Aircraft That Changed the World
We fearlessly (or foolishly) pick 10.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 3 of 5)
The 314s were the stars of Pan Am’s fleet for only three years; World War II shut down commercial operations. Still, it was not until the 1960s, with the debut of wide-body airliners such as the Boeing 747, that the B-314s were dethroned as the world’s largest scheduled-use commercial aircraft.
4. The Enola Gay
It was the first use of an atomic bomb: On August 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay bombed the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 70,000 and hastening the end of World War II. (When another Superfortress, Bock’s Car, dropped a second atomic bomb three days later on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.) The two missions averted a planned U.S. invasion in which casualties were projected to run into the millions.
The image of those mushroom clouds was unforgettable. For the next 50 years, the nightmare scenario of another attack of such magnitude kept the two nuclear superpowers locked in a tense and costly cold war.
The B-29 was the world’s first nuclear-capable aircraft. It also was the first with a pressurized compartment for the flight crew and the first U.S. bomber with an integrated radar to supplement its Norden bombsight. With a maximum takeoff weight of 140,000 pounds, the four-engine, 11-crewman B-29 could carry up to 20,000 pounds of bombs. It was flown from 1943 to 1954, although the Air Force continued flying variants as tankers until 1978.
Late in World War II, three B-29s made emergency landings (a fourth crash-landed) in Vladivostok, Siberia, after bombing runs over Japan. The Soviets kept them, studied them, and copied them, producing the Tu-4 bomber. Until about 1955, the Tu-4 was the main bomber of the Soviet Union—America’s cold war enemy.
5. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15
Still a hot-looking airplane 59 years after it entered service, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 made its mark during the Korean War as the Soviet Union’s first jet-powered day interceptor with a pressurized cabin and an ejection seat.
The MiG-15’s mission was to pick off U.S. B-29 bombers, which led to storied dogfights between the MiGs and the B-29s’ fighter escorts, North American F-86s. Though an improved version of the MiG-15 could climb higher and faster than the F-86, U.S. Air Force pilots generally made up the difference with better aerial combat training. Still, the 670-mph MiG-15 put the world on notice that the Soviets could build cutting-edge aeronautical technology.
“The MiG-15 gave the Soviet air arm legitimacy and lethal potential in the early years of the cold war,” says Von Hardesty, NASM’s curator of Russian aviation history. “The MiG-15 also possessed a certain aesthetic quality: sleek, fast—the very embodiment of what a jet fighter should be.”
Its performance must have reinforced that impression. More MiG-15s —12,000—have been made than any other jet aircraft in history. (Counting licensed versions made in other countries, the number reaches 18,000.) The type has been sold to 43 countries—from Sri Lanka to Cuba to Uganda.
6. Sikorsky S-55