The following article(s) are entirely the opinion of the author and not based on any official ranking. Only fixed wing, manned and in-atmosphere aircraft are considered, which excludes helicopters, drones, airships and spacecraft.

Welcome to the fourth and final part in our top 20 countdown of the greatest aircraft ever built - in this writer’s opinion. The following five aircraft are all truly exceptional machines that have served for extended periods at the top of their field, or are simply inspirational in their design and engineering. These are the sort of aircraft that will be remembered fondly for a very long time to come and should be considered some of man’s greatest achievements.

5: Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit (U.S.A)

Type: Strategic Stealth Bomber

Year of First Flight: 1989

Top Speed: 1,010 km/h (Mach 0.95)

Max. Take-off Weight: 170,600 kg

The B-2 Spirit is generally considered to be the most capable bomber of all time. Originally designed during the cold war as a nuclear bomber, its range and particularly its stealth essentially mean it can hit any target, anywhere in the world, while very likely remaining undetected entirely. It is also, in this writer’s opinion, one of the most elegant and beautiful aircraft ever built. The flying wing design echoes a hawk in flight, while every element of its design is geared toward the aircraft being invisible in every way. It can fly above 15,000m for 11,000km on its own fuel, and drop up to eighty 230kg bombs in a single mission.

The primary negative of the B-2 is its cost. Each unit is approximately $2.1 billion, the kind of cost that means losing an aircraft in combat is not an option, with some proclaiming the bomber too expensive to fly. Just one of the twenty one bombers built has been lost, crashing after take-off in Guam with no casualties. The bomber has seen extensive service in Kosovo and Iraq, as well as the Libyan conflict in 2011. The remaining twenty B-2s will remain in service for a long time in an attempt to justify their huge construction costs, and will continue to be the world’s greatest bomber.

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Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit

4: North American Aviation P-51 Mustang (U.S.A)

Type: Single-Engine Fighter

Year of First Flight: 1940

Top Speed: 703 km/h (Mach 0.589)

Max. Take-off Weight: 5,490 kg

With the roar of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and beautiful design lines, the P-51 Mustang is an air show classic, but its military heritage is what’s really impressive. Introduced in the early 1940s, the Mustang was an instant hit with pilots, boasting nimble handling, high-altitude capabilities and excellent speeds. During World War II alone the P-51 claimed 4,950 kills in the air, mostly in Europe. The key element of this success was the Mustangs range – able to escort the allied bombers all the way into Germany and return home, something no other fighter was capable of doing.

Another key feature of this aircraft was its deployment on aircraft carriers. With the war in the Pacific being one of island hopping with the Navy in support, launching fighters from ships became not only useful, but essential. The use of the P-51 in this manner was a stepping stone to the carrier replacing the battleship as the most important vessels in any nations navy. The Mustang was deployed in more than 50 countries worldwide, and over 15,000 P-51s were built. Many were converted to civilian use after the Korean War, being used for racing and exhibitions. This aircraft is a true legend of American aviation that is hard to fault.

North American Aviation P-51 Mustang

3: McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle (U.S.A)

Type: Jet Fighter

Year of First Flight: 1972

Top Speed: 2,665+ km/h (Mach 2.5+)

Max. Take-off Weight: 30,845 kg

Of modern jet fighters, none are more successful than the near perfect F-15 Eagle. With at least 104 air-to-air combat kills since its inception, many by Israeli pilots as well as Americans over Iraq, its dominance as a combat-hardened air-superiority fighter is unmatched in history. In large part it was designed and built to replace the struggling F-4 Phantom, which quite frankly was being dominated in the skies over Vietnam as it was not designed for dogfighting. The added threat of the new MiG-25 Foxbat made a new dogfighting aircraft even more necessary.

As the F15 entered service it exceeded expectations and performed flawlessly in every task. Its technological advantages were clear as day, eliminating many MiGs in its combat missions over Lebanon. While later being replaced in some roles by the lighter F-16 Falcon and the exceptional F/A 18 Super Hornet (both developed using the F-15 as inspiration), the F-15 remains has versatile and useful as ever in modern combat roles as well as being among the fastest planes in use. Due to the extreme operational and construction costs of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning, the legendary F-15 is likely to remain in active service for some time to come.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

2: Lockheed C-130 Hercules (U.S.A)

Type: Multi-Use Military Transport

Year of First Flight: 1954

Top Speed: 592 km/h (Mach 0.496)

Max. Take-off Weight: 70,300 kg

While some may see the Hercules as a lumbering four-engine dinosaur, in reality it is one of the longest serving, most capable and most versatile military aircraft ever constructed. For starters, it can land on just about any runway in the world, tarmac or otherwise, and this includes aircraft carriers. Furthermore, its list of capabilities and variants is almost endless. It has been used as a troop carrier, a medical evacuation aircraft, a gunship (the brilliant AC-130), an airborne assault craft for dropping paratroopers, a scientific research plane, a weather recon aircraft, as well as being used for firefighting, mid-air refuelling and as a maritime patrol craft, and the list doesn’t come close to ending there.

Unsurprisingly, it is used or has been used by more than sixty nations since it first flew in the 1950s and shows no sign of being retired in any way during the foreseeable future (and is even still being produced to this day – the longest production life of any military plane in history), echoing the service and reliability provided by the fantastic Douglas DC-3. Currently over 2,300 have been built and few have been lost, especially not to accidents. The amazing Hercules won’t win any speed or performance races, nor will it win any beauty contests. But it cannot be denied that this aircraft is among the most useful ever built and has a service record unmatched by any military craft of any era, period.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules

Honourable Mentions

Before we get to number one, let’s take a quick look at some aircraft that provided wonderful service or inspiration that didn’t quite make the top twenty.

  • Messerschmitt Me 262
  • Hawker Hurricane
  • Boeing B-29 Superfortress
  • Sukhoi Su-27
  • General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
  • McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet
  • Focke-Wulf Fw 190
  • Lockheed U-2
  • C-54 Skymaster
  • Grumman F-14 Tomcat
  • Sopwith Camel

1: Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (U.S.A)

Type: Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft

Year of First Flight: 1964

Top Speed: 3,540 km/h (Mach 3.3)

Max. Take-off Weight: 78,000 kg

Built by Kelly Johnson and his team at the famous Skunk Works during the 1950s and 1960s, the SR-71 is the sort of plane that is so extreme it shouldn’t even exist. During the cold war the United States needed a super-fast, super-high-flying, immensely long range stealth aircraft that could spy on the Russians and not get shot down. It was doubted by some that such a plane could even be built. What emerged was the highest flying, fastest manned plane and to many the most beautiful aircraft to have ever been created. Capable of reaching over 3,500km/h and climbing to 26km above the Earth at 60 meters a second, the performance of this plane is almost incomprehensible, and it has set the records to prove it.

During its lifetime a total of 32 Blackbirds were built, with 12 lost to accidents but none ever brought down in engagements. No other plane could keep up with the Blackbird to shoot it down, and to evade missiles it would simply fly faster than them. It was not without its faults – its manoeuvrability was average, it leaked fuel at lower altitudes and the engines were prone to issues. The sheer magnitude of its abilities and service achievements made up for this with ease however, and when it was retired finally in 1999 it was the end of an era that inspired aviation enthusiasts worldwide. While other planes have been more useful to militaries and nations, none before or since have equalled the engineering leap the SR-71 made or the sheer beauty of its airframe.

SR-71: The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, The World's Highest, Fastest Plane
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A must read for enthusiasts of the SR-71.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird