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 part one of my four part series covering the twenty best aircraft of all time – in this writer’s opinion. Throughout this series, I attempt to rank and showcase the greatest planes man has ever created. Some are built for speed, others for size and lifting capability, while some are designed purely for manoeuvrability. Considerations have been made for the dramatic effects an aircraft has had in military affairs, consumer travel or record breaking attempts, or even just for pure pioneering brilliance. So let’s kick things off with number 20, a real workhorse of World War II.
20: Avro Lancaster (U.K)
Type: Heavy Bomber
Year of First Flight: 1941
Top Speed: 455.6 km/h (Mach 0.371)
Max. Take-off Weight: 32,727 kg
Having been built during World War II, this aircraft was the undisputed backbone of the British, and to a lesser extent, the combined allied bombing campaigns. The king of the British bombers, the Avro Lancaster or ‘Lanc’ was the most successful night bomber during the war, but also performed exceptionally during the day. Combined, they dropped over 600,000 tons of bombs on Axis forces and infrastructure, including the famous dam-busting of Operation Chastise, and the heaviest bombs carried by the Lancaster had a mass of ten tons.
Most versions of the bomber also included four manned turrets for defensive purposes, which performed exceptionally when needed. It was also wonderfully versatile, being used from time to time as a flying tanker, a reconnaissance plane, a passenger plane and even a mail delivery aircraft. Each unit cost around £50,000 and in total 7,377 were built which saw service until 1963. The Lancaster was a remarkable feat of good old British engineering and stunningly efficient wartime production.
19: Airbus A380 (Multi-national)
Type: Jet Airliner
Year of First Flight: 2005
Top Speed: 945 km/h (Mach 0.89)
Max. Take-off Weight: 590,000 kg
Currently the world’s largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380 is so big that many airports had to upgrade their facilities just to accommodate it. Built to compete directly with the Boeing 747, it can transport up to 853 people non-stop for 15,700km, nearly half way around the world, in comfort. To help put the sheer magnitude of this plane into perspective, the wingspan is equivalent to twice the distance covered by the first flight of the Wright Brothers, it is as high as a ten story building at the top of its tail, and has a mass equal to 165 elephants. Each of its engines are as long as a car and four times as heavy. Despite these monumental dimensions, it can move a passenger the equivalent of 100km more efficiently than a Toyota Prius. The engineering and international collaboration involved to make this plane a reality is reason enough to include it on this list, all the while it provides luxurious and safe travel for millions of people around the world without breaking a sweat.
18: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (U.S.A.)
Type: Heavy Bomber
Year of First Flight: 1935
Top Speed: 462 km/h (Mach 0.387)
Max. Take-off Weight: 29,700 kg
Nothing short of an American icon, the B-17 Flying Fortress was a mainstay of allied bombing during the Second World War. Together the B-17s dropped more tons of bombs than the British Lancaster, could fly higher, and like the Lancaster was also able to defend itself. It rightly earned itself an enigmatic reputation after many aircraft returned from bombing missions somehow riddled with holes but flying nonetheless. In the early days of the war it was calculated that on average a Luftwaffe fighter would need to expend 1000 rounds to bring a B-17 to the ground (with a then-common two percent hit-rate). For defence, it boasted up to thirteen machine guns to add to its 4.3 ton bomb load, living up to its name in every respect. After the war, the plane remained in service extensively, and ultimately more than 12,700 were built.
17: Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor (U.S.A.)
Type: Stealth Jet Fighter
Year of First Flight: 1997
Top Speed: 2,410 km/h (Mach 2.25)
Max. Take-off Weight: 38,000 kg
The F-22 Raptor is the most capable (and perhaps the most visually appealing) air superiority fighter in the world today, period. Combining elements of stealth, speed, technology and packing a huge punch, any other plane that comes into direct conflict with a Raptor is unlikely to survive. What the aircraft boasts in this regard, it loses in exceptionally high production costs and a lack of clear air-to-air missions in the post-Cold War era – what good is a $150 million plane if it has nothing to shoot at? It has been modified to perform other roles, but there are other aircraft that perform the same roles far cheaper. In total, 187 Raptors were built and most are in active service at time of writing, but their production has ended and ultimately been replaced by the troublesome F-35 Lightning. It was also a star in the Transformers movies, being portrayed by the Decepticon Starscream.
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16: Concorde (France, U.K)
Type: Supersonic Airliner
Year of First Flight: 1969
Top Speed: 2,179 km/h (Mach 2.04)
Max. Take-off Weight: 187,000 kg
If there was one commercial aircraft that stole hearts and minds during the 1970s and 1980s, it was Concorde. One of only two supersonic passenger planes ever built (the other being the Tupolev Ty-144), Concorde’s record breaking flights (less than three hours) between New York and London and dramatic styling made it the type of plane you’d pay just to see. While it could only carry around 120 passengers, its prestigious nature meant it was one of the most famous aircraft of its era, until its service was ultimately ended in 2003 after low passenger numbers following a crash in 2000, and rising costs of maintenance.
Richard Branson expressed some interest in restoring the planes to flying condition, and more recently there is talk that one or more of the planes may be restored to fly in demonstrations and air shows. Concorde was often used for visits from French and British royalty and Prime Ministers, as well as being chartered by Presidents and even the Pope. The engineering challenges of producing this aircraft at the time were immense and much of what was learned has been used in aviation ever since. This amazing plane managed to circumnavigate the world in under 33 hours, but its lifespan of only 25 years was regrettably cut short.
You can head to Part Two from my signature above.