Badass Planes, Ranked

Badass Planes, Ranked

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25. Learning jet 23

Learjet 23 Takes Off


The Learjet 23 was the first mass-produced business jet, creating a new class of aviation. A Learjet soon became the definition of business success when it was introduced in 1964, showing that the owner was too busy, too important, and too rich for commercial air travel.

The original project was intended as a ground attack fighter for the Swiss Air Force. When that did not work out, Bill Lear adapted the designed into an executive jet which retained fighter-like performance, whisking eight passengers at 540 mph and instantly creating a whole new market.

A series of other Learjets followed, and other manufacturers soon started producing their own executive jets. Learjet have been owned by Bombardier Aerospace since 1990, but the Learjet fire is as potent as ever.

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24. Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Japanese Mitsubishi Zero Fighter in Flight

Museum of Flight Foundation

When it came into service in 1940, the Zero was the most capable carrier-based fighter in the world, combining high maneuverability with speed and longer range than competitors. As a dogfighter, it outclassed Allied carrier aircraft in the early stages of the war.

The Zero was armed with two machine guns and two 20mm cannon—heavy armament at that stage—and it was light weight and highly maneuverable, making the Zero a deadly opponent.

However, the situation changed as the war continued. The U.S. introduced newer and more capable fighters, and the Zero ceased to be a dominant force.

In 1944 the Zero took on a new and sinister role as one of the first Kamikaze planesloaded with a 500-pound bomb in terrifying but ultimately futile suicide attacks on U.S. warships.

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23. F-16 Fighting Falcon

F-16 Falcons Flying in Formation

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Small but powerful, the single-engined F-16 is arguably the most successful combat aircraft of the modern era. Better known by its nickname of “Viper,” the F-16 was introduced in 1978 and soon became the workhorse of the USAF and many others. It is now flown by some 24 U.S. allies from Belgium to Taiwan. As of 2015 there were more F-16s in service than any other fighting aircraft in the world.

The distinctive bubble canopy gives unrestricted visibility in all directions, a useful asset in a fast-moving air fight. Originally designed as a low-cost sidekick to help out the bigger F-15 Eagle and make up numbers, the F-16 turned out to be not only an effective fighter but an all-round performer, deadly against targets on the ground as well as in the air.

The F-16 is well known as the plane flown by the USAF’s Thunderbirds display team.

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22. Airbus A320

Iberia Airbus A320-200 parked Images

Almost nine thousand A320s have been built since its debut in 1986, with another five thousand on order, making it one of the most outstandingly successful airliners of all time.

The A320 was the first airliner to feature a digital fly-by-wire control system. All controls are routed via computers which translate commands into the necessary movements of the flight control surfaces.

The A320 was designed to rival Boeing’s 737 series. In an era of low margins, the A320s high fuel efficiency is a powerful attraction for operators. In the last few years, the A320 has overtaken its rival in monthly orders. The success of the A320 led to several variants, including the smaller A318 and the stretched A321 to fit the requirements of passenger routes around the world.

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21. Cessna 172 Skyhawk

a Cessna 172N Skyhawk taking-off with Mount Rainier Images

The best-selling plane of all time with over 44,000 sold, the four-seater Cessna 172 is the universal training aircraft. It first flew in 1955 and is still in production, though the modern version has been hugely upgraded especially in terms of the electronics.

Known for its reliability and affordability, the Cessna 172 has long been favored by flight schools. There is a thriving second-hand market; the Skyhawk’s longevity means that planes from the 1970s are still changing hands.

Incredibly, a Cessna 172 still holds the record for flight endurancean amazing 64 days. This record was set in 1959, with refueling from a Ford truck driving along a straight stretch of road with a fuel pump connecting it to the low-flying Cessna, while food, drink, and comic books were passed to the two-man crew.

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20. North American P-51 Mustang

Airplane in Flight over Land

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Originally designed to British specifications and flown by the RAF in 1941, the P-51 Mustang was one of the most effective U.S. Army Air Force’s planes of World War II.

Fitted with the British Rolls Royce Merlin engine (as in the Spitfire) , the Mustang could hit 441 mph, and provided long-range fighter escort for the bombing campaign over Germany. Later Mustangs were employed in massive fighter sweeps to pre-emptively locate and destroy Luftwaffe interceptors. By the end of the war Mustangs had accounted for 4,950 enemy aircraft, more than any other U.S. fighter. The Mustang also proved effective in fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles.

