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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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.”

The Learjet 23 carried a crew of two and up to seven passengers. It had a range of 1,800 miles and cruised at 485 mph.

Larson notes that the jet succeeded in part because “the company sold the airplanes very effectively, offering to ‘recourse,’ or buy back, an airplane if things weren’t working out for the company that bought it.  That brought a lot of individual entrepreneurs and people like [celebrity lawyer] F. Lee Bailey on board.”

The first production 23 was delivered in October 1964. Cost:  $550,000. Says transportation writer John W. Smith: “A whole new class of aircraft had been created: the personal jet.”

9. Boeing 747

So magnificent a technological achievement was the Boeing 747 airliner that cultural historians have called it the 20th century’s cathedral. Nearly 40 years after its first flight, it remains, along with the photograph of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, the most recognizable symbol of U.S. engineering brilliance. When it was introduced, airports the world over reinforced runways and made other infrastructure changes to receive it.

Still, it is not grandeur or technology or even impact on infrastructure that qualifies it for a place on this list. It was, after all, an evolutionary design. Its creators—Boeing president Bill Allen and Pan American Airways legend Juan Trippe—believed it was merely an interim answer to the demand that airlines would eventually meet with a revolutionary supersonic transport. The SST, they predicted, would relegate the 747 to hauling cargo.

But as wise as those two  were, they could not see the future. And what qualifies the Boeing 747 as a world changer is that since it entered service in 1970, 96 carriers around the world have used the wide-bodies to fly 3.5 billion people to their destinations. Consider the impact of all of those trips: the business deals made or altered, the information exchanged, the exposures to other cultures, the families and friends reunited.


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