First, you have to define “”greatest;”" that is, the greatest airplane in what respect? Bomber, fighter, transport, general aviation or the greatest fun to fly?
The greatest bomber has got to be the Boeing B-52. It’s been our first-line bomber for nearly 60 years and, with modifications and upgrades, it’s expected to be around for another 20 years or more. Some of the pilots flying B-52s today may be flying the actual aircraft their great-grandfathers flew in the 1950s, albeit with many upgrades.
The greatest fighter plane is the P-51 (pictured). It could hold its own against — or was better than — any other fighter to come out of World War II. It was versatile in that it was used successfully both as a fighter and in ground support roles. The P-51′s long-range made it possible for our bombers to have fighter escort to and from any target. Its lasting popularity with pilots and airshow crowds exceeds that of any other fighter.
The greatest transport plane honors have long gone to the DC-3 or its various military configurations such as the C-47. But the greatest transport honor should go to the C-130, because of its longevity, versatility, and its load carrying capability. It has done everything the DC-3 has done – except faster, with heavier loads, and longer range.
The greatest general aviation plane most likely goes to the Piper J-3 Cub. No single type aircraft has trained more pilots than the Cub; well, maybe with the exception of the Cessna 152. Other planes have come and gone, but the enduring popularity of the Cub is still strong with both pilots and aviation enthusiasts. What pilot wouldn’t want some J-3 time listed in his or her logbook?
The greatest plane to fly for fun is a toughy, because every pilot has his favorite. Erik Shilling, an AVG Flying Tiger, said the P-40 was the most fun to fly. Japanese ace Saburo Sakai was adamant that the Zero was the best plane to fly. American ace Bob Barkey, who flew P-47s, P-51s and P-38s, claimed the P-51 as his favorite mount. Still others who flew the aesthetically beautiful Spitfire loved flying it more than any other aircraft. But if you were to ask the hundreds of pilots flying Van’s RV series homebuilt aircraft today, you would find many who would select their model of RV as the most fun to fly.
For sheer speed, altitude capability and mystery, nothing is greater than the SR-71 Blackbird.
What is the greatest airplane? That depends! As for me, I would love to fly any of them, but my favorite would have to be the P-38, because of a love affair with the Lightning that started the first time I saw a particular P-38 photo back in the ’40s. I still vividly remember that photo.
Larry Bledsoe writes the Art Report for General Aviation News.