The Mustang continued into service in the Korean War, having longer range than the more modern F-80 jet fighters it flew alongside.

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19. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25

nose of Russian AirForce Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat with pitot-tube Images

The MiG-25known to NATO as “Foxbat,” came as a nasty surprise to Western defense analysts. At first, they thought it was an agile dogfighter, but when it came into service in 1970 the MiG-25 proved to be something very different: a reconnaissance plane and long-range interceptor with the legs to outrun any other combat aircraft.

The MiG-25 prototypes broke records for speed, time-to-height, and altitude. Some of those records, like the one for 123,000 foot altitude, still stand. In 1971, Israeli radar operators tracked a MiG-25 moving at Mach 3.2, so fast it was impossible to shoot down.

In 1976, Soviet pilot Victor Belenko defected by landing his MiG-25 in northern Japangiving the West an opportunity to look into the secrets of the aircraft. They were surprised to find it was made of steel rather than space-age titanium like the SR-71, a masterpiece of basic but effective engineering.

Almost a thousand MiG-25 variants were built, and it remains the fastest aircraft still in service.

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18. Messerschmitt Bf 109

German Messerschmitt Fighter in Banked Turn

Museum of Flight Foundation//Getty Images

The greatest German fighter aircraft of WWII, the Bf109 was a fast and agile fighter which rivalled anything the allies produced.

The first copies were delivered in 1937 and were flown in the Spanish Civil war, giving Luftwaffe pilots essential experience for the bigger conflict that followed. The year it was introduced, the Bf109 broke the speed record, flying at almost 380 mph.

At the start of the war it was considered to be superior to anything the allies had, with the possible exception of the Spitfire. Two features gave it the edge in combat: it had long-range cannon rather than machine-guns, and the fuel injection in the Daimler-Benz engine ensured the fuel kept flowing whatever maneuvers the plane was put through.

The Bf109 was eventually defeated by weight of numbers as masses of Allied fighters swept in with the bombers in the closing stages of the war.

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17. B-17 Flying Fortress

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress

Historical//Getty Images

When newspaper reporter Richard Smith saw the new Boeing B-17 roll out in Seattle in 1935, bristling with machine guns pointing in all directions , he called it a “15-ton flying fortress.” Boeing quickly trademarked the name.

The B-17 was initially said to be too complex to fly, but the complexity was tamed by the introduction of the pre-flight checklistsa technique which was later adopted universally.

The B-17 carried 4,000 pounds of bombs and was the mainstay of the U.S. bombing campaign over Germany. Its ability to withstand tremendous punishment from flak and enemy fighters and keep flying was legendary, inspiring movies like Memphis Belle and the recent documentary The Cold Blue.

Over 12,000 B-17s were built, and it played a vital strategic role in both the European and Pacific theaters. General Carl Spaatz, the American air commander in Europe, claimed that “Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.”

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16. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

Computers Revolutionizes The Aviation Industry

Joe McNally//Getty Images

The first fifth generation fighter aircraft, the F-22 is a stealthy air-superiority aircraft able to cruise at supersonic speeds with a fearsome load of advanced weapons. To many, it is still the greatest air-to-air combat vehicle ever devised.

The F-22 was the product of the Advanced Tactical Fighter

program to replace the F-15 in the 1980’s, and eventually entered service in 2005. It was built with two key capabilities in mind. One was supercruise, being able to travel at high speeds for extended periods, not just in short bursts like the F-15. The other was stealth: the F-22 is all but invisible to radar , so it can spot and engage enemy aircraft long before they even realize it is there.

Rising production costs meant that numbers of F-22 were strictly limited and plans to acquire 750 F-22s were soon scaled back and only 187 operational aircraft were built. While there are some concerns over having such a small elite fighter forcenobody doubts the F-22s capability.

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15. Boeing 707

707 Passenger Jet in Flight

Museum of Flight Foundation//Getty Images

The first commercially successful jet airliner, the 707 opened up a new era of high-speed air travel and gave rise to the idea of a glamorous ‘jet set’ able to flit around the world at will.

