When we asked our readers to name The Greatest Airplane Ever, we expected – and got – a wide variety of opinions.
What fascinated us, though, was the consistency more than the variety.
The DC-3 and its C-47 military variant won, but not by much, followed very closely by the Piper Cub and the Wright Flyer.
That was to be expected, of course, as all three are obvious favorites whenever aviators gather.
“The DC-3 established commercial and military air transport as a truly viable, key element in global transportation,” wrote reader Hans Friedebach.
Indeed, it did. The DC-3 was the first airplane with which airlines could earn profits without government subsidies; a huge step in the 1930s. “It moved aviation from an interesting experiment and thrill ride to a viable business,” GAN columnist Ben Visser commented. “It changed the way we live and do business more than any other aircraft.”
It proved so versatile in its World War II C-47 role that it was flown in every theater of operations, carrying troops and supplies, towing gliders during the invasions of Europe and Burma, dropping paratroops on France, Belgium and Holland behind German lines. It operated from roughly-prepared airstrips ranging from the jungles of Burma, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to tricky, fjord-constricted emergency fields in Greenland, and everywhere in between.
“Designed in the early days of aviation and still a workhorse in much of the world today,” wrote Jim Grady.
Indeed, the radial engine growl above almost any Caribbean island is a DC-3, bringing in supplies from the major cargo hub in Puerto Rico. That growl is heard all over the world, as thousands – literally, thousands – of DC-3s and C-47s continue to haul cargo and passengers 71 years after their introduction.
The FAA tried three times to set a life limit on the DC-3 structure, but failed and ultimately concluded, in effect, that the great birds could fly forever. The high-time DC-3 is thought to be one now on the West Coast that has logged nearly 100,000 hours. Sure, there are 747s that have logged more time, but they fly long routes at high altitudes. DC-3s fly short cycles down where the weather lives. They’re totally different worlds.
“Having a tail wheel, the Cub made the student pilot master the art of wheel landings in strong crosswinds,” Spence said. “It operates on wheels, on skis, on floats. With only the barest of instruments, the Cub requires the pilot to plan flights in advance, considering wind directions to maintain correct crab angles to keep on desired track.
“After more than 80 years, the Cub has undergone advances but still is the familiar, yellow and black, personal airplane for training, for travel, and for fun. It is moving into the Light Sport Aircraft field to continue attracting the young, the eager, the adventurer to flight. ‘Cub’ over the years has become the name given to all non-commercial airplanes by the general public. Thank you, Mr. Piper.”
The Cub started its long life in 1936, a 40 hp flying flivver that quickly caught the affections of pilots. More than 5,500 were built prior to World War II when, as Spence pointed out, they became liaison, artillery spotter and ambulance planes for the military, like the DC-3 serving all over the world. They were back in civilian production as soon as the war ended, in 1945, with a 65 hp Continental engine up front.
Jessica Ambats agrees. “It’s a classic – beautiful, low and slow.”
Classic aviation writer Wolfgang Langewiesche wrote to me, 30 years ago, that he saw his first Cub in 1933 when it was still the Taylor Cub, but already backed by Pennsylvania oilman William T. Piper. “It looked a little as if it were made of paper. I did not know, then, that the Cub had a future.”
Cubs don’t have flaps, so we student pilots of the late 1940s and early ’50s learned to use a sideslip to slow down, the big, flat side of the Cub making it extraordinarily effective. It was better than a power approach because it would stay with you in the event the engine quit and you really needed a precise approach. Our instructors told us that we were to hit our spot entirely by making the proper turn onto final. With indomitable common sense, Cub pilots slipped.
“The Cub has something we’ve largely lost,” Langewiesche wrote. “Contact with the country. Low and slow, you can look into somebody’s back yard and front yard at the same time. You can look long enough to watch a farmer plow. Often, you have the urge to sit right down and talk to some of those people, and landing on a farm is easy.”
Langewiesche’s letter concluded: “To this day, general aviation owes its very existence to Mr. Piper and his Cub. It supplied the critical mass of pilots that kept the bureaucrats and the airlines from running us out of the airspace.” Note, please, that he was writing in 1977, not 2007. “The Cub is why general aviation is tolerated today,” he insisted.
THE WRIGHT FLYER
“The greatest aircraft ever has to be the Wright Flyer,” said Heike Larson, the new vice president of sales at Diamond Aircraft. “It is the great-grandfather of all the planes ever built. It embodies all the fundamental principles.”
