Flight has always fascinated humanity. So it's no surprise that, when powered-flying machines were invented at last in 1903, they were considered to be cool. As aircraft became more commonplace over the decades, though, only the most awesome among them ascended to true Cool Plane glory. Despite this, Real Life aviation has produced more examples of the Cool Plane than many fiction works put together - so much so that a lot of writers are satisfied to just use Real Life planes in their works without having to imagine their own. It should also be noted that all real life aircraft have both flaws and limits. What is ok with one might be fatal with another.
Listed below, in approximate order of the era in which they went into production, or would have gone into production had their development not been halted, for whatever reason,note are the awesome flying machines from reality. Enjoy.
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The Dawn of Flight
- The Wright Flyer. The first case of powered flight itself should count as pretty cool. Granted there is a bit of controversy over which plane was the first. Most people know the Wrights were first to achieve sustained and controlled powered flight, as documented by witnesses and photographs. But many others have also claimed the honor of the first powered flight, though not necessarily the "sustained and controlled" part, with various degrees of documentation. Perhaps the best documented alternate claim is that for Brazilian national hero Alberto Santos-Dumont.
Even in the US, there was considerable controversy over who flew first. Samuel Pierpont Langley designed a series of small-scaled unpiloted aircraft, all named Aerodrome. After success with the smaller unpiloted aircraft, he scaled the design up and installed a bigger engine, but both launches in late 1903 (off a houseboat in the Potomac River) resulted in instant structural failure that landed the aircraft and test pilot Charles Manly in the drinknote immediately after launch. A week and a half later, the Wright Flyer had its successful day of flights. The Aerodrome successfully flew in 1914 after considerable modification by Glenn Curtiss, and the Smithsonian Institution, which had sponsored Langley, declared the Aerodrome to be the first design capable of powered flight disregarding that the Curtiss-modified aircraft was considerably different and without acknowledging any of Curtiss' 93 modifications. No doubt part of the reason for the drawn-out controversy was the bitter rivalry between the Wright Brothers and the rest of the early American aviation industry, which gave Curtiss ample motivation to try to break the Wright Brother's patents by demonstrating "prior art". For his part Orville Wright was so incensed by the Smithsonian's support for Langley's claim that he loaned the original Wright Flyer to the London Science Museum until after his death.
Despite all of the bickering, the first truly cool planes were the Wright Flyer II of 1904 and the Wright Flyer III of 1905, which were, respectively, the first aircraft capable of turning around and coming back to it's starting point and the first aircraft capable of truly sustained flight at a time when their European competitors (including Santos-Dumont, who had moved to France) were largely limited to short straight-line hops. Their first production machine, the Wright Model A stunned onlookers with sustained flights of up to an hour when demonstrated at Le Mans in 1908 at a time when few flights lasted more than a minute. Unfortunately, after these successes the Wrights forsook further innovation in favor of defending their existing patents, which stifled innovation and resulted in the World aviation industry quickly leaving both the Wrights and the US aviation industry far behind. Ironically, the Curtiss/Wright patent battles became so heated and entangled that they could ultimately be resolved only by merging the two companies.
- The above-mentioned Alberto Santos-Dumont had two examples: the 14-Bis, a box kite-like biplane (so named because it was his 14th aircraft, after 13 dirigibles), that while flown in Paris in 1906 marked the first heavier-than-air machine flown in Europe; and the Demoiselle (French for "damselfly", as it looked just like those bugs), a proto-ultralight that could achieve a speed of 120 km/h (72 MPH), became the first widely built airplane: Santos-Dumont and a partner built 50 Demoiselles, and the inventor made the blueprints available to whoever wanted, leading to various imitators in the following years. One was built specially for French aviator Roland Garros (yes, the French Open one), and a replica years later was featured in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
- The 1908 Curtis June Bug, which introduced modern stick-and-rudder controls and ailerons and thus broke the Wright's patent stranglehold on wing warping that was holding back competitive development. the June Bug let directly to the 1911 Curtis Model D, aka the "Curtis Pusher": easier to rig and fly than Wright's aircraft thanks to its ailerons and more intuitive controls, the pusher was the pre-WWI American barnstormer's aircraft of choice. The existence of numerous restored originals and modern replicas attest to fact that the Curtis Pusher is one of the few aircraft from this era which is not considered insanely dangerous to fly.
- The 1909 Bleriot XI pioneered the standard cruciform wing and tail layout used by the vast majority of aircraft and was the first heavier-than-air aircraft to cross the English Channel. Two Bleriot XIs, one in the Shuttleworth Collection and another at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, are the world's oldest surviving flyable aircraft. Like the American Curtis the Bleriot XI was the first European aircraft to show that aircraft could be more than a curiosity. Bleriots went on to set numerous early distance and altitude records.
The Dawn of Aerial Warfare (World War One)
- The German Fokker Eindecker was one of the first official "Cool Planes". It featured the first synchronized machine gun that let a pilot fire through the propeller without shooting it off, thus allowing accuracy not available to other planes. It single-handedly allowed German domination of the air (see the Fokker Scourge) until the Allies caught up with the Nieuport 11 and de Havilland DH.2.
- The Felixstowe F.2 was a big-ass two engine WWI flying boat with a 95 foot wingspan and up to seven machine guns - so well-armed it was nicknamed the "flying porcupine". It was designed by Cyril Porte to provide a long flying time for naval air patrols, as well as to engage enemy patrol aircraft, fighters and submarines, which it did very well too.
- The Russian Ilya Muromets bomber, designed by the famous Igor Sikorsky (better known for his helicopter designs after immigrating to the United States), was the world's first four-engine strategic bomber and was used to form the first dedicated strategic bombing unit. Its internal racks carried up to 800 kg of bombs, and positions for up to nine machine guns were added for self-defense in various locations, including the extreme tail... all this, in World War One. German fighter pilots sometimes flatly refused to attack it; only one was lost to hostile action, and it took three German fighters teaming up to bring it down.
- The German Fokker Dr.1 Triplane was more famous due to its most famous pilot note than due to its own qualities, as it was a temperamental, unreliable vehicle largely copied from Allied designs. In the hands of a skilled pilot, however, the temperamental aircraft was very maneuverable.
- All the faults of the Dr.1 were rectified in its successor aircraft, the Fokker D.VII, to such an extent that the Allies specifically required that Germany surrender any that were in good condition at the end of the war. Interestingly, the true advantage of the D.VII lay not so much in exceptional performance as its peerless and viceless handling characteristics, very important things to have in a era when many fighter aircraft were almost as dangerous to their own pilots as they were to the enemy.
- Germany had actually produced another single-seat fighter that was superior even to the D.VII, the Siemens-Schuckert D.IV, which could fly 3900 feet higher than the D.VII's service-ceiling, and was faster and more maneuverable than the D.VII at higher altitudes. Despite its superiority, its late arrival, in August of 1918, meant that by the time it reached service, the Allies had already sealed their victory.
- The Bristol F.2 was a massive (for the time) two-seater fighter. The F.2 was originally intended to hold formation and fend off the enemy with coordinated fire from the observers, but her first contact with the enemy demonstrated that those tactics were horribly flawed, as Manfred von Richtofen's Jasta 11 tore 48 sq. RFC apart. However, it was soon found that the Bristol Fighter's speed and maneuverability, belied by her size, would allow her to be a formidable opponent, and Bristols remained in service over a decade after the war.
