Throughout the course of history, there have been many aircraft that have set records and helped their pilots achieve greatness. Even non-aviators can appreciate the marvel of aircraft technology and how its developed over the past century. Whether we’re discussing an airplane, balloon, helicopter, spaceship, every aircraft has left its mark—not only in the world of aviation but in the course of humanity. Here are 15 of the most famous aircraft in history.
1) Lockheed Model 10 Electra
Flown By: Amelia Earhart
Throughout her life, Amelia Earhart had many ground-breaking accomplishments behind the control wheel of her Lockheed Model 10 Electra One. This all-aluminum airplane was innovative for its time, featuring variable pitch propellers, flaps and retractable landing gear, a Western Electric communications radio and a Bendix radio direction finder (RDF). Even though the Electra was specially equipped, Earhart and her partner Fred Noonan disappeared flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 under circumstances still unknown. However, her unbridled spirit for aviation lives on to this day.
2) Wright Flyer
Flown By: The Wright Brothers
Perhaps the most important aircraft of all time is the Wright Flyer. After all, modern aviation wouldn’t be what it is today without the invention of the first flying airplane, courtesy of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wrights’ use of wing warping to achieve bank, in coordination with yaw from the rudder, allowed their craft to be properly controlled. This concept is still used on virtually every plane in the air today.
3) Air Force One
Flown By: The U.S. Government
The famous jumbo jet that transports the President of the United States around the globe is known as Air Force One. While the current jet in use is a Boeing VC-25—basically, a highly customized 747—there have been many planes that have been used as Air Force One since the 50s. Those that are interested in seeing them in person are in luck; several of the retired aircraft are on display in aviation museums throughout the country, at places such as the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Pima Air & Space Museum.
4) Blériot XI
Flown By: Louis Blériot
One of aviation’s earliest record setters was Louis Blériot, who was the first to fly across the English Channel in 1909 on his Model XI. This was a feat required the perfect mix of courage and technology, and there wasn’t a pilot or plane more perfect for the job. Beyond its strategic implications for the British who were about to enter World War I, the Model XI is perhaps most famous for establishing the tractor “engine in front” monoplane style plane, together with the classic tail-dragger landing gear.
5) Spirit of St. Louis
Flown By: Charles Lindbergh
One of the best-known aircraft in the world is Charles Lindbergh’s custom-built monoplane, known as The Spirit of St. Louis. Named in honor of Lindbergh’s supporters in the Missouri city who paid for the aircraft, this airplane became famous when in May 1927 Lindbergh completed the first solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight. Flying from Long Island in New York to Paris, France, the pilot made sure his name would be remembered in aviation history books forever. Currently, you can see the famed aircraft at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
6) The Hindenberg
Flown By: German Company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin
The Hindenberg may best be known for its destructive crash, but did you know that it still holds the record for largest airship every by volume? The Zeppelin was more than 800 feet long, making it roughly three times the length of the longest fixed-wing airplane. The Hindenberg met its demise over a field in Lakehurst, New Jersey, when an electrostatic discharge (a spark) ignited leaking hydrogen.
7) The Voyager
Flown By: Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager
In 1986, the Voyager, an experimental aircraft piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager (no relation to fellow aviator Chuck Yeager), completed the first nonstop, around-the-world flight without refueling. It landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Voyager, made of a lightweight composite material containing primarily graphite, Kevlar and fiberglass, weighed under 1,000 pounds but could carry more than 7,000 pounds of fuel in its 17 fuel tanks.
8) Fokker Dr1 Dreidecker
Flown By: The Red Baron, Manfred Von Richthofen
Often known simply as the Fokker Triplane, this World War I fighter plane was built by Fokker-Flugzeugwerke and made famous by the German ace, Manfred Von Richtofen—otherwise known as The Red Baron. Von Richthofen is considered the ace-of-aces of the first great war, officially credited with 80 air combat victories. He died in 1918 after his plane was shot down under somewhat controversial circumstances; the debate is still out as to whether Canadian pilot Arthur Roy Brown shot him down or ground fire was responsible. Either way, he and his plane were an important part of how aerial combat has developed throughout the 20th century.
9) Bell X-1
Flown By: Chuck Yeager
This rocket-engine-powered experimental aircraft was one of the fastest in the world at the time of its invention, reaching speeds of 1,000 miles per hour in 1948. In fact, the Bell X-1 was so fast, it was the aircraft used to first break the sound barrier. On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first human to reach supersonic speed, transforming the world of aviation forever and enshrining the X-1 as one of the most famous aircraft in history.
10) VS-300 Helicopter
Flown By: Igor Sikorsky
While there have been human-powered helicopters found in centuries-old writings—even Leonardo Da Vinci is believed to have come up with a predecessor to the modern-day aircraft—the VS-300 was the world’s first practical helicopter. Flown for just a few seconds in 1939, that was enough to make Sikorsky the first pilot of a motorized helicopter and cement his place in the history books. The 75 horsepower-motor and innovative 28-foot diameter, three-blade rotor allowed for variable pitch of the blades with a blade speed of up to 300 mph. The original design inspired the basis for the first production helicopters and became the standard for helicopters throughout the world.
11) Southern Cross
Flown By: Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm, Harry Lyon, James Warner
Southern Cross is the name of the F.VIIb/3m trimotor monoplane, flown by Australian aviators Charles Kingsford Smith. This plane flew the first-ever trans-Pacific flight to Australia from the mainland United States, a distance of approximately 7,250 miles. But that’s not all – the plane also made the first nonstop Trans-Tasman flight over the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand covering a distance of 1,660 mi.
12) Apollo Lunar Module
Flown By: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin
The other aircraft on this list may be some of the most popular on earth – but the Apollo Lunar Module holds the title of most popular interstellar aircraft. The lander portion of the Apollo Spacecraft, the Lunar Module is still the only crewed vehicle to land anywhere beyond Earth. Another fun fact: it was capable of operation only in outer space; structurally and aerodynamically it was incapable of flight through the Earth’s atmosphere.
13) The Lark of Duluth
Flown By: Tony Janus
The first commercial airline flight was performed on 1914 by Tony Jannus, flying a Benoist XIV, otherwise known as The Lark of Duluth. The flight took off in St. Petersburg, Florida and landed in Tampa, operating for just 23 minutes. And while the operator, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, went under in just four months, it carved the path for today’s daily transcontinental airlines. However, airplane tickets were much cheaper back then—passengers only paid $5 each for a ride on The Lark!
14) Vin Fiz Flyer
Flown By: Calbraith Perry Rodgers
Another Wright Brothers airplane to make our list is the Vin Fiz Flyer, known as the first aircraft to make it from coast-to-coast across the continental United States. Unlike today, where you can get across the country in a few hours, it was a different story back in 1911. Although the plan called for a large number of stops along the way, in the end, there were 75, including 16 crashes, and Rodgers was injured several times. However, injuries heal and legacies last forever, something Rodgers and this Wright Brothers aircraft certainly left behind.
15) The Spruce Goose
Flown By: Howard Hughes
The H-4 Hercules, or Spruce Goose, was a massive seaplane designed and built by American industrialist, aviator and film producer Howard Hughes in 1947. Also known as the Flying Boat, this aircraft was six times larger than any other of the time period, holding around 700 troops. Made almost entirely of birch wood, it only flew once and was not finished before World War II ended, unfortunately. It’s now on display at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon.
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