Aircraft That Changed the World

We fearlessly (or foolishly) pick 10

Mark Dusenberry built and flew this replica of the Wright 1905 aircraft. (Dan Patterson)
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World changers. It’s almost easier to explain what we don’t mean by that phrase than to define what we do. We have not compiled a list of trailblazers, like the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jetliner. Nor is this a list of airplanes that represent the greatest advances of aeronautics, such as the experimental aircraft that led to supersonic flight. Rather, we looked for craft that had an impact beyond the realm of things that fly, that reached into the larger culture and touched even those who aren’t frequent fliers or connected to aviation.

Some of our choices are individual airplanes that happened to play a critical role in a world-changing event; others are aircraft types that were so significant in commerce or in war that we could truly say of them: “These changed history.”

We were inspired by the recent book 50 Aircraft That Changed the World, and we could see immediately that authors Ron Dick and Dan Patterson had followed a wiser course: They had picked 50. We could accommodate only 10. We ended up with a list that includes some of those in the book, plus  a few of our own.

The most heated debate that broke out in the course of making our selection was also the most revealing; it showed how stringent our standards were—and how subjective. It was over The Spirit of St. Louis. Some editors argued that of course we had to include the airplane flown on the first solo, nonstop trip across the Atlantic Ocean—a trip that made its pilot an international celebrity and inspired a generation to fly long distances, or at least dream about it. Months after the 1927 event, when Charles Lindbergh flew the airplane, a purpose-built Ryan, on a tour across the United States to promote aeronautics, an estimated 50 million people—42 percent of the nation—turned out to see it.

But was it the airplane that people found so inspiring, or the pilot? It’s hard to imagine that journey being completed by anyone other than Lindbergh, but not so difficult to think that he could have done it in another type of airplane. In fact, he had considered an alternative, the Wright Bellanca WB 2.

We’re sure there are readers (more than a few in St. Louis and in San Diego, where The Spirit was built) who will disagree with that reasoning, or with other choices we made. In the end, selecting 10 aircraft from so many possibilities simply became a good excuse to do one of our favorite things:  talk about airplanes. We bet you’ll want to join the discussion.

—The Editors



1. Wright 1905

We knew we wanted to start with a Wright airplane, but which most deserved the title of world changer? Wright biographer Tom Crouch, a National Air and Space Museum curator of early flight, nominated the brothers’ third powered aircraft. “The 1905 was the world’s first practical airplane,” he observes.

“The best of the four flights made by the 1903 aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, was only 852 feet in 59 seconds,” Crouch continues. “With that marginal success in hand, the Wrights decided to transfer flight operations to Huffman Prairie, eight miles east of their hometown, Dayton, Ohio. They built and tested two aircraft there, one during 1904 and another in 1905.

“Over the course of those two seasons, the Wrights fine-tuned their design, stretching the aircraft to improve stability and control, enlarging the control surfaces, and improving the propellers. (The same engine, a virtual replica of the one that powered the 1903 aircraft, powered both the 1904 and 1905 models.) On October 5, 1905, Wilbur Wright flew a distance of 24.5 miles in 59 minutes, 23.8 seconds. The brothers had finally achieved their original dream: developing a practical airplane capable of remaining aloft for a significant time and maneuvering under the full control of the pilot.

“The Wrights then faced the task of selling their invention. By the spring of 1908 they had been granted a patent and had signed contracts to sell airplanes to both the U.S. Army and a French syndicate.


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