- The Sopwith Camel was a biplane most famous for its association with the fictional pilot Biggles and his exploits flying one. In real life the aircraft had a reputation for being Difficult but Awesome and was considered a match for any contemporary German machine in the hands of a suitably skilful pilot. It racked up nearly 1300 kills. Snoopy also imagined he was flying one in his make-believe encounters with the Red Baron.
- Finally for WWI British aircraft we have the SE-5A, which overcame a problematic birth to become the most important RAF fighter aircraft of the war. Faster than the Sopwith Camel but much easier to fly, it combined relatively honest handling characteristics like the Fokker D.7 with greater speed and good durability.
- The Nieuport 28 was the first fighter plane to serve in the American armed forces. This French-built biplane was light, agile, and using the same Gnome Monosopape powerplant as the Sopwith Camel, it could quickly launch and climb to altitude without needing to waste time warming up the engine. It did come with a few major downsides. First, the Gnome was prone to bursting into flames due to a weird quirk of the design (the engine was throttled by disengaging pistons rather than restricting fuel flow, meaning the fuel would build up in the idle pistons until they were reengaged...) The other downside was that the upper wing could become delaminated and tear apart during rough maneuvering.
- The SPAD S.XIII was, by mid-1918, the primary fighter of the Aéronautique Militaire, and by the end of the war, the US Army had similarly adopted the SPAD as their front line staple. While not as agile as the Camel or the Nieuport 28, the SPAD was tougher and faster, and would continue to serve in many nations' militaries into the 1920s.
- While everybody could tell you that the first cruise missiles were developed by the Germans in World War II, that wouldn't be quite right. The Curtiss-Sperry Flying Bomb was an "Aerial Torpedo", essentially an unpiloted Curtiss biplane with a thousand pound explosive payload, developed for the US Navy during World War I. Sadly, they couldn't get the bugs worked out of it, and it wouldn't be until the second World War that both sides would be launching cruise missiles (purpose-built German ones, conventional warplanes modified into drones by the Allies,and human-piloted kamikaze by the Japanese.)
Between the World Wars
- The most awesome aircraft ever built is probably the C-47 Skytrain/DC-3 Dakota. First flown in 1935 and in service ever since, it was so popular that it was licence-built by the Russians and the Japanese, who flew their own version during the Pacific War (leading to much confusion amongst Allied fighter pilots). Over 17,000 were produced and more than 400 were still in service in 1998, some in modified and overhauled form, including with various turboprop engines. It's been used as everything from an ambulance to a gunship (as the AC-47 Spooky, or "Puff the Magic Dragon" to its friends) and was one of the first aircraft to arrive in Haiti carrying relief supplies after the 2010 earthquake. It's been theorized that not one single day has passed without a DC-3 flying somewhere in the world for over 75 years. No other aircraft can make that claim: no other aircraft can even come close.
The Dakota has awesome in its pedigree. Howard Hughes commissioned the design from Douglas to serve as a flagship airliner for Transcontinental and Western Airways (that's right, they changed their name to the same-initials Trans-World Airlines later on) to give the fledgling airline a plane that would be able to outshine United Airlines' flagship Boeing 247. The rest is history.
Perhaps the C-47/DC-3's Moment of Awesome came during the Berlin Airlift. Most of the planes carrying supplies to Berlin were either the small, twin engine C-47s or the much larger 4-engine C-54s (the military version of the DC-4). Once, a full C-54 cargo load was accidentally loaded aboard a C-47, and nobody (including the pilot) caught the error. Nevertheless, this critically overloaded C-47 managed to take off, fly all the way to Berlin, land, and offload its cargo without a hitch!
- The Junkers F.13 was an all-metal cantilever transport monoplane, with advanced aerodynamics, liquid-cooled engine, heated passenger cabin, and it flew first on June 25, 1919. That's right. A modern passenger airplane in the age of string and fabric biplanes, and even better, in a defeated militarily-occupied country torn by World War I and countless minor revolution attempts. The Germans mean business even when they're down.
- Descended from the F.13 was the Junkers Ju 52 trimotor, which was to Germany as the C-47 was to the Allies. Like the C-47 it continued in service long after the Second World War with Spain and Switzerland, as a military and civilian aircraft. Its slab-sided, corrugated fuselage became familiar from countless war films, especially Where Eagles Dare.
- The Savoia-Marchetti S.55 was just the weird looking plane one might expect from the age of strings and fabric, straight from an Indiana Jones film, and yet this 1920s creation flew for years and years, until right after World War II, setting record after record. Even the prototype set 14 world records for speed, altitude and distance with a payload, in 1926 only. Although a fully operational commercial airliner, it crossed the Atlantic East to West just months before Charles Lindbergh's purpose-built Spirit of St. Louis. It also did fly in formation over the Atlantic, Italy to USA, in 1933.
- Charles Lindbergh's first choice to fly from New York to Paris was a Super Prototype called the Wright-Bellanca WB-2, which had been commissioned by the Wright Aeronautical Company to show off the capabilities of its Whirlwind engine. The Bellanca had more than enough range and endurance for the flight; it broke the world endurance record by staying in the air for fifty-one hours without refueling, and except for some severe Executive Meddling, it would have been the Spirit of St. Louis (at the last minute, the airplane owner demanded the right to select the crew for the flight as a condition of sale, which would effectively have left Lindbergh and his backers paying $15,000 for the "privilege" of putting their name on the fuselage).
- The Soviet I-16, sometimes called "Ishak" ("donkey") was literally the workhorse of Soviet Air Force in pre-war period and early times of the war. It was of revolutionary design; it was the world's first low-wing cantilever monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear to have attained operational status and as such "introduced a new vogue in fighter design." However, as such it initially had many problems, but in the end it settled as good and reliable aircraft. First saw combat in skies of Spain, where it dominated over biplane adversaries. During World War II it was weak compared to German fighters, like Bf 109, but featured great horizontal manoeuvrability, which sometimes allowed it to change positions with the chasing plane.
- The Soviet Po-2 (U-2) biplane, nicknamed the Kukuruznik (the Russian term for a crop duster) was a very simple and reliable plane for many decades, despite being created in 1928. A weak engine didn't allow it to reach fast speeds, but aside from intercepting it could do literally anything: training plane, reconnaissance plane, night bomber, crop duster, mail truck, you name it. It had great handling even by modern standards, low stall speed and comparably weak engine noise. Known as the plane used by the "Night Witches" (officially, the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment, its speed made it difficult for faster German aircraft to intercept without overshooting). It was specifically well-suited for the role of night-time ground support, and developed a fearsome reputation among German infantry based on its ability to glide with the engine off for a silent strafing or close-in bombing run. For its performance and as memory for designer it was only plane with role-designated name (U for "Uchebnyi" - "Training") to be renamed to have designer's name (Po for Polikarpov).
World War Two
- The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (as well as her derivative models) has been denigrated by many as an obsolete airframe with poor handling characteristics, suitable only as a stopgap in the ground-attack role. However, The P-40's wartime record and the recommendations of her pilots tell a different story. Far from being a poor dogfighter, the P-40 had one of the tightest turning radii of her contemporaries at high speed. Further, the Warhawk's modular construction and 5-spar wing design meant that it was a rugged aircraft which could sustain horrific damage and be repaired easily. There is a photo◊ on The Other Wiki of a P-40 which lost a quarter of a wing from artillery shell hit and managed to return home. The Warhawk and the Kittyhawk were made famous by the American Volunteer Group, the AVG, more commonly known as the Flying Tigers, especially for their special painting of the noses like the the heads of ferocious sharks ready to chew up the enemy..
