The 25 Most Beautiful Planes Ever Flown - Survey
We held a survey of Travel Insider readers in
October 2015, asking them to pick the three planes they felt to be the
most beautiful planes ever flown.
The notion of beauty is always subjective, no
matter what it is we're appraising, so in this case, we asked readers
to view beauty by itself, and not to be influenced by things such as a
plane's commercial or military significance, or how fast or slow they
are, or how modern or old.
We also asked for this judgment to be made purely
on superficial looks - the most aesthetically appealing to admire from
outside the plane, rather than the plane that was nicest to fly in, or
the most unusual/distinctive, or anything else. Being
'distinctive' is far from synonymous with being beautiful!
We also asked readers to limit their choices only
to planes that had been produced in commercial quantities, rather than
to prototypes. That caused some of our own favorites (such as
the XB-70 Valkyrie) to be excluded. We also limited the range of
eligibility to only piloted, motorized, airplanes - so no helicopters
or sail planes, and also no drones.
In addition to a list of 21 planes generally
lauded for their beauty, we also allowed people to add write-in choices
(four of which we added to the final list of 25 best). We allowed readers to have three choices, placing up to three planes
in order for first, second, and third places.
Voting and Evaluating the Results
It was very interesting to see how people voted,
with several common voting patterns (in terms of the three planes each
person could vote for). There was a 'classic warbird'
pattern, a 'supersonic' pattern, a preference for old passenger planes,
and also some unusual 'outlier' suggestions - we suspect from people who
formerly flew such planes themselves.
Scoring was simultaneously difficult and also
surprisingly simple. The problem was (for example) - how to compare
the scores for two planes -
one plane with one vote for first, and the second plane with two votes
for third place? Is a single vote for first place more or less
significant than two votes for third place? Is one first place
vote better than two votes for second place? And so on, through
lots of different possible combinations and scenarios.
We looked at results four different ways, with
different weightings for first, second, and third place votes, and in
general, the rankings remained closely similar, no matter how we
weighted the scores.
First place unquestionably went to the Concorde.
It had more than twice as many first place votes as the second placed
plane, and continued to also have twice as many second place votes and
even more third place votes than any other plane. 65% of
all people voting named Concorde as one of their three choices.
Second place also had a clear winner - the
Constellation/Super Constellation, or as it is affectionately called,
the Connie. This classic and curvaceous plane was way ahead of the
third placed plane, which was the SR-71.
A narrower gap separated the SR-71 and two planes
which vied for fourth place. The two fourth place tied planes were within 2.5% of
each other, no matter how we calculated the ranking. These two
planes are the Boeing 747 and the Vickers VC10.
Next we had two contenders for sixth place.
They both got the same number of votes, but one of the two - the
Spitfire - received more first and second preference votes, whereas the
other one - the B-2 - received more third preference votes. But
the difference was slim, so we'll call that a tie for sixth place.
Most of the write-in planes received only one or
two votes, but the Boeing 707 and the North American P-51 Mustang both
scored surprisingly strongly.
They outscored four of the featured planes (the A-10, -1, Su-30 and
Also scoring multiple votes were the (McDonnell)
Douglas DC-8 and the de Havilland Dragon Rapide - the latter of which
being a surprise - although we're familiar with the planes from their
service in New Zealand (see picture below) we didn't think they were
sufficiently well known to score as strongly as they did.
We were left wondering how much better all four
of these write-ins would
have done if they were featured in our main list of planes, and so we
moved them all up a rank to recognize their strong showing in
spite of not being on the main list.
And the Rankings Are -
This plane first flew in
1969, but did not enter commercial service until 1976.
the Atlantic at just over twice the speed of sound, it was a stunning
marvel of engineering technology in its time. It flew so high that
passengers could look down and see the curvature of the earth, and look
up and see the darkness of outer space.
They were surprisingly
small inside - 100 seats and two seats either side of a central aisle,
with not a huge amount of legroom.