In 1952, Boeing President William Allen bet the company on jets being the future of passenger aviation. The company settled on a twin-engine design with a marked 35-degree wing sweep. Pan American first flew the 707 in 1958, and its cruising speed of 600 mph – twice as fast as the propeller-driven Boeing 377 which preceded it — slashed flight times. Crucially, the efficient 707 could be operated at a profit, and air travel flourished as never before. Boeing were greatly helped by the USAF taking on a modified 707, the KC-135 Stratotankeras an aerial tanker for its jet bomber fleet,

For years the 707 was in neck-and-neck competition with its rival, the Douglas DC-8. Slightly better speed, the a slight cost advantage given by the USAF contact, and customized versions (such as a longer-range model for Qantas) meant the 707 ended up as the king of the new jet age.

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14. Panavia Tornado

A Panavia Tornado, twin-engine, variable-sweep wing multi role combat aircraft, operated by the German Luftwaffe

Mirrorpix//Getty Images

Critics called a planned multirole European combat aircraft an “egg-laying, milk-giving pig,” that would do everything badly and satisfy nobody. Forty years on from its 1979 debut, the Tornado has performed as a deep-strike bomber, reconnaissance platform, nuclear deterrent, electronic warfare aircraft and interceptor. Tornadoes have flown for Germany, Italy, Britain and Saudi Arabia.

The Tornado features swing wings: in the forward position they provided greater lift at low level, swept back they reduced drag for supersonic flight.

The Tornado’s main mission was expected to be low-level strikes over Europe, and it performed impressively during Desert Storm, sometimes flying at fifty feet or less. However, the dense forests and rolling hills that would have provided cover in Europe were absent in Iraq, and the Tornado force suffered several losses from ground fire.

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13. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

F-35 Lightning II

Simon Bruty//Getty Images

Love it or hate it—and there are plenty on both sides—the F-35 is the biggest and most important military aircraft program in the world today.

First conceived in the Joint Strike Fighter program in 1992, the F-35 entered service in 2015, though serious technical problems remainincluding issues with the stealth coating and night-vision cameras.

The-F-35 is a multi-role aircraft to replace the ageing fleets of F-16s, F/A-18s, A-10s, and AV-8Bs. Unlike them, it has the advantage of stealth and advanced sensors. An impressive helmet-mounted display not only replaces the traditional heads-up display projected on the canopy to show speed, fuel and other data, but provides infra-red imagery at all angles so the pilot can “see through” the aircraft. The F-35 can act as a mobile sensor packagespotting targets and handing off data to less-capable aircraft around it, boosting their effectiveness.

The F-35 successfully conducted its first airstrikes in Iraq this April. Bombing ISIS tunnels is not a true test of modern aircraft though, and whether the world’s first trillion-dollar program pays off remains to be seen.

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12. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

USAF Tests Weapons In Nevada Desert

Ethan Miller//Getty Images

64 years after it entered service, the venerable B-52 is the most numerous aircraft in the USAF bomber fleet, having outlasted aircraft meant to replace it.

Often called the BUFF (“Big Ugly Fat Fellow” is the polite version) , the B-52 was designed in the depths of the Cold War as a nuclear bomber. It had the range to carry atomic warheads deep into the heartland of the USSR. Originally intended for high-altitude flight, it was modified for low-level operations when flying under the radar became essential.

Another shift produced the Big Belly B-52 for conventional bombing, carrying eighty-four 500-pound bombs internally and twenty-four 750-pound bombs on wing pylons. Formations of B-52s wrought havoc in Vietnam with massed raids.

The B-52 has a unique arrangement of eight engines in four pods. All attempts to replace these with four new engines have been rejected, and a forthcoming upgrade will retain the eight-engine configuration.

The B-52 is still going strong with no sign of giving up, and some predict it will keep flying for a hundred years.

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11. McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

An F-15C Eagle aircraft pulls into a climb during

USAF//Getty Images

Introduced in 1976, the F-15 was meant to be an unbeatable air superiority fighter, and it delivered. Its record in combat of over a hundred kills with no losses, is unrivaled. The twin-engined Eagle combines agility with speed, reaching Mach 2.5 at high altitude. It is equally capable of loosing long-range AMRAAM missiles, guided by its powerful AN/APG-63 radar, or mixing it up in dogfights with short-range Sidewinders.

The F-15’s potential for ground attack was later exploited in the F-15E Strike Eagle variant. This uses the plane’s size and power to haul an impressive load of precision bombs

The basic design has proven so strong that even forty years on the Eagle continues to be effective, with the F-15SE Silent Eagle stealth variant and F-15X Advanced Eagle threatening to undercut the advantages of more modern aircraft.