- The SBD Dauntless, though nicknamed "Slow But Deadly" made a major contribution to the Pacific War, especially during the Battle of Midway (where they sank all four IJN aircraft carriers involved in the battle). When it was replaced by the Curtiss SB2Cnote Helldiver, many pilots were not happy, as they still deemed the Dauntless a superior aircraft. The Dauntless was also known for its exceptional maneuverability, durability and accuracy. So much, in fact, that many American pilots took aggressive stances against attacking enemy fighters once their ordinance was away. There is one account of a Dauntless that was beset upon by three Zeroes. He managed to shoot down two of them, and then knocked the third one out by chopping its wing off with his wingtip. The Dauntless would ultimately be credited with 138 enemy aircraft destroyed, the highest number of air-to-air kills for a non-fighter aircraft in WW2.
- In a similar vein to the above Dauntless, the Grumman TBF Avenger (or TBM for those manufactured by General Motors) was the most advanced American torpedo bomber of the war, and was considered a massive improvement over its predecessor, the TBD Devastator.note Though five of the six Avengers that flew in the Battle of Midway were shot down, it went on to be very effective at its assigned job, being responsible for the sinking of both of Japan's massive Yamato-class battleships. Oh, and one of these planes was flown by a man known as Lt. JG. George Bush. Not only was the Avenger an effective torpedo bomber, it was also the first aircraft in the U.S. Navy to be equipped with radar. Early night operations involved an Avenger launching with a squadron of Hellcats, which would then act as Mission Control for the fighters. One such operation lead to possibly the only instance of one torpedo bomber shooting down another when an Avenger's gunner engaged a Japanese Betty.
- The Supermarine Spitfire, often named as one of the most beautiful aircraft ever designed. It was used in a variety of roles from fighter (at which it excelled, being one of the best defensive fighters in the war) to high-altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft, possessing an impressive combat record and iconic status in British culture. Those pretty elliptical wings, however, were a total pain in the ass to build and maintain because there is not a single straight line in them. Later Spitfires had a revised and easier to build wing that does not look nearly as good as the original one. German fighter ace Adolf Galland was very impressed by the Spitfire and once enraged Hermann Göring by stating that he'd like to have Spitfires for his squadron.
- The Hawker Hurricane, a contemporary of the Spitfire, was easier to produce and thus more numerous earlier in the war. Though slower and an inferior dogfighter compared to the Spit, it was still responsible for shooting down a larger number of enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain (especially bombers) and also proved to be excellent as a ground attack and "tank buster" aircraft. It is the last frontline fighter made with fabric covered wings. That makes it hard to damage and easy to repair.
- The Hawker Typhoon proved to be not so great for air-to-air combat due to an overly thick wing section but saw plenty of success at ground-attack, helped by its powerful engine and armament fit.
- But the Hawker Tempest, essentially a Typhoon with a new laminar flow wing, was a beast in air-combat. Adored by pilots who found a way to use the airflow patterns around the Tempest's wingtips to knock V-1 "buzz-bomb" cruise-missiles out of the sky without ever coming into physical contact with the German drones. The Tempest was the fastest Allied piston-engined fighter of the war and could actually out-run and out-accelerate some of the jet aircraft of the era, especially at lower altitudes.
- The Hawker Sea Fury was a carrier-based development of the Tempest with lighter wings, giving it an even higher speed. In fact, it was the first propeller-driven plane to shoot down an MiG-15 in Korea! This would be the only British MiG kill, however, as the UK's air involvement was limited to propeller-driven carrier fighters.
- The Short Sunderland was a big-ass flying boat which bristled with both radar apparatus and machine-guns. It was mainly used for searching for U-boats but it could handle itself in an air-fight; one once fought eight Ju-88 heavy fighters. Though the Sunderland barely limped home, six of the attackers didn't look as good. No wonder the Germans called it the "Flying Porcupine" (even better in German, Fliegendes Stachelschwein). During the Berlin Airlift, this flying boat was used to airlift salt into the city by taking off and landing on rivers. Like most flying boats, the Sunderland was designed to be corrosion-resistant, unlike most land-based planes. A salt spill could cause severe corrosion problems otherwise.
- The Consolidated PBY Catalina (or the Canso, as the Canadian-built version was called), from the same company that produced the Liberator and the Privateer (see below), was an unassuming flying boat patrol bomber used by the Americans (and later the Canadians and British), designed with extensive range in mind for long patrols and supply runs to distant bases. With the outbreak of World War II, they were used for all sorts of missions, ranging from patrol to search and rescue to night bombing, with the latter role earning them the nickname of "Black Cats" for their paint job that made it easier to sneak in and drop its payloads on the unsuspecting Japanese.
Later versions made various improvements, including improved firepower and landing gear, because otherwise the planes could land anywhere in the sea, but nowhere on land. In the post-war period, many PBYs saw later use as water-bombers fighting forest fires. Altogether, about 8,500 multiengine "flying boat"- type aircraft were built worldwide during the 20th Century. Catalina/Canso/Nomad (PBN) production accounted for over half of the total.
- The P-47 Thunderbolt was extremely tough and large and surprisingly fast considering its size and a capable fighter-bomber that was the front-line American fighter until the more famous P-51 Mustang appeared with its superior range and relegated the P-47 to ground-attack roles. The P-47 was more heavily armed, with eight .50-cal machine guns and up to 2000 lbs worth of bombs or 10 rockets and remained tougher and more destructive than the Mustang could ever hope to be, possessing a reputation for returning home with various parts shot off. The A-10 is named Thunderbolt II for a reason. It was nicknamed "the Jug" by both the British and the Americans, for different reasons. To the British, it was short for "Juggernaut", while to the Americans...it just looked like a jug.
- The P-51 Mustang suffered from poor high altitude performance with its original Allison engine note but became one of the best all-around fighters of WWII when paired with the British Merlin engine. Its enormous range (twice that of the Mitsubishi Zero) when paired with additional fuel tanks enabled it to escort bombers all along the way into enemy airspace and back, making them very popular with the bomber crews in addition to its own pilots. The aircraft's excellent quality meant that it was exported to and used by a large number of countries and some examples were used well into 1980s. There are more airworthy Mustangs in the world today than all other WWII combat aircraft combined.
Lest anyone think that the earlier Allison powered Mustang was a failure, it still performed well at low altitude (which is what it was originally designed for), and the Royal Air Force operated 31 squadrons of the Mustang I as fighter bombers and tactical reconnaissance aircraft. Equipped with dive brakes it became the A-36 Apache divebomber. Capable of delivering twice the bomb load of the famous Ju 87 Stuka and defeating an Me 109 in a dogfight afterwards, the success of the A-36 and the Mustang I convinced the Americans and the British to abandon specialized dive bombers in favor of fighter-bombers.
- The Grumman F4F Wildcat, while less maneuverable than the Japanese Zero, it could match it in speed and was far more ruggedly built, which together with the superior tactics developed by American pilots meant it could hold its own before more advanced US fighters arrived. It was the fighter that actually stopped the A6M. Later in the war, Wildcats were deployed from escort carriers too small to be used by those fighters, protecting convoys.
- The Gloster Meteor was the first Allied jet fighter. Aside from having a Badass name it was incredibly fast and would (if the war had gone on longer) gone toe to toe with jet-powered German ME 262. As it was, it was mostly an interceptor dealing with the V-1 buzz bombs. One method Meteor pilots used to down V-1s was, instead of shooting them (trying to shoot what was essentially a 2,000lb warhead strapped to a fuel tank was considered a bit too dangerous), to fly alongside and tip their wing into the V-1's wing. The V-1's primitive guidance system was incapable of recovering from this, and they would crash every time.
- The F6F Hellcat was developed from the Wildcat. It was a big, chunky, and powerful aircraft with heavy armament, responsible for over 75% of the US Navy's confirmed kills, made 305 aces, more than any American aircraft at the time and ended the war with a kill/loss ratio of over 19:1. The F6F Hellcat was too big for most allied carriers and wasn't introduced until September 1943. What made the F6F a really good combat plane was not only its significantly improved performance over its older sibling as well as keeping the same touted ruggedness, but the fact that its simple design made it very easy to maintain and required little modifications, if at all, and it was very easy and forgiving to fly.
- The Grumman F7F Tigercat was essentially an F6F Hellcat with twin engines and a lightened airframe whose performance outranked its related cousin and the F4U in terms of top speed. Unfortunately, it arrived too late to see combat service in WWII (as it was designed in 1944) and only saw very limited use in the Korean War where it was primarily utilized as a night fighter by the USMC. Had it been introduced a year or two earlier in service (and designed earlier), it would have easily taken the title of the best aircraft in the Pacific Theater and could definitely have been one of the best in the European Theater as well, as its performance could most certainly give the Bf 109 and Fw 190 a great scare.
- The Grumman F8F Bearcat combined the Hellcats' 2000 HP engine with the smallest possible airframe in order to make the ultimate interceptor to defend against kamikaze attacks. It arrived too late for WWII and was replaced by jets soon after but it still holds the world speed record for piston engine aircraft.
- The distinctive gull-winged F-4U Corsair was built around the biggest engine and propeller the US Navy could find at the time. Navy airmen nicknamed it "The Ensign Eliminator" or the "Bent-Wing Bastard" on account of its sometimes tricky handling; the Japanese called it "Whistling Death" from the distinctive sound made its two wing root air intakes. The first naval aircraft to exceed 400 mph in level flight, in the hands of a skilled pilot it could engage any air or land target in the whole Pacific theater and come out a winner. Corsairs did everything from shooting down enemy fighters to close air support for landing Marines and wouldn't leave front-line service with the US until the Korean War. It was the plane of choice for the famed Black Sheep Squadron. One Corsair pilot to go on to later achieve world fame is a US Marine Corps pilot by the name of John Glenn, of Space Race fame. The distinctive the gull wing provided clearance for the 13 foot propeller needed absorb the torque of the 2000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine while keeping the landing gear struts a reasonable length, but that huge engine also allowed it to carry a heavier bomb load than most contemporary dive bombers, allowing it to soldier on as a fighter bomber for more than a decade after VJ day.note
- One secret of the success of both the Corsair and the Hellcat was the US Navy delivered two Corsairs to Grumman and two Hellcats to Chance-Vought and told both companies to match their rival's best features - the Hellcat's landing characteristics vs. the Corsair's outstanding rate of roll.
- The Bristol Beaufighter took an adequate but unexciting torpedo bomber and repurposed it as a heavy fighter which could mount radar in the night-fighter role, or carry eight rockets or a torpedo in addition to six machine-guns and four 20mm cannon. It made out like a boss either against German bombers, which it was fast enough to catch even with the radar and the ten guns, against shipping which did not enjoy the rockets one little bit, and against Japanese ground positions where the plane's long range and ten-gun armament coupled with the ability to come in low, fast and surprisingly quiet counted for an awful lot. It gave way as a night-fighter to a faster and equally cool successor, namely:
- The De Havilland Mosquito is perhaps a surprising entry as a Cool Plane, but the Mossie was one of the most versatile British aircraft of WWII. Came in multiple variants ranging from fighter-bombers to reconnaissance planes and night fighters to ground attack aircraft, some variants armed with a 57mm autocannon, which was used to bust up vehicles and small ships (and which would vaporise enemy aircraft with one shot). Across all of its variants the Mosquito suffered the lowest casualties throughout the war due to its sheer speed. It was also called "The Wooden Wonder" and, for Added Alliterative Appeal, "The Timber Terror" since it was made out of laminated plywood, which could take a surprising amount of punishment and allowed it to be built in Canada, the world's largest producer of forest products and far beyond the range of German bombers. This fact wound Hermann Göring up to no end, as it meant that the Canadians could churn out Mosquitos at a rapid pace using very few strategic materials which, to add insult to injury, the British had more of than the Germans did.
- The American XP-55 Ascender certainly looked cool, but had little beyond its unique rear-engined canard design going for it. With flight characteristics that were poor and an underpowered engine, it earned the unfortunate nickname "Ass-ender."
- The P-38 Lightning is the instantly recognizable twin-tailed fighter of World War II. Designed by Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, also responsible for the SR-71 Blackbird, F-104 Starfighter and the U-2/TR-1 spy plane (all mentioned below). The Lightning was durable for the time, heavily armed, and could do just about anything you asked of it. Escort fighting, recon, ground attack/support, bombing, dive bombing - the Lightning did it all. Known to the Germans as the Fork-Tailed Devil. And it was even more effective in the Pacific theater than in Europe, due to more favorable atmospheric conditions. The P-38 was the aircraft responsible for the interception and eventual death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
- Tony LeVier, the Lockheed Test Pilot who was the first person to fly the XP-80A, XF-104,and U-2 (among others) had alot to say about the P-38 in his biography. Part of what he had to say was that a P-38 without airbrakes was too fast in a dive for the airframe to handle. His job included diving P-38s that didn't have dive breaks to help figure out what the problem was.
- One of the biggest advantages the P-38 had during the war was the fact that since the twin booms put the propellors on the wings, the nose was freed up to mount the guns. Most other fighters mounted their guns in the wings, since any gun mounted near the engine needed to be set up not to shoot through the propeller. In order to ensure both guns hit the target, they had to be slightly angled towards the nose. This basically restricted their range to a certain point before the bullet streams fused with each other. However, nose-mounting meant the P-38 could shoot straight its guns straight ahead, with a much longer maximum range dictated only by gravity and air resistance. No Axis pilot ever wanted to see a P-38 pointed at him, no matter how far away it was.
- A bigger advantage for the P-38 was that the nose had room for a supplemental system to cock the gun. Machine guns and cannons used in fighters were cocked before flight, and a misfire meant that the gun couldn't be used unless it could be re-cocked. Most fighters simply didn't have the room to spare for the back-up gun cocker, making the heavier 20mm cannons less attractive versus large batteries of lighter machine guns, particularly since the American-made 20mm cannons were Reliably Unreliable Guns that tended to misfire often.
- The P-38's planned successor, the XP-58 Chain Lightning gets in here for it's sheer Up to Eleven nature. The XP-58 was planned to mount either 4 37mm autocannons, or in the more effective design, mount a 75mm Autocannon and two .50 machine guns on it's nose. In either design, the plane also had 4 more .50 cals in two remotely controlled turrets in the rear. Persistent engine problems and questions about whether a heavy fighter was actually needed resulted in its cancellation with only one prototype ever built.
- The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress lived up to its name: up to 17 .50-caliber Machine Guns in various turrets and mountings, and a reputation of flying back to base with 3 engines out and huge holes everywhere, which led to the aircraft's legendary status and made it probably the most famous heavy bomber of the war. The B-17 was credited with shooting down as many German fighters as all other Allied fighters combinednote It was also the other plane whom the Germans call the "Flying Porcupine" when they encountered it. The B-17 was originally designed to sink battleshipsnote and be able to take payloads out to sea that other bombers of the time couldn't even lift, hence the long range that made it effective deep into occupied Europe while operating from airfields in England. The name came from a reporter shown an early model describing it as such. Boeing liked the sound of that, and quickly made it official.