The planes were withdrawn
Kelly Johnson creation, and instigated by TWA's major shareholder,
Howard Hughes, the 'Connie' was produced from 1943 until 1958 in several
variants, first as the Constellation and then in stretched form as the
856 in total were built. They didn't
have a long life in most cases, due to being rendered obsolete by the
onset of jet planes. The last scheduled flight of a Connie in the
US was in 1967.
The planes typically had between 62 - 95
passengers, although the larger models could squeeze in 109 pax in a
'high density' configuration. They could fly up to 5,400 miles,
and cruised at 295 knots/340 mph, and at altitudes usually around 20,000
||Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
If it is a notable Lockheed
plane, you know who designed it. Another extraordinary creation by
Kelly Johnson, the true capabilities of this plane are still not fully
known, but it could fly faster and higher than any other plane and evade
Some people suggest it exceeded 100,000 ft in altitude and
could exceed Mach 3.5.
Astonishingly, this futuristic plane that
still looks like something from science fiction today first flew in
1964, and the last plane was retired in 1999.
This British plane,
which first flew in commercial service in 1964, still
holds the record for fastest sub-sonic passenger flight between the
UK (Prestwick) and New York, 5 hrs 1 minute, set in 1979.
unusual for its high tail and four rear-mounted engines.
plane sat about 135 in two classes or 151 in a single class, with six
seats and a single central aisle.
The plane was not very
successful, being edged out by the DC-8 and 707.
Boeing's game-changing 747 and its
uniquely recognizable shape first flew with Pan Am in 1970, and while
nearing the end of its marketplace viability, is still being sold 45
years later, in 2015.
Its hump was originally created so the
plane could have freight loaded in direct from a forward facing hold
door, with the cockpit above the freight deck rather than blocking it.
The hump has lengthened over time, and the
plane has grown, but it remains unique in the sky.
Over 1500 have been manufactured.
The WW2 fighter plane that 'won
the Battle of Britain' with distinctive elliptical wings, giving it
better performance than traditional wing designs, due to its original
role not as a fighter plane but a racing plane.
Hawker Hurricane was produced in larger quantities (and was responsible
for more 'kills', it was the Spitfire that was most associated with the
RAF and the Battle of Britain, perhaps due to its unique shape.
||Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit 'Stealth Bomber'
Originally designed to replace the B-1 program (but the B-1 program was
re-instated due to delays), this plane's design dates to the late 1970s,
but did not take to the air until 1989, and didn't enter service until
It is distinctive for being a flying wing design with no
An original plan for 132 planes was reduced
with the end of the Cold War, and a mere 21 were built. Although
the unit cost per plane was said to be $737 million, the total program
cost (through 2004) was $45 billion.
||Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Designed by Kelly Johnson
and called the 'Fork Tail Devil' by German pilots, the P-38 first flew
in 1939 and went into active service in 1941.
It served in most of
WW2's theaters, and was the only fighter that was in continuous
production from prior to Pearl Harbor to after the VJ Day end of the
The onset of jet fighters saw the P-38 quickly
withdrawn from US service after WW2, and their last military service
elsewhere ended in 1965 with the Honduran Air Force. In total,
10,037 planes were produced.
A semi-flying wing design, borrowing
from WW2 German technology, this plane was in active service with the
RAF from 1956 - 1984.
It was one of three different 'V bombers'
in Britain, the other two being the Vickers Valiant and the Handley Page
Victor (two unremarkable/traditional design planes). All three
planes were in service simultaneously.
The Vulcans only saw
active service once, during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982,
shortly before their retirement.
||Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota
Dating back to the late
1930s, and with more than 10,000 produced (primarily for military
service during WW2), this multi-purpose plane can
still be found flying reliably, all around the world, today.
Indeed, flying reliably was one of its legendary characteristics.
It was a very tolerant plane - hard to crash and easy to fly.