Larson went on the state that the Wright brothers were superb inventors, “scientists focused on facts and craftsmen able to create the actual airplane. They created an industry where there was none before. The Wright Flyer is an inspiration to all of us in aviation and beyond: When we dream up a new airplane we follow in their footsteps.”
Perhaps the ideal example of that inspiration is Charles Lindbergh. He was not yet 2 years old when the Wright Flyer took to the air, but that flight shaped his life and 24 years later he changed aviation dramatically. His own passion for flying became the world’s after his solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. His love for flying was infectious and its impact on popular culture was like nothing else before or since. His fame was instantaneous and global, and he used it effectively to promote aviation – thanks, in large part, to his fascination with, and inspiration from, Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Golden Age he inspired still gleams brightly in aviation history.
AND THE REST…
Of course, there are a lot of other favorites, but none with the loyal following of Donald Douglas’s DC-3, William T. Piper’s Cub and the seminal Wright Flyer. For example:
“A Taylorcraft because you get high speed for the horsepower. You can get a 95 mph cruise at 65 horsepower, which is just phenomenal.”
– Ken Matthews, Greensboro, N.C.
“A P-51, because it’s cool.”
– Ryan Aiken, 10, Memphis
“The Me262. It was the first operational jet fighter. It brought us into a whole new era of aircraft design.”
– Gunther Malich, Waterloo, Ontario
“The Avro Arrow, the airplane that never happened. There was all this expectation followed by the blatant destruction of aviation technology by politicians.”
– Lee Coulman, Elmira, Ontario
“Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. I saw it out in California and I saw the workmanship. The workmanship is fantastic. Having been in the woodworking field, I really appreciated the wonderful work that was done on the parts I saw. Unfortunately, the timing was poor. When I asked why it only flew for a few minutes, someone told me that everyone said it would never fly, so he wanted to show that they were wrong. We’re fortunate that it is still available.”
– Alfred Elsner, retired engineer, Sun ‘n Fun volunteer.
“I would say the Boeing 707. If it wasn’t for the Boeing 707, the current practicality of traveling from Point A to Point B would not exist. The aircraft provided the first truly safe, comfortable, and fast traveling experience for the everyday person. The experience allowed the development of further transport category aircraft, which has truly expanded the reach of man.”
– Jamail Larkins, airshow performer, FAA ambassador, Embry-Riddle student.
“The Adam A500, P-51 Mustang, B-29 and PBY-5A Catalina,” grinned Rick Adam, founder of Adam Aircraft.
“The P-51 Mustang and the A-4 Skyhawk. The pilots who have flown those aircraft in combat operations have a passionate, almost romantic, attachment to them – in particular to their performance and handling characteristics.”
– Kenneth B. Wheeler.
“It’s very difficult to narrow it down to one airplane, since many airplanes have had incredible impacts on aviation for their capability, like today’s F-22. I feel that there are two very different airplanes that are the greatest ever made. The Cessna 172 Skyhawk not only taught many pilots how to fly, but also, after 50 years, is still in production making it the largest volume produced single model aircraft of all time. The other plane is more sentimental but had a significant impact: the Douglas DC-3. I worked at Douglas and my Dad flew the 3 in the Army Air Corp in World War II.
– Jack Pelton, Cessna’s president and CEO.
“The Air Cam is the greatest airplane ever because it will allow flying you simply cannot do in any other airplane. It’s a twin-engine ultralight designed for use by National Geographic to explore Africa. It can fly 10 feet above the tree tops in safety as it can, with no engine management challenge, climb up and away on one engine. Such near-Earth exploration is not done in twin-engine GA planes, ultralights, or any other aircraft, with the same level of assurance. Air Cam can take off on one engine, easily, and with both Rotax 912s turning, leaps off terra firma in less than 100 feet and climbs 2,000 fpm at Vne, all while burning only 10 gph. Try all that in any other aircraft!”
– GAN columnist and LSA expert Dan Johnson.
“I’ll vote for the Beechcraft Bonanza. Over 60 years in continuous production should say something. Rugged, fast, roomy, great visibility, classic lines, has gone from fabric control surfaces to glass cockpit, excellent resale value.”
– Doug Hinton, frequent contributor to both GAN and its sister publication, The Southern Aviator.
And, finally, from Hal Shevers of Sporty’s: “As for the greatest aircraft ever made, that is a good question.”
When all is said and done, maybe that says it all.