- It was practically and literally Made of Iron. Want proof?
- A B-17 named Ye Olde Pub managed to get home with:
To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn't shoot them down.
- A busted engine
- An uncontrollable engine
- A third one only at half power
- The oxygen systems shot out
- Half the rudder shot off
- The rear stabilizer ripped away
- Almost all the guns frozen and unusable
- And the nose glass completely shattered
- It was, in fact, so badly shot up that the German pilot sent up to finish it off couldn't bear the thought of shooting at it and instead escorted it back to the North Sea.
- Another B-17, on the other side of the world in the Pacific, Old 666 (Number of the Beast tail number a coincidence) got into a 45 minutenote dogfight against 17 enemy fighters, and kept at it until the Zeroes ran out of fuel and ammunition. And this was a bomber that had been recovered from The Alleged Plane status after being shot up numerous times in the past. But give credit to Captain Jay Zeamer for knowing what was coming. This fortress had six extra guns and more ammo in place of the bomb payload so he could take on Suicide Missions, and did it need it! By the time it got home, it had been hit nearly 200 times. Its rudder and hydraulics were shot, the oxygen system's gone, one is dead and five injured. But this beast defied the devil and finished it's mapping mission to boot.
- Interestingly, the B-17 was actually a smaller version of Boeing's original idea for a long-range strategic bomber, the XB-15. The XB-15 was even bigger than the Fortress, with a heavier payload capacity and a 5,000 mile range. Unfortunately, even with the biggest engines available, the XB-15 was too heavy and cumbersome, and it could not achieve the speeds nor altitudes required to make it an effective bomber. Unable to wait around for better engines, Boeing scaled it down into what became the production B-17. The single XB-15 prototype spent the war as a one-off heavy cargo plane and had a safe, if unassuming, career.
- Both the B-17 and B-29 had much smaller wings than the XB-15. The XB-15 had 2,780 sq.ft of wing area while the the B-17 had 1,420 sq.ft wing area and the B-29 had 1,736 sq.ft of wing area. Even the Boeing 707 prototype, which was several tons heavier than a B-29, had smaller wings than the XB-15. It wasn't until the B-52 that Boeing actually built an aircraft with larger wings than the XB-15, although the Boeing 314 "Clipper" (an enormous prewar flying boat meant for very long distance transoceanic passenger travel) did reuse the XB-15 wing.
- The B-24 Liberator deserves as much credit as its more famous cousin, if only for its still unchallenged record as the most-produced bomber of all time (and the fastest - the factory was turning them out at the rate of one an hour at peak production). The PB4Y-2 Privateer was a modification designed for maritime patrol and proved a factor in the Battle of the Atlantic for the Allies to finally get the edge over Germany's U-Boats. The Privateer proved to be a major godsend in the Pacific as well.
- Developed from the failed Manchester, the Avro Lancaster was a heavy bomber almost as tough as B-17, and equally important, carrying out night attacks to supplement the USAF daylight raids. The Lancaster was the only aircraft that could carry heavy ordinance such as the Tallboy penetration bomb, which could single-handedly wreck battleships, the Upkeep "bouncing bomb" or "dambuster", which blew open dams, and the Grand Slam, a 22,000 lb. bomb that created mini-earthquakes.
- The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber was, despite being considered obsolete before the war even began, in service with the Royal Navy right til the end. It even outlasted two new aircraft built specifically to replace it, the Albacore and the Barracuda. The aircraft had excellent all-weather performance and was so slow, enemy fighters and gunners would simply overshoot it. On the 11th November 1940, the Swordfish's performance at the Battle of Taranto, where they sank 3 Italian battleships, which Japanese studied in preparation for their attack on Pearl Harbor, in the planning stages at that point. It also played a part in the sinking of the Bismarck, a chance torpedo hit jamming the rudder, forcing the ship to sail in a large circle and letting the pursuing British ships catch up. Affectionately nicknamed "The Stringbag" by pilots, on account of it's fabric and wire construction, and ability to haul seemingly any kind of ordnance they could find for it.note
- The IL-2 has a well-earned reputation as an excellent attack aircraft that could survive a lot of damage. Being literally built out of armor plating, this plane wasn't called "flying tank" for nothing. With two 23mm cannon and a relatively heavy payload of rockets and/or bombs, it was understandably described by Stalin as needed "as much as bread, as much as air". It is known worldwide as Il-2 Sturmovik which translates as "attack plane", making it The Attack Plane.
- The Soviets' Yakovlev Yak-3 was so feared by the Germans that by 1944 they had standing orders not to engage Yakolev fighters below 10,000 feet unless they had 3-to-1 numerical superiority. The Yak-3's secret was combining the smallest and cleanest airframe that could be fit around a 1,300 hp Klimov engine with a low drag energy recovery cooling system. The design was so successful that the Yak Aircraft Corporation restarted production of the Yak-3 as a high performance civilian sport plane in 1991 using the original tooling and modified Yak-3s hold several world speed records for piston-engine aircraft in their weight class.
- Another Soviet fighter was the Yak-9 that, while not quite as thoroughbred a dogfighter as the Yak-3, was still faster and more maneuverable than its main foe, the Bf-109, at lower altitudes. It also has the distinction of being the first Soviet aircraft to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
- While the Bell P-39 Airacobra didn't get get much love by the Western allies during World War II since its mediocre high-altitude performance was poorly suited to most air combat in the Western Theatre (because USAAF brass thought the turbocharger was "too expensive" and had it eliminated), it was a well-liked by pilots in the Eastern Theatre, where it racked up the highest number of individual kills of any American fighter design. The low-speed, low-altitude turning nature of most air combat on the Russian Front suited the P-39's strengths: sturdy construction, reliable radio gear, and good firepower (including either a nose-mounted 37mm or (more commonly for Russian models) 20mm cannon). As such, Soviet pilots fell in love with the P-39 after they received a large number through lend-lease. The usual nickname for the well-loved Airacobra among Soviet pilots was Kobrushka, "little cobra", or Kobrastochka, a portmanteau of Kobra and Lastochka (swallow), "dear little cobra".
As a testament to the P-39's strengths, Chuck Yeager (who trained in the P-39 before moving on to the P-51), is on record as claiming he would have gladly taken the -39 to war. One great moment in his autobiography centers around a goodwill trip to Russia he took with Jacqueline Cochrane during the height of the Cold War: at one point, Yeager met up with a group of Soviet fighter pilots who had flown the P-39 during World War II. He spent the rest of the evening swapping fond stories of the P-39 with the Russians.
Enhanced late in the war to become the P-63 Kingcobra, it didn't see much combat but did see frequent use as a towplane to pull a windsock-like fabric gunning-target for student-fighter-pilots to practise shooting at. These versions were known as the RP-63 "Pinball" and sometimes omitted the fabric target entirely, in favor of armoring the plane itself heavily and using more brittle bullets, these target planes would be flown by a foolhardy pilot. The canon that would fire through the propeller-hub of an ordinary P-63 would be removed, and instead the plane would have a sensor that could detect when the special practise bullets hit it, making a light on the propeller-spinner flash each time a bullet hit, reminding the student-pilots of a bumper on a pinball table, hence that variant's nickname.
