flight, but the most vivid recollections seem to come from those fortunate enough to have experienced it aboard a Lockheed Constellation.
- HUGHES H-1
Howard Hughes’ 1935 record-setting H-1 was utterly simple yet stunningly extreme—the kind of impossible air- plane a bored kid might draw in the margin of his algebra notebook. A nose so long it made a Corsair’s look stunted; a minuscule cockpit well back toward a tall, artfully curved vertical tailfin; retractable landing gear as stalky as a supermodel’s legs…the H-1 looked a bit like a Gumby Fw-190 stretched in every direction. Not a strut, access door, antenna nor hinge marred the unbroken polished surface of this elegant thoroughbred.
Hughes had assumed that the Army Air Corps would quickly contract with his company to turn the H-1 into a frontline fighter prototype, much as the British had based several of their outstanding wartime designs on civil predecessors, but a biplane air force wasn’t ready for technology this radical. After World War II, a resentful Hughes insisted that the Japanese had based the Mitsubishi Zero on the H-1—yes, they both had radial engines, were single-place monoplanes and stressed lightness—but that was as much a myth as the also-common claim that the H-1 inspired the P-47 and the Fw-190.
The H-1 didn’t need wartime glory, for it broke the world landplane speed record as soon as it flew, and a year and a half later went on to set a new L.A.–to–New York transcontinental record.
- NORTHROP T-38
It’s rare that a two-seat trainer is more handsome than the single-seater it mimics—take a look at two-seat Spitfires for an extreme example of how scabbing on an instructor’s cockpit can ruin a design—but the supersonic T-38 Talon beats the Northrop F-5 lightweight fighter upon which it’s based. The extra cabin length accentuates the design’s graceful double-curved, strongly area-ruled fuselage and gives the airplane proper heft and presence, while the F-5 simply looks like a little lawn-dart fighter. Yes, you’re free to disagree, but Story Musgrave wouldn’t: He had such a love affair with the airplane he flew for 30 years that he wrote and shot a spectacular coffee-table book, The NASA Northrop T-38: Photographic Art From an Astronaut Pilot.
The T-38 marked its 50th year as the USAF’s advanced trainer in March 2011, and there’s no successor in sight, though a variety of Italian, British, Korean and U.S. companies are waiting in the wings with potential replacements. They’ll have to be patient, for structurally the Talons are good to go through 2020. The T-38 is the only trainer the Thunderbirds ever used as a showplane (from 1974 through 1981), and though they were fuel-efficient and maintenance-friendly, after a training accident in January 1982 the Talons were replaced by F-16s, which the demo team uses to this day.
- BEECH 17 STAGGERWING
Some might think “the Stag” ungainly, backward wings and all, yet it has become the prime example of vintage beauty. Oddly, despite a name that evokes an instant image among aviators, all biplanes are“staggerwings,”other than the few that have their upper wings directly above the lowers.Virtually all others have positive stagger—upper wing farther forward—and the Beech’s claim to fame is simply that it has the reverse, negative stagger.
It is often claimed that the near-unique configuration was engineered so the landing gear could be attached directly to the lower wing and retract cleanly into it. But the original Staggerwings, the 1932 Model 17 and the ’34 A17, had fixed gear, and biplanes had done just fine with fuselage-mounted main gear since before World War I. Perhaps designer Ted Wells always had retractables in mind; perhaps it was fortuitous that the lower wing was there to provide wheel wells and space for the retraction mechanism when he later designed the classic, folding-gear B17 in 1934.
It’s more likely that the negative-stagger configuration was chosen to provide better forward-and-up visibility for the pilot, though it’s also claimed to have some minor structural and aerodynamic advantages as well. Ultimately, the aftward upper wing led to the big, steeply raked windscreen that is also a key element of what some have called an art deco classic.
- DE HAVILLAND DH.88 COMET
As is true of sports cars, the pure racers are often the beauty queens, since they can be designed with little regard for com- fort, convenience or convention. The DH.88 was designed solely to cover the distance between England and Melbourne, Australia, as fast as possible, since that happened to be the route of the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race. Three were built, plus two more later, and three entered the race. One finished first, another fourth (then turned around and set a new record for the Melbourne-to-England flight) and the third dropped out with mechanical problems, but only after setting a new England-to-India record.
With a tandem cockpit roughly as wide and comfy as that of a Piper J-3 Cub—not ideal accommodations for an 11,300-mile flight—the narrow fuselage was as shapely as a barracuda, and the Comet’s sailplane-like, high-aspect-ratio wings accented the delicacy of the design. Some say the Comet was effectively the prototype of the de Havilland Mosquito, but that’s a stretch, though de Havilland did unsuccessfully try to sell the RAF on the concept of a bomber version of the DH.88. What the Mosquito and Comet had in common were stressed-skin wood construction, twin engines and the deservedly legendary name de Havilland.
Among aerial icons, Pegasus, Icarus and Concorde are perhaps the most mythic and instantly recognizable.
It’s never “the Concorde” but simply Concorde. The airplane was a baffling, irrelevant, costly, technological tour de force—a superfast, fuel-guzzling, elitist narrowbody of modest comfort in an era of throttledback, fuel-efficient, mass-transit leviathans of such size that first-class passengers paying the equivalent of Concorde fares could have entire bedroom mini-suites to themselves. Whether Concorde was profitable or quietly subsidized by middle-class British and French taxpayers is argued to this day, but it’s indisputable that they got a stunningly beautiful airplane for their money.