Although it seems laughable now, at the time, its 180 knot/207 mph
cruise speed and its 1500 mile range revolutionized air transportation
in the 1930s and 1940s. In passenger configurations, the plane
would carry 21 - 32 passengers.
Many manufacturers attempted to
create a DC-3 replacement after the war, but none succeeded to any
degree (perhaps the best contender being the Fokker F-27 Friendship,
carrying twice as many passengers a similar distance and at 248
||Boeing 314 Clipper
Introduced in 1939, and only in operation until 1946, the 12 B-314
flying boats offered a degree of luxury travel hitherto unknown.
With individual cabins and sleeper bunks, and two levels for passengers,
the planes presaged many 'innovations' that have been rediscovered in
the last decade or so. The planes could carry up to 36 passengers
in nighttime/sleeper configuration, or 74 in day configuration.
They flew at 163 knots/188 mph, and had a range of 3685 miles.
World War 2 interrupted the roll-out of this airplane, and by the time
the war ended, the 'state of the art' in aviation had advanced so far as
to make these lumbering monsters obsolete.
||Grumman F-14 Tomcat
twin-engine carrier based
fighter popularized in the movie Top Gun, this plane first flew
in 1970, with a design incorporating the lessons learned from air combat
against MiG fighters in Vietnam.
It was retired in the US in 2006, in favor of the smaller lighter
F-18, but is still in service with the
Iranian Air Force. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980 - 88) the
Iranian F-14s shot down at least 160 Iraqi aircraft, losing somewhere in
the order of 6 or 7 planes themselves (plus about as many again to
non-combat related accidents).
The wings vary from 20 degrees to
68 degrees of sweep. The faster the plane is traveling, the
greater the wing sweep.
||North American F-86 Sabre
A highly regarded fighter
and the first swept wing fighter deployed by the US.
1949, it was most active during the Korean war, and by the end of its
production run in 1956, 9,860 had been produced. For a while it
held the world speed record for a plane (670 mph, achieved in Sept
Of the 41 fighter aces in the Korean conflict, all but one
were flying the F-86. The plane was initially inferior to the MiG-15,
but with better pilot training and the later models, the F-86 was
winning engagements by a ratio variously reported at somewhere between
1.3:1 and 10:1. That's a huge difference, and there are lengthy
books attempting to 'truly' analyze the outcome of the dogfights.
As a very early fighter jet design, the plane quickly became
obsolete although some served in Air National Guard units until 1970.
||Lockheed U-2 'Dragon Lady'
Yes, Kelly Johnson at
work again. He designed this ultra-high altitude reconnaissance
Astonishingly, this plane first flew in 1955, entered
active service in 1957, and is
still in service today.
The plane is very difficult to fly, and
has a single pilot and no other crew on board. It flies fairly
slow (cruises at 373 knots/429 mph) but very high (in excess of 70,000
ft). The SR-71 flew much higher and very much faster, but was
massively more expensive to operate.
||Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Boeing's first major entry
into composite material manufacturing, the 787 was notable for massive
delays in getting to market, finally taking to the air in 2009 and
having its first commercial flight in 2011.
After several battery
fire problems, the plane has now settled down into reliable service.
In typical configuration, it carries 240 - 330 passengers in a two
class layout, and between 6,400 - 7600 miles.
||Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
plane is the first time we
mention Lockheed and not Kelly Johnson (he retired in 1975 and died in
1990), the F-22 first flew in 1997 and entered active service in 2005.
195 were built prior to the end of its program in 2011, the plane
remains in active service.
The F-35 will be a successor to the
This is the plane
that returned Boeing to passenger plane production, entering service in
1959 with Pan Am.
Although long since vanished from all major
airlines, there's a memory of the 707 every time you board a 727, 737,
or 757. They all have the same diameter fuselage.
remained in production until 1979, with 1010 being produced. Its
chief competitor was the DC-8, and the 707 outsold the DC-8 almost 2:1.