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10. Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde


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The first supersonic airliner when it entered service in 1976, joint British-French Concorde cruised at more than twice the speed of sound. It could fly from London to New York in under three hours, less than the time difference between the cities, giving passengers had the unique experience of arriving before they took off.

Four afterburning jet engines were housed under the delta wings. Prolonged supersonic cruising caused the airframe to heat up and expand by as much as a foot in flight, sometimes visibly increasing the gaps between bulkheads. A distinctive feature was the hinged nose that dipped during landing and takeoff, giving the pilot a better view of the runway.

Concorde was a cramped aircraft, despite only carrying 120 passengers, for what was supposed to be a first-class service. But for the few who could afford it, the joy of a supersonic Concorde flight was an unbeatable experience.

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9. Supermarine Spitfire

Royal Air Force: Italy, The Balkans And South-east Europe, 1942-1945

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The Spitfire won its place in history during the Battle of Britain, when a small number of Spitfire pilots were credited with beating the numerically-superior Luftwaffe. It is possibly the most famous British plane ever made, and always immensely popular at air shows. The Spitfire remained in production all through WWII, with no less than 24 different marks being produced.

The Spitfire was based on earlier Supermarine designs which won prizes for speed in the 1930s. The unusual rounded wing helps reduced drag and gave it a higher speed than other fighters of the day.

The original Mk1 Spitfire was armed with eight .303 machine guns. As the war progressed and heavier weapons were needed, the Spitfire’s engine was upgraded from a 1,000-horsepower Merlin to a 2,300 hp Griffin and it was able to carry 20mm cannon as well as 500-pound bombs for ground attack.

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8. Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet

1990s BOEING 747 SP...

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Dubbed the “Jumbo Jet” by the media for its enormous size, the 747 was the wide-bodied airliner that brought intercontinental air travel to the mass market.

When it first flew with Pan-Am in 1970 with 400 passengers, the 747 had the largest passenger capacity of any airliner. It held on to that record for nearly forty years. The plane is so big that Boeing’s 747 assembly building in Everett, Washingtonis the largest structure by volume in the world.

The 747s most distinctive feature – apart from those four giant Pratt & Whitney JT9D enginesspecially developed for the Jumbo — is its hump. This was originally added when the plane was intended as a military transport and the cockpit was put on top so cargo could be loaded through a hinged nose. Now the hump provides an exclusive upper deck for first and business class passengers.

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7. Rockwell B-1 Lancer

Operation Iraqi  Freedom Continues

USAF//Getty Images

More commonly known as the Bone (from “B-One”), the B-1 has battled through a storm of criticism and program cancelations to become a key element of the USAF’s strategic bomber force.

Conceived in 1970 as a Mach 2 high-altitude nuclear bomber to replace the B-58 Hustler and B-52, the B-1 was canceled in 1977, but resurrected in the 80s due to delays in the more advanced B-2 Spirit. The new version was optimized for low-level, under-the-radar incursions at subsonic speeds.

The B-1 has a combat radius of 3,000 miles without refueling and carries a phenomenal 125,000 pounds of bombs, the most of any bomber. After the START agreement of 1995, the B-1’s nuclear capability was removed, and it was re-tasked as a purely conventional bomber. Equipped with the Sniper targeting podthe B-1 was able to carry out precision strikes in Iraq, and more recently it acted as as an aerial cruise missile carrier in strikes against Syria.

Now the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile could give the B-1 a new maritime strike rolesinking vessels from outside the range of air defenses.

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6. Vought F4U Corsair

F4U Corsair Fighter

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Introduced in 1942, the Corsair was the U.S. Navy’s top carrier-based fighter of WWII.

The Corsair was built around the liquid-cooled Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Waspthe most powerful engine in the world at the time. This required an outsize propeller which in turn necessitated unusual ‘bent’ wings to give sufficient ground clearance.

The power of the engine was coupled with an unusually clean aerodynamic design—the body was assembled using a newly-developed spot-welding technique which gave a smooth finish. As a result, the Corsair was the first production aircraft which could exceed 400 mph in level flight.

The Corsair was fitted with four 20mm cannon and could carry a thousand pounds of bombs or rockets. This made it highly effective when providing ground support for the U.S. Marines on Okinawa and elsewhere.

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