And Then There Was One

Ten airplanes that are the last still flying.

Northrop Flying Wing (© Philip Makanna/Ghosts)
Air & Space Magazine

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When skeptics ask if the 70-year-old biplane is really airworthy, Jyrki Laukkanen replies, “It was this morning when I flew it here.” Last of the open-cockpit British fighters, Gloster Gauntlets entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1936. After the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, 25 Gauntlets were shipped through Sweden to bolster Finnish defenses. In 1976, members of the Finnish Air Force Technical Guild followed rumors of an abandoned warbird to a farm in Juupajoki, a municipality in western Finland. They found a Gauntlet in pieces—“hardly identifiable as an airplane,” says Laukkanen. After an 11,000-man-hour restoration, OH-XGT, painted in the wartime markings of the Finnish air force (including swastika-like symbols, which at the time signified good luck in Finnish culture), became a photo-op favorite on the Finnish airshow circuit. Retired FAF fighter pilot Laukkanen has flown the somewhat finicky Gauntlet every summer for 20 years. “Flying it requires continuous attention,” says Laukkanen, who has 1,300 hours in MiG-21s. “It keeps an old test pilot in sharp condition.”

Percival Mew Gull

Tony Smith speaks of the Real Aeroplane Company’s tiny, cream-colored monoplane as legend. “It’s the Holy Grail of British air racing,” says Smith, RAC’s chief pilot and the only one entrusted to fly the racer. The Percival Aircraft Corporation produced a half-dozen Mew Gulls in its Gravesend, England factory in 1934, and the aircraft went on to dominate the field. The first civilian aircraft to exceed 200 mph, G-AEXF captured the King’s Cup in 1938. Mew Gulls were prone to mishap, and only G-AEXF defied the actuarial tables by undergoing numerous rebuilds. The Real Aeroplane Company keeps the Mew Gull with the rest of its collection at Breighton Aerodrome in northern England. “The perfect harmony of the controls is just like a Spitfire,” says Smith, who flies the Mew Gull at a speed of 290 mph. With its recessed cockpit providing virtually zero forward visibility, “landings and takeoffs,” says Smith, “are a bit of a happening.”

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