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 Three of our top 20 countdown of the greatest aircraft ever built - in this writer’s opinion. As we close in on the top five aircraft, these planes could all have edged toward the top on other lists. Coming up is what most consider the largest and most powerful plane of all time, a couple of undeniably brilliant fighters, and the icon of international worldwide travel. Let’s get started with number 10, an aging airliner with an unmatched civilian service history.
10: Douglas DC-3 (U.S.A)
Type: Propeller-Drive Airliner
Year of First Flight: 1935
Top Speed: 370 km/h (Mach 0.310)
Max. Take-off Weight: 11,430 kg
If any aircraft could be called revolutionary, or a pioneer, or timeless, the DC-3 is that aircraft. Having been in use for nearly eighty years and counting, the DC-3 did for air transport what the Ford Model T did for personal vehicles, which is making relatively cheap personal travel over long distance possible. The plane is efficient, reliable, inexpensive to build and despite its age can still serve a purpose in parts of the world. If you were travelling somewhere in the 1930s and 1940s as a civilian, chances are you were doing so in a DC-3. That being said, it also saw extensive service in the military for the U.S.A. and the U.K. during World War II and the Vietnam War among others under the designation C-47 Skytrain.
Today it is used mainly has a cargo plane. It is often said the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC3, and that the plane (in reference to its ability to just keep flying) is a collection of parts flying in loose formation. Similar to the Boeing 737, the plane was not built to break records or stir the spirit, but to do a job and do it well for a long time. The aircraft has the longest operational history of any, and it would not be at all surprising to see the DC-3 in active service in some manner for 100 years. This plane deserves every bit of praise it receives for being so incredibly resilient.
9: Antonov An-225 (U.S.S.R / Russia)
Type: Super-Heavy Cargo Aircraft
Year of First Flight: 1988
Top Speed: 850 km/h (Mach 0.712)
Max. Take-off Weight: 640,000 kg
When you talk about the largest aircraft of all time, you inevitably settle on the Antonov AN-225 Mriya, the strategic airlift cargo plane built in the Soviet Union and now belonging to Russia. The plane was a one of a kind, a second only partially built but later scrapped. Originally planned as a carrier aircraft for the Soviet equivalent of the Space Shuttle, the Buran, just three years after completion the USSR collapsed and the An-225 was put into storage. Upon its return to service before the year 2000, a second An-225 was planned once again but this was also abandoned – it remains lonely at the top.
The records stack up endlessly for this aircraft. It is the longest plane ever built at 84m, as well as the heaviest ever built weighing 285 tons when empty and up to 640 tons when full. To put that into perspective, the maximum take-off weight of the An-225 is equivalent to more than fourteen empty latest-generation Boeing 737s. Only the wingspan of the now-inoperable H-4 Hercules (the Spruce Goose) was larger. Essentially every record for payload lifting is held by this plane, and has even carried four main battle tanks simultaneously over 10km into the air. The desire for such superlative numbers took engineers to the limit of aircraft manufacturing in the 1980s, and to this day the Mriya remains an inspirational aircraft.
8: North American F-86 Sabre (U.S.A)
Type: Jet Fighter
Year of First Flight: 1947
Top Speed: 1,106 km/h (Mach 0.902)
Max. Take-off Weight: 8,234 kg
The F-86 Sabre was the hero of the skies of the Korean War for the United States. It was far and away the greatest fighter of the time, built to counter the threat of the Soviet MiG-15, and was still in service in some countries as late as 1994, giving it a commendable service record. Because of its versatility and success in the air, it was by far the most produced jet fighter by the Western nations, with a total of 9,860 being built. While it was not the first jet powered fighter built by the U.S.A., it was the first to really make a difference in a wartime setting.
In 1948 the Sabre set an official world speed record of 1,080 km/h, though an unofficial record by a prototype rocket aircraft claims to have gone faster in 1944. The plane was designed originally as an interceptor as well as a bomber, and the variants performed these tasks equally well. In dogfighting engagements, the F-86 maintained a 10:1 kill ratio, unheard of in aviation up to that point, shooting down 792 MiGs during the Korean War alone. Its success meant 29 countries made use of the Sabre at some point in their history, thus it will be remembered as a supremely capable fighter with an almost unmatched pedigree.
7: Supermarine Spitfire (U.K)
Type: Single-Engine Fighter
Year of First Flight: 1936
Top Speed: 595 km/h (Mach 0.498)
Max. Take-off Weight: 3,039 kg
Think of the word dogfighter and you immediately conjure an image of the legendary Spitfire. The aircraft is legendary primarily for defending Britain, along with its sister the Hawker Hurricane, from the rolling thunder of the Luftwaffe during World War II – though it saw service in Mainland Europe and the Pacific as well. While the Hurricane technically had more combat kills, this is likely because the Spitfire was considered more valuable and used primarily against the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters while the Hurricane generally engaged bomber formations.
The aircraft’s elliptical wings and aerodynamic design gave it exceptional speed and manoeuvrability, which combined with the fighter’s eight machine guns, made the Spitfire an amazing technical dogfighter even when outnumbered. Its exceptional quality meant it was used by up to 35 different nations throughout its lifetime, and it even set a record for the fastest ever piston-engine aircraft, reaching Mach 0.92 in a dive in 1944. In total, 20,351 of these illustrious planes were built and they will be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time.
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6: Boeing 747 (U.S.A.)
Type: Jet Airliner
Year of First Flight: 1969
Top Speed: 988 km/h (Mach 0.92)
Max. Take-off Weight: 442,253 kg
The world’s first jumbo jet, the 747 is an exercise is superlatives. For nearly forty years the queen of the skies was the largest passenger jet, and has moved millions of people – up to 550 per flight – around the globe. As well as serving the United States President in the form of Air Force One, the combined fleet of the 747s have flown a distance equivalent to the moon and back over 100,000 times, and carried the Space Shuttle around for over twenty years. The tip of its tail is as high as a six story building and the largest models of 747 are over 76m (250ft) from nose to tail. Only the Antonov 225 and Airbus A380 can claim to be larger.
Originally only 400 planes were planned, it was believed that supersonic airliners would render the jumbo obsolete for passenger services and the 747 would be used primarily for freight. This turned out to be wrong – nearly 1,500 747s have been built with even more on order, and the plane proves to be as popular as ever despite the increased competition from Airbus. The upper deck was implemented primarily as a first class lounge, but also holds seating as well as additional cargo storage on freight versions of the 747. This legendary icon of world travel will remain in service for many years to come.
You can head to the fourth and final part from my signature above.
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