The history of aviation brims with airplanes that have represented the pinnacle of design: swift fighters, long-range bombers and transports, exciting sport biplanes, experimental airplanes that used the sky as a laboratory. Many set notable records, helped win wars, increased our mobility, trained thousands of pilots, or in any of a number of ways influenced aviation. Anyone remotely interested in the history of flight will instantly recognize the names: SPAD, Fokker Triplane, Vega, Comet Racer, Zero, Spitfire, MiG, Pitts, Starfighter, Blackbird, and Concorde, to name just a few.
But what were the transformational airplanes? The ones that changed design practice so that future aircraft of similar type were different from what had flown before?
The transformational airplane is a rarity, and surprisingly, many are not as well known as they should be. The innovations they introduce appear on subsequent designs that often become much better known. In other cases, they may be remembered for other qualities they possessed, qualities that mask or hide why they were technologically significant. A few changed not just aviation but the broader world around them; these are included in the article “10 Airplanes That Changed the World” in the June/July 2008 issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian. They are considered here, however, solely for their contribution to the art and science of flight.
The following is a very subjective list, offered as a stimulus for thought and discussion. Obviously, many other aircraft types could be nominated, and numerous lists of “also rans” are possible. Here goes!
(Richard P. Hallion was the Air Force Historian from 1991 to 2002, and is the author of more than a dozen books on aviation history.)
1. Wright 1905 Flyer
Not as well known as the first airplane, the 1903 Flyer, the Wright 1905 Flyer was the world’s first practical airplane. The 1903 and 1904 machines were purely experimental, laying the groundwork for three-axis control—in yaw, pitch, and roll. The 1903 Flyer had interconnected roll and yaw (wing warping and rudder). The 1905 Flyer, on the other hand, was the first airplane to have independent three-axis control.
Though it still used a catapult for launch and it still had the instability of all early Wright biplanes, the 1905 Flyer differed significantly from them. It had upright seating for its pilot and a passenger, twice the power of its predecessors, 50 percent greater speed, and much greater endurance, capable of flying for more than half an hour. In modern parlance, the 1905 Wright Flyer constituted a pre-production prototype for subsequent Wright production designs—and a template for the world’s aircraft that followed. Fittingly, visitors to the Wright Hall at Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio, can see this remarkable airplane, magnificently restored, with the assistance of Orville Wright himself.
Marvin McFarland, Wright Papers (McGraw-Hill, 1953);
Wright Flyer curatorial files;
Charles Gibbs-Smith, Dictionary and Nomenclature of the First Aeroplanes (HMSO, 1966);
Kenneth Munson, Pioneer Aircraft (Macmillan, 1968).