Airplanes that Transformed Aviation

Sixteen historic designs that changed the game.

Air & Space Magazine

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.)

Not as well known as their 1903 Flyer, the Wright brothers' 1905 Flyer was the world’s first practical airplane. (Library of Congress)
Louis Blériot’s unremarkable appearance (that's him in the cockpit) masked a fine technical mind and boldly adventurous, even courageous, personality. His Model XI is remembered for having made the first flight across the English Channel on July 25, 1909. (NASM, SI 78-14972)
The Deperdussin Monocoque introduced the stressed-skin shell structure to aircraft design, which became a global design standard, first in wood and then in metal. (NASM, 80-2389)
Igor Sikorsky’s ll’ya Muromets (named for a legendary Russian warrior) really established his reputation. With dual controls for a pilot and copilot, a plush cabin (with a lavatory, private suite, bed, and even balcony), and cabin heating and lighting, this large four-engine biplane anticipated all subsequent biplane bomber and transport aircraft. (NASM)
Little more than a decade after the Wrights first flew, Hugo Junkers reinvented the airplane. His transformational airplane was the J-13 of 1919, which had a low wing, an enclosed cabin, an all-metal structure, and a high degree of streamlining. (USAF Museum)
The Zeppelin-Staaken (Rohrbach) E.4/20 had a cabin that seated up to 18, as well as a lavatory and generous mail and luggage space. At its first flight in 1920, both its design and performance were a good dozen years beyond what any other airliner had attained. (USAF, via National Air and Space Museum, SI 86-1639)
The streamlined, two-place Bäumer Sausewind (“Rushing Wind”), designed to compete in a 1925 light-aircraft race, anticipated the definitive streamlined form of the propeller-driven airplane. (
Blending Duralumin (an aluminum alloy) construction techniques derived from Dornier’s years at Zeppelin with rugged ship-building practice, the twin-engine Dornier Wal first flew in 1922. More than 300 were built in Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Spain, and Russia, for both military and civil purposes. (NASM, SI 86-4701)
The Douglas DC-1, created by a team led by Arthur E. Raymond, may be the first scientifically designed American airplane. (American Aviation Historical Society)
Lockheed’s XC-35 was the world’s first aircraft specifically constructed with a pressurized passenger cabin and, as aerospace medical historian Douglas Robinson notes, is “the true ancestor of all modern pressurized airliners.” (NASM, SI 95-9164)
Though the Gloster E.28/39 was not the first jet airplane to fly—that distinction goes to the Heinkel He 178, flown in August 1939—it was the most influential of the first jet airplanes. (Gloster Aircraft Company / NASM, 80-3824)
The North American F-86 Sabre is justly famous as America’s first swept-wing jet fighter, triumphing over the MiG-15 in swirling dogfights over the Yalu River during the Korean War. (USAF, via National Air and Space Museum, A-38492-C)
Conceived to make up for shortfalls in wind tunnel design (existing tunnels could not accurately test models at transonic speeds), the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 became the world’s first supersonic airplane. (NASM)
With its podded engines and low-placed swept wing, Boeing’s 367-80 of 1954, or “Dash 80," gave to the world the generic configuration of the medium- and long-range jetliner. (Boeing)
Created out of controversy, the General Dynamics YF-16 program spawned one of the largest aircraft production efforts the United States ever undertook, serving in the air forces of numerous nations and generating derivatives of its own. (USAF)
Boeing’s 777, which first flew in June 1994, represented not only a considerable risk for Boeing, but also a gamble across the fields of industrial design, structures and materials, propulsion, and flight control technology. (Boeing)

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.

Further reading:
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).

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