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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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

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.”


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