Aircraft That Changed the World
We fearlessly (or foolishly) pick 10.
- By The Editors
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 4 of 5)
While the helicopter — with its enviable ability to hover, dart in all directions, and land virtually anywhere—had achieved a measure of success in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasn’t until the Sikorsky S-55 made its debut with the U.S. Navy in Korea in 1950 that rotary-wing history was utterly transformed. “For my money,” says Roger Connor, NASM’s vertical flight curator, “though other models pioneered various military and civil applications, the S-55 was the one that saw a real return on the investment put into helicopter development.”
The dazzling success of the S-55—both nationally and internationally—was based on the aircraft’s ability to fill multiple roles: troop and cargo transport, air assault, and casualty evacuation. That versatility resulted in unprecedented demand—1,700-plus were built, more than any previous helicopter type.
The design was brilliant: Sikorsky Aircraft completely reconfigured its earlier layouts to create the first helicopter with a cabin capable of carrying 10 passengers or seven stretchers, and moved the engine to the nose, enabling easier maintenance and solving the center-of-gravity problems previous single-rotor models had experienced. By the end of the Korean War, Sikorsky’s machine had rescued downed pilots, saved the lives of 10,000 wounded soldiers, and delivered escaped prisoners from behind enemy lines.
In addition, the S-55 served as the core of counter-insurgency efforts by the British in Malaya and the French in Indochina, pushing both nations to establish their own aggressive helicopter programs. In American and foreign civil service, the S-55 pioneered helicopter airline transport.
Says Connor, “The accomplishments of the S-55 shifted public opinion—as well as the opinion of military and aviation insiders—from seeing the helicopter as an amusing but not terribly practical curiosity to a necessary tool of the modern age.”
7. Cessna 172
Cessna’s four-seat, high-wing classic is the fresh-faced girl next door: no knockout but a great personality. In 2006, on the occasion of the 172’s 50th birthday, Air & Space/Smithsonian researcher Roger A. Mola wrote, “There’s hardly a pilot flying today who hasn’t logged at least a few hours in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.” It’s the most successful mass-produced light aircraft ever, with some 36,000 built and still counting, recalling those McDonald’s signs boasting “Billions and Billions Served.”
One flight made the ubiquitous little airplane a world changer. In 1987, Mathias Rust, a young West German, rented a 172 from his flying club and flew it to the Soviet Union, setting down in Red Square in the heart of Moscow, a gesture he called building an “imaginary bridge” (“The Notorious Flight of Mathias Rust,” June/July 2005). Rust reasoned that if he could get through the Iron Curtain without being intercepted, “it would show that [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev was serious about new relations with the West.” Author Tom LeCompte noted that “Rust’s flight damaged the reputation of the vast Soviet military and enabled Gorbachev to remove the staunchest opponents to his reforms.” Soviet citizens had been told that if they let their military guard down for an instant, the West would annihilate them. “Rust’s flight,” observed LeCompte, “proved otherwise.”
Last year, Cessna announced it will build a 172 Skyhawk TD, for “Turbo Diesel,” that will burn Jet A fuel.
8. Learjet 23
"There were 'bizjets' that preceded the Learjet," says Air & Space founding editor George C. Larson, "but Bill Lear's idea for a smaller and simpler—but fast—aircraft really popularized the idea that businessmen ought to travel based on their own schedules."
The idea of jets dedicated to business travel first found incarnation in the early 1960s, with the introduction of the Lockheed JetStar and North American Sabreliner. Both were spinoffs of military jets. The Learjet likewise evolved from a fighter: the Swiss P16, which never made it into production.
Says Larson, now a senior editor at Business & Commercial Aviation: “The first Learjet was called the model 23 because it was certificated under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 23, for airplanes less than 12,500 pounds, and that made it easier to get through the Federal Aviation Agency’s approval process. Part 25, for heavier aircraft, was way harder. What was wonderful about the Part 23 thing is that the airplane was certificated with a max gross weight of 12,499 pounds. Oh, that Bill Lear.”