The fineness of Concorde’s super-streamlined fuselage—the ratio between its length and maximum thickness—is about as extreme as any airplane’s has ever been. Combined with an ogival double-delta wing with compound curves that made it look like it had been left in the oven too long, Concorde was an otherworldly creature. Unfortunately, with its snoot drooped, stalky landing gear extended and cluttered belly exposed, on takeoff and landing Concorde looked like a crazed praying mantis, but let’s ignore that.
- NORTH AMERICAN F-86 SABRE
The F-86 was originally intended to have straight wings, like its tubby FJ-1 Fury predecessor. This would have sent the Sabre straight to oblivion (much as the Fury has been largely forgotten), but fortunately North American was the first manufacturer to use data from German World War II experiments on the benefits of wing sweep for high-speed flight. The F-86 design was re-cooked when this research came to light, and the result is history: our choice for the most beautiful first-generation jet fighter in the world.
Its competitor, of course, was the MiG-15. Comparing them side-by-side makes even plainer the F-86’s stylishness, for its Soviet counterpart is a disproportionate, chunky, truncated ship, its tail far too large for its body and its flat jet intake a cold counterpart to the Sabre’s inspired maw. While the F-86’s wings are clean and tapered, the MiG’s are encumbered with fences (which writer Bill Sweetman once explained “keep the airflow from defecting to the tips”) and are shaped like what you’d expect to find on a child’s Styrofoam glider. No wonder the Sabre was the winning airplane.
- LEARJET 23
The earliest small business jets—the four-engine Lockheed JetStar and then the North American Sabreliner—were portly birds, but Bill Lear’s Learjet 23, which followed them both into the market, was a superfast little sparrow that set a standard of sleekness that instantly established Learjet as the generic term for bizjet. If a movie star flew anywhere, it was invariably reported to be “in a Learjet.”
The lazy myth is that Lear, a ceaseless entrepreneur, saw the prototype of a Swiss ground-attack airplane, the FFA P-16, and immediately converted the fighter-bomber into an executive jet. Some even claim that he bought the tooling for the fighter. (Lear had semiretired to Switzerland after inventing the eight-track tape stereo system.) In fact, the only things that found their way from the P-16 into the Learjet were some features of its low-aspect-ratio, high-speed wing, for both airplanes were designed by the same Swiss engineer, Hans-Luzius Studer. The P-16 and Lear 23 wings were both very thin, which limited fuel capacity. This necessitated the sleek, bomb-like tip tanks that, along with a windshield reminiscent of a rock star’s sunglasses, were so much a part of the Lear 23’s rakish looks.
- DOUGLAS DC-3
Who doesn’t love a DC-3? Doug Racer, Dak, Diesel Three, Gooney Bird…never has an airplane wrought as significant a change in commerce as this 75-year-old design that in some parts of the world is still grumbling up and down the airways. The DC-3 was the world’s first safe, dependable, practical, profitable airliner, and its silhouette is still instantly recognizable. A team led by aeronautical engineer Arthur E. Raymond designed the DC-3. Perhaps Raymond’s Harvard education gave him a feeling for aesthetics, for the DC-3’s lines are…well, perfect. The seeming sweepback of its broad wings (actually only the leading edge is swept, but grandly) give the airplane the look of Greg Louganis coming off a high board, and the stubby nose and cockpit glass provide the DC-3 with an appropriately aggressive, beetle-browed, hawklike face. There was nothing revolutionary about the airplane’s technology—after all, more than 100 DC-2s had already been manufactured—but somehow, inspired industrial design created an icon.
- REPUBLIC XF-12
The concept was doomed: a high-speed, high-altitude, prop-driven, pressurized photoreconnaissance airplane big enough to carry both cameras and a film-processing lab but no armament. The XF-12 would depend on speed for protection, but in 1946 its designers had not fully figured on the performance of jets, soon to be followed by SAMs. Yet the project left us with one of the most beautiful, and with a top speed of 462 mph certainly the fastest, four-engine piston aircraft ever built.
Republic, which had never built anything larger than a P-47, put four slick nacelles the size of Thunderbolts on a pair of handsome wings, the quartet flying formation with one of the few fuselages that can honestly be described as “cigar-shaped,” thanks to its Plexiglas nose fairing. (Like Concorde’s, the actual windshield was conventional and well inside the unpressurized plastic.) The XF-12’s Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radials were cooled by oil radiators inside the wings and a forced-air fan behind each propeller. With a consequently tiny annular air inlet and lacking external cowl flaps, each nacelle could have been a turboprop’s.
Though most sources call the airplane an “XF-12 Rainbow,” this is a misnomer. The Army Air Forces never dubbed the two military prototypes Rainbows; a proposed but unbuilt airliner version was to be called the Republic Rainbow.
- VICKERS VC10
All but forgotten, the VC10 to this day holds the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing by a subsonic airliner, ever. Faster than 707s, DC-8s, 747s, any Airbus. One reason is its wing, slick as a single-engine fighter’s. No engines befouled it, no nacelles, no pylons. The four Rolls-Royce Conways were ganged back by the tail, the horizontal stab above them a swoopy piece that perfectly evoked the upswept flippers of a diving humpback whale.
BOAC, the inevitable launch customer, needed an airliner that could fly the Atlantic fast as well as takeoff from the hot-and-high airports that it served in equatorial Africa and the Middle East, which were at the time important parts of the carrier’s long-range route structure. That meant a high-speed wing with the largest possible array of unobstructed high-lift devices, both leading and trailing edge, for takeoffs and approaches. The VC10’s Fowler flaps are enormous, and its leading-edge slats run full-span.
The VC10’s airline career ended in March 1981, but several continue to soldier on with the RAF as air-to-air tankers and troop transports.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.