Of interest - the plane pictured here is a restored 707 and owned by
||North American P-51 Mustang
Although many people think of the Mustang as a quintessentially American
airplane, it was actually built to a specification from the British
Purchasing Commission, and as a result, after a first flight in 1940,
first entered service with the RAF in January 1942. And the
commonly found Packard engine powering the plane is actually a licensed
version of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
Over 15,000 planes were
eventually produced, and the fighter was widely used in both WW2 and the
Korean War, with the last planes being retired from military service in
1984 (with the Dominican Air Force).
They are still commonly
found with collectors and air museums.
||Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle
The world's first
short/medium range passenger jet, this jet was noted for its distinctive
curved triangle windows and graceful curves into its vertical
This French plane entered service in 1959, was
produced until 1972, with 282 planes being built. It is
thought to have ceased service with any airline in 2004. Although
primarily found in Europe, United Airlines took 20 of them.
||Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt 'Warthog'
maybe we are now contradicting our own request to choose aesthetically
pleasing rather than 'distinctive' planes, but the A-10 might qualify
under all categories for consideration - it is up to you to decide.
The plane, designed for very close ground support, first saw service in 1977.
It has been described as a plane built around a gun, due to its
devastatingly effective 30mm nose-mounted cannon, which fires 3900
depleted uranium rounds per second, and can place 80% of those rounds
within a 40ft diameter circle while in flight at 4000 ft.
plane has been somewhat controversial, but is thought it might remain in
service until 2028. Any soldier who has needed to call upon one
fervently hopes that to be the case.
||(McDonnell) Douglas DC-8
Originally known as a Douglas DC-8, when the manufacturer merged to
become McDonnell Douglas in 1967, it was subsequently sometimes referred
to as the McDonnell Douglas DC-8.
In many respects the plane was
very similar to its contemporary, the Boeing 707, which ended up
outselling the DC-8, 2:1. Interestingly, although the 707 was the
market winner, the DC-8 has been the longer lived plane, with the 707s
being withdrawn long before the DC-8s.
It is probable that
Boeing's first to market status and heavier marketing push was what saw
the 707 'win' the battle, and later DC-8 models were excellent planes
and with more capacity than any other planes until the advent of the 747
||de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide (Dominie)
A successor to the de Havilland Dragon, the Dragon Rapide (called the
Dominie during WW2 service) first flew in 1934. It was popular
with airlines, and 205 were built prior to WW2, and then another 526
were built for wartime use.
The plane had seating for 6 - 8
passengers plus one pilot.
A number of Rapides are still in
||Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker
Russia's civil aviation industry has languished, its military
development remains first rate.
Russian Su-30 and its cousins,
the Su-27 and Su-35, are very capable multi-purpose fighters, found in a
number of different Air Forces around the world. It has canards
and vectored thrust for enhanced maneuverability.
The plane first
flew in 1989 and has been in active service since 1996.
||North American A-5(A-3J/RA-5C) Vigilante
A very advanced plane, originally designed as a carrier based supersonic
nuclear bomber, it became a respected reconnaissance plane in the
With early fly by wire technology it is one of the
largest and most complex carrier based planes. After a first
flight in 1958, it was in active service between 1961 - 1979. In
total, 156 planes were produced in two production runs, 1956 - 1963 and
1968 - 1970.
In 1960 a Vigilante set a world record for altitude,
reaching a height of 91,450 ft. The record officially held for 13
years (but we suspect was broken long before then by the SR-71).
||Rockwell B-1 Lancer 'Bone'
plane started its design process in the 1960s as an intended successor
to the B-52, but didn't take to the air until 1974 and only entered
service in 1986. Rather than replacing the B-52, it serves
and supersonic speed, it is a capable heavy bomber. It is
sometimes referred to as a 'Bone' - ie 'B one'.
104 planes were
constructed, and it is expected to remain in service until its
replacement, the 'Long Range Strike Bomber', appears in the 2030s.
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