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The 25 Most Beautiful Planes Ever Flown - Survey Results

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.

The Winners

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.

Write-Ins

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 Vigilante).

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 -

    Ranking
Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde

This plane first flew in 1969, but did not enter commercial service until 1976.

Flying across 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 in 2003.
1
Lockheed Constellation

Another 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 Super Constellation.

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 ft.

2
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 missiles.

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.
3
Vickers VC10

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.

It is unusual for its high tail and four rear-mounted engines.

The 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.

4 =
Boeing 747

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.
4 =
Supermarine Spitfire

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.

Although the 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.
6 =
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 1997.

It is distinctive for being a flying wing design with no vertical stabilizer.

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.
6 =
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 conflict.

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.
8
Avro Vulcan

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.

9
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 knots/286 mph).

10 =
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.
10 =
Grumman F-14 Tomcat

A swing-wing 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.
12
North American F-86 Sabre

A highly regarded fighter and the first swept wing fighter deployed by the US.

Introduced in 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 1948).

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.
13
Lockheed U-2 'Dragon Lady'

Yes, Kelly Johnson at work again.  He designed this ultra-high altitude reconnaissance plane.

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.
14
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.

15
Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

This 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 F-22.
16
Boeing 707

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.

The 707 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 John Travolta.
17
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.
18
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 stabilizer/tail.

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.
19
Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt 'Warthog'

So 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.

The 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.
20
(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 in 1969.

21
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 operation today.
22
Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker

Although Russia's civil aviation industry has languished, its military development remains first rate.

The 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.
23
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 Vietnam era.

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).
24
Rockwell B-1 Lancer 'Bone'

This 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 alongside it.

With swing-wing 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.
25
     

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