- The B-29 Superfortress is basically the B-17 above taken Up to Eleven with new tech. One of the last heavy bombers developed by the Allies during the war, it featured what at the time was the very latest technology, including remotely controlled guns so the gunners did not actually have to sit inside the turrets to fire, and a pressurized cabin. It had many variants, a few of which were still in service at the start of the 1960's. Not only did it infamously serve as the first nuclear bomber, it was also used on both sides during the first part of the Cold War, with the Soviets reverse engineering the design from aircraft that emergency-landed in Russia, after bombing runs over Japan. Eventually, these copies led to the mighty Tu-95, featured below in "Cold War".
- The Soviets' B-29 clone was called the Tupolev Tu-4 "Bull". Its nature as a copied design has been subject to much apocryphal exaggerations:
- One such claim is that during the 1947 Aviation Day parade in Moscow three of them conducted a flyover, and Western observers assumed they were simply the three intact B-29s that had made emergency landings in Russia. A few minutes later, a fourth one flew by. In actuality, many aviation experts already had some idea that the Soviets had already reverse engineered the B-29 and were expecting copies. What was really surprising was the clearly extensively modified transport variant that flew in after the fourth Tu-4, which showed just how sophisticated the Soviet reverse engineering effort was. note
- Another states that at Stalin's insistence, the Tu-4 was an exact copy of the B-29, and thus Tupolev's engineers had to resist their desire to make any improvements. This even extended to copying details such as patch plates slapped on over battle damage in the field, and the Boeing logo on the control columns. In reality, while Tupolev was under substantial pressure to make an exact copy, there were quite a few differences, either due to practical necessitynote or engineering preference. For example, the remote-controlled turrets were reengineered to fit heavier caliber 23mm autocannonsnote , the engine used was developed from a different American designnote , and it had a different radio (copied from Lend-Lease B-25s) and IFF systems. Despite the changes, it was only 1% heavier than its American twin.
- The B-29 was improved upon with the B-50 Superfortress, essentially a B-29D with a new name, due to Congress cancelling many WWII era aircraft purchases in favor of new designs. The B-50 and B-29 would both see tanker variants used for mid-air refueling, culminating in the KC-97L, a tanker with an enlarged fuselage and a pair of turbojet engines added to the design to help the plane keep pace with the jets it was intended to refuel. The KC-97 continued in USAF service until 1978.
- Earlier in the war when America was worried that Britain may fall, they realized that even the B-29 couldn't fly a round-trip bombing run from the continental United States to Germany and back, and so ordered the Consolidated B-32 Dominator, a plane that was indeed capable of precisely that. By the time that the first B-32 made her maiden flight, however, Germany had already surrendered, and so it only made it to the Pacific theatre a few weeks before Japan surrendered, but the B-32 does hold the distinction of being the last Allied aircraft to be engaged in aerial combat by Axis pilots in World War 2.
- The Vought V-173 "Flying Pancake", and the Vought XF5U "Flying Flapjack" developed from it. Their unique shape gave them extremely high lift and low takeoff speeds, so much so that strong headwinds meant they'd be able to lift off nearly vertically. Unfortunately they were too late for WWII, and ultimately canceled because of the transition from propeller to jet engines. Both proved to be Nigh Invulnerable — the V-173 once flipped over during an emergency landing without taking any significant damage or severely injuring the pilot, and when the XF5U was scrapped, they had to destroy it with a wrecking ball.
- Special mention should go to the Rolls Royce Merlin aero engine, which, in one version or another, powered many of the Allied aircraft in the above list.
- Those Allied planes in the above list that were not powered by a Merlin were often powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp and/or its variant engines. Both the Merlin and the Wasp—and the people who made them—deserve a lot of credit.
- While the Brewster 239 fighter has received a lot bad press in the US and elsewhere, due to the glacial pace the factory turned them out and some correctable bugs that nobody invested the time to fix, but the Finns loved it when they got hold of it. On 17 October 1939, the Finnish Embassy in Washington, DC, received a telegram clearing the purchase of fighter aircraft. Prompt availability and compatibility with 87-octane fuel (which they could get from Sweden and Germany) were the only stipulated requirements. The Buffalo was the only American fighter that met both. It was maneuverable, durable, and had a long air endurance time of 4 hours. It was popular enough that the State Aircraft Factory (today's Patria Industries) designed their own wooden copy of it, the VL Humu, the prototype of which is on display in the Central Finland Aviation Museum. Almost all top Finnish aces scored at least some victories with a Buffalo, with top pilots Hans Wind (39 kills of his 78) and Ilmari Juutilainen (36 of 94) leading the way. The plane had 32:1 kill to loss ratio against the Soviets, and some pilots went on to score victories even in the Lapland War against the Germans. The last Brewsters were phased out in 1948, having been used as liaison aircraft after the war.
- When the war in the Pacific broke out, the Australians found themselves facing the very real possibility that they might face Japanese attack while the bulk of their armed forces were in Europe and the Mediterranean fighting the Germans and Italians. With the Americans still reeling from their own early losses, and the Brits on the other side of the world and fighting in Europe, the Australians took it upon themselves to create their own fighter, the CAC Boomerang, incorporating bits and pieces from two other planes built in Australia, the Bristol Beaufort bomber and the CAC Wirraway trainer (the Beaufort used the same engines as the Grumman Wildcat, and the North American company had already built a fighter based on the NA-16, the basis for the Wirraway). As it happened, the Boomerang was too slow to effectively engage Japanese bombers, but their appearance was usually enough to ward off enemy air raids. They would eventually hit their stride being used as ground attack planes.
- On the other side, we have there is the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, known among Allied pilots as the "Butcherbird". Outclassed anything the Allies could throw at it at the time of its introduction in 1942 and the last marque, the Focke-Wulf Ta 152, could outfly even a Mustang (at high altitude). The "Fw" designation was changed to reflect the name of its designer, Kurt Tank, who was pounced on by P-51s during a test flight and managed to escape simply by opening the throttle. Like the Me 262, though, the Ta 152 was introduced too late to have any real impact on an air war that had become extremely one-sided. In and on itself however, it was one of the best piston-engined fighters ever developed.
- The Messerschmitt Bf-109 (often known as the Me-109, but the former is more correct) scored more aerial victories than any other airplane, having gotten its start during the Spanish Civil War, and continuing on until well after the end of World War IInote , even in the face of more advanced designs. The Messerschmitt's cannon armament and engine were superior to those on early Spitfire variants, and later variants of the Messerschmitt, even if lacking in engine power, had no shortage of firepower. A cramped cockpit and tricky handling were downers for what was otherwise one of the best fighters of the war.
- The Junkers Ju-87 Stukanote is one of the most recognizable dive-bombers of the WWII era. The Stuka's design included several innovative features, including automatic pull-up dive brakes under both wings to ensure that the aircraft recovered from its attack dive even if the pilot blacked out from the high acceleration. Although an easy target for fighters, it was sturdy, accurate and effective in its role. Adding a Jericho's Trumpet just made it sound awesome. (Yes, it essentially screams at the enemy when it attacks, how cool is that ?) The Stuka also proved to be an effective anti-tank aircraft, when a pair of 37mm autocannons were mounted under the wings. This model was used to particularly great effect by Hans-Ulrich Rudel, whose kills included 519 tanks, 800 other vehicles, and a battleship.
- The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbenote was the world's first operational jet fighter. In World War II stories, frequently appears as the sudden never-before-seen bad guy superplane that the daring Ace Pilot must shoot down in a one-on-one dogfight late in the story arc. In reality, it was a menace to Allied bombers, with its four 30mm cannonsnote and a load of 24 anti-aircraft R4M rockets, but it came too little and far too late to have a serious impact on the war. It was rarely able to fly missions due to the lack of fuel Germany was facing at the time, though it did use lower octane fuel than piston engine aircraft. Its development was slowed by a lack of reliable engines. An Me 262 can go 532mph at sea level. No allied escort fighter could come within 100mph of that without an altitude advantage to allow a diving attacknote . Given the iconic status of the original, flyable replicas using more modern engines are available, although the engines require special modifications to work with an airframe design whose original powerplants were heavier, larger, less reliable, less powerful, and painfully slow when reacting to throttle changes. While the original had some significant disadvantages as a combat aircraft note it was the first effective combat jet. The fact that it looks really cool doesn't hurt its appeal either.
- The Horten H.IX / Ho 229 prototype flying wing jet fighter-bomber's coolness makes it the go-to aircraft in flight simulators for when even the Schwalbe is not cool enough, mostly because its unique design and that it was "stealthy" before the concept was properly explored. While the Horten brothers didn't have a chance to fully test it, they actually were aiming for radar evasion, and against the early radars of the era they achieved it. Northrop Grumman recently did a study of the design and found that the combination of speed and stealth would have made it very effective.
- The planned next step was the much larger Horten H.XVIII six-engine stealth bomber would've been the B-2 of its time. It was the Horten brothers' proposal for the Amerika Bomber project, whose purpose was exactly what it sounds like. At least one version of the design was intended to have no defensive armament, the thinking being that was so much faster than Allied fighters that it didn't need any.
- Yet another cool German jet, the He 162 ''Volksjaeger'', or "People's Fighter", was made largely from wood due to German strategic metal shortages towards the end of the war. Essentially, it was supposed to be to the Me 262 what the F-16 is to the F-15. While it was the fastest of all WWII jets and highly agile, the late point in the war at which it was built meant that not all design bugs were ironed out and it proved rather difficult to fly (a particularly bad problem given that the He 162 was meant to be flown with minimal training) and not entirely structurally sound on account of problems with glue used in its wood construction. Nonetheless, proposals for further versions, including one with forward-swept wings, were drawn up before the war ended. Famous test pilot Eric "Winkle" Brown declared the He 162 "exhilarating" like all WWII German jets because they combined "high performance and utter unreliability."
- The Me-163 Komet was the first (and to this day only) rocket-powered airplane to see full-blown combatnote , the fastest fighter of the war, twin-cannon-armed and had an exceptional manoeuvrability. This hardly compensated for the very short powered range, speed so fast that pilots could barely aim their weapons towards the much slower bombers and the fact that it actually had to glide back to base since it burned its fuel and oxidizer in 7.5 minutes at best. This was even worse with the early prototypes, which didn't even have a throttle; top speed was the only speed until you ran out of fuel. Additionally these propellants were hypergolic, igniting explosively at the slightest touch between them, which could easily happen by accident during bumpy landings on a single skid, or even if the ground crew put the wrong nozzle in the wrong tank. If that wasn't bad enough, the chemicals were also highly corrosive and could only be handled by ground crew wearing protective clothing. Even a small droplet of either the fuel or oxidizer could (chemically) burn through flesh and bone with terrifying ease.
- Not actually a plane, but the Flettner Fl-282 Kolibri (Hummingbird) went into operational service in 1942 and the Kriegsmarine had ordered one thousand of them. It was extremely maneuverable and praised by pilots for handling well enough to even operate from a cruiser's gun-turret, and remain controllable in bad weather. It's widely considered to have been the first ever practical helicopter, and it certainly was one hell of a 'copter!
- The Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" (or, officially to the Allies, Zeke, though unlike other reporting names this one was rarely used) terrorized American fighters during the early stages of the Pacific War (including Pearl Harbor) with its exceptional maneuverability and speed. Later it was found that it was actually an underpowered Fragile Speedster, which achieved its high performance at the cost of having laughably paper-thin skin and no armor. The fuel tanks were particularly vulnerable and would cause the whole shebang to go up in flames at the slightest hit. When faced with better tactics and better trained pilots, the Zero was soon reduced to lowly Cannon Fodder. The development of later fighter designs like the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair only made it worse, especially during the infamous Battle of the Philippine Sea (which was so one-sided that it became known as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot"). It didn't help that unlike the US, which was in the habit of cycling its top aces back home to train new pilots, Japan's best pilots tended to stay at the front lines until they got killed, leaving the IJN with very few experienced pilots by the time the war ended.
- Neither did the fact that majority of the Japanese Navy fighter pilots were enlisted men, while officers beyond Lieutenant Commander usually held desk jobs. And held the enlisted men and junior officers in contempt. Saburo Sakai (Lt.JG) wrote bitterly of those officers who could command but not fly.
- The Japanese Army's Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa ("Peregrine Falcon", allied code name "Oscar") was even lighter than the Zero and consequently even more maneuverable. Though lightly armed it was the only WWII fighter capable of three sucessive Immelmans. Most Japanese army aces achieved most of their kills in this fighter.
- The JAAF Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate ("Gale", Allied code name "Frank"). This fighter combined the maneuverability of Zero with the firepower of the P-47 and speed of P-51. Unfortunately for the Japanese, it didn't come into service until 1944 and suffered from poor build-quality due to the use of conscripted and untrained workers in the airplane factories and strategic material shortages. Also the poor and variable quality gasoline available to Japan at the end of the war made it difficult for the Ki-84 to achieve in actual service the performance it displayed in postwar testing.
- The JNAF Kawanishi N1K2-J Shiden-Kai ("Violet Lightning", Allied code name "George") proved to have equivalent performance to the vaunted F6F Hellcat under ideal conditions and a clever automatic maneuvering flap system made it even more maneuverable. It also had self-sealing fuel tanks and some pilot armor, unlike most contemporary Japanese aircraft. Unfortunately, by the time it was fielded conditions were far from ideal and it proved to be no match for the significantly faster USAAF Mustangs and Thunderbolts, which used their superior altitude capabilities to engage at will. It suffered the same build quality and bad fuel issues as the Ki-84, but when it showed up in the hands of the elite 343rd Kokutai (Japan's "group of aces"} it provided a nasty shock to some US Hellcat and Corsair pilots who had grown overconfident facing green pilots in obsolescent Zeros. Rather unusually for a fighter, it was actually a conversion of a seaplane...though the seaplane in question (the N 1 K Kyofu) was specifically designed with a land-based fighter version in mind.
- The Mitsubishi A7M Reppu ("Strong Gale", Allied code name "Sam"), the intended successor to the Zero. Had it gotten the chance to fill that role, it would've been quite lethal. It was faster, more maneuverable (employing the Shiden-Kai's flap system), longer-ranged and lacked the Zero's fragility. When Saburo Sakai test-piloted it, he said that it could literally fly circles around any Allied fighter he'd encountered, even if he was in a full climb while doing so. It could also fly high enough to easily intercept B-29s (indeed, it could fly high enough to dive on them). The problem for Japan was that its development got repeatedly delayed by the design staff being diverted to other projects, earthquakes destroyed the factory, difficulty finding a sufficiently powerful engine and American bombers destroying the factory. In the end only nine of them were built and none ever saw combat.
- The J7W1 Shinden is one of the most radical designs of World War II, an experimental Japanese interceptor that never made it into service, utilizing a canard design that put the swept wing towards the end of the aircraft, just ahead of its rear-mounted engine. Its planned jet-powered upgrade, the J7W3 Shinden-Kai, adds to the unique appearance a jet engine replacing the piston powerplant. Only two Shindens were built, one of which survives in the Smithsonian's collection, while the other was destroyed. The Shinden-Kai existed only on paper.
- The German Do 335 Pfeil is a unique aircraft whose "Push/Pull" tandem-twin engine arrangement necessitated it having the first functional ejection seat. It matched speed with early jet fighters and easily out-manoeuvered them. Unfortunately, it was more complex than even a contemporary jet fighter, and like the Schwalbe was limited by Germany's declining fortunes late in the war. The history of the Do-335 is debated in World War II, because while there are no definitive reports of US pilots meeting them, it's probably because the German pilots simply opened the throttles and left P-51s and the like in the dust.
- Though never ordered into full-scale production, the Blohm Und Voss BV-141 was an unorthodox design that worked for its intended purpose as a recon plane. By not obstructing forward and downward view with the huge engine, it had incredible visibility.
- The Seiran was a specialized aircraft with one purpose in mind: Hit Allied assets after being launched from a submarine. Designed to be catapult-launched from the I-400 class of submarines, they had wings that rotated 90 degrees and folded flat to the fuselage to fit in the limited hangar space. Capable of carrying a single type-91 torpedo or up to 850kg of bombs, they never saw combat, with Japan surrendering en route to their first operation at Ulithi Atoll. Only one survives to this day, residing in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
- Although reliant on more WWII technology, the F-82 Twin Mustang was primarily developed after the war ended. Basically, it's essentially two P-51s kitbashed together, with the propellers geared to spin in opposite directions to avoid gyroscopic issues. On the occasions where a Twin Mustang pilot found himself being tailed by a jet fighter, he could basically pull a Crazy Ivan by cutting one of the engines and slamming on the rudder, pulling a tight turn that no jet of the era could hope to match. Interceptor models fitted the second cockpit with a radar operator's station, with the radome mounted in a fitting beneath the center wing, extending forward past the propellers to prevent interference. Naturally, this fitting was inevitably dubbed "The Long Dong".
- Though designed during WWII, the B-36 Peacemaker was America's first purpose-built nuclear strategic bomber, the first bomber capable of unfueled intercontinental range, the largest mass-produced piston-driven aircraft (it dwarfs a B-29) and, at 230 feet, had the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft. Until its replacement by the B-52 (first operational in 1955), it was the USAF's primary nuclear bomber and the only true intercontinental bomber. Though slow and unable to refuel mid-air, it could fly to targets 3,400 miles away and stay aloft up to forty hours, and had a phenomenal cruising altitude for a piston aircraft, putting out of range of most interceptors and ground batteries of its day. It was defended by six remote-controlled, retractable gun turrets plus fixed nose and tail turrets, could carry any nuclear bomb in the US arsenal without modification and was the only aircraft designed to carry the T-12 Cloudmaker earthquake bomb.
- The English Electric Canberra was Great Britain's first jet bomber. Although not unheard of, it wasn't normal that the US licensed production of them (as the Martin-built B-57; the original model was a close copy of the British design, but later models were redesigned to meet US operational requirements), suggesting that the Commonwealth weren't the only ones who thought it cool. Like many early jet bombers, it looked like an upscaled fighter, and really kind of was.
It was also a Badass Grandpa in its own right; consider that it made its first flight in 1949 and the Royal Air Force retained it for photo recon until 2006, while India pulled its own Canberras from combat duties a year later. NASA has three B-57s (highly modified from the original Canberra design) that it still uses to this day for high-altitude research.
- The YB-35 and YB-49 are basically the spiritual grandparents of the B-2 Spirit, although more conventional designs of the time were accepted into service over them. Flying wing designs, which lack a large vertical tail, have the tendency to yaw all over the place, needing constant correction by pilots. This was bad for long-range bombers since the constant fighting of the controls exhausted pilots, and tired pilots have a bad tendency for crashing. The design remained Awesome, but Impractical until the advent of fly-by-wire technology, where computers could do the brunt of the constant yaw corrections.
During the design process of the said B-2 Spirit in 1976, when the flying-wing shape had not yet been decided upon, Jack Northrop wrote to NASA on the topic of low drag, high lift flying wing airframes. In 1981, aged 86 and near death, he was called to see the designs and the scale model of the plane - which incidentally had the same wingspan as the YB-49.
- The B-47 Stratojet was America's prime nuclear-capable jet bomber for the Strategic Air Command during the 50s and early 60s. Its design was essentially an upscaled fighter jet, and its performance was almost like a that of fighter too.
- The MiG-15 is the cool granddaddy of the Mikoyan jets. Quicker to accelerate and turn than the Saber, and able to climb to a higher altitude, it also packed a devastating punch with its cannon armament. This caused positive nightmares for the US in Korea, to the point they offered $100,000 to anyone who would defect with one (someone eventually did in 1953, not aware of the award, but got it anyway). The large losses of these were less due to faults of the aircraft than due to the fact that the Chinese and North Korean pilots flying it were poorly trained to handle the jet. In the hands of veteran Russian pilots, it was a truly terrifying foe.
- The MiG-21 is the archetypal bad guy Cannon Fodder or Mook as featured in various plane-related media. While not quite as classy and pretty as most of the fighters mentioned here, it's still very capable - modernized variants flown by expert pilots have even held their own against F-16s in exercises, in spite of its original purpose as an interceptor where speed was everything and maneuverability was a distant concern. The aircraft requires remarkably little maintenance (one USAF evaluation showed they needed little more than an oil change, tire change, and minor tweaks after 100 hours in the air) and is very rugged, as the Soviets designed it to sit out on the tarmac with only a tarp for protection against the elements and still be ready to fly at a moment's notice. Fielded by about 50 nations, with about 20 still fielding them to this day, it was the AK-47 of fighter planes, with just under 20,000 built in all (counting the Chinese version, the Chengdu J-7), in three generations existing from 1950 to 1990. A source of horrors to American aircraft in the Vietnam War, it was responsible for the only claimed air-to-air kill of a USAF B-52 Stratofortress bomber (although, this is disputed). OK, it gets the reporting name "Fishbed," but that doesn't dent its status.
- The F-86 Sabre was the star of The Korean War, and the first jet fighter that could truly be called an air superiority fighter. It was capable of transonic speeds and thanks to an ingenious system of wing surface extension flaps very maneuverable. Its integrated targeting radar gave it an accuracy edge over its nemesis, the MiG-15 (which was equal or even superior in other areas performance wise), allowing it to dominate the skies over the Korean peninsula. Its success led to an extended production run of over 7,800 aircraft between 1949 and 1956. It was by far the most-produced Western jet fighter, with total production of all variants at 9,860 units.
- The F-100 Super Sabre, or the "Hun" as its pilots called it, was a hell of an unforgiving plane (it wasn't uncommon for there to be a 25% fatality rate for training with these at first), but it was the first American plane to be able to break the sound barrier in level flight. And then along came Captain John Boyd, who mastered the F-100 so thoroughly, pushed its limits, learned how to compensate for its difficulty, and develop maneuvers, that he ran a bet — last 40 seconds against him and he'd pay you $40. No one beat him. Once you got past the steep learning curve, the F-100 was one hell of a plane.
- The C-130 Hercules has been kicking around since the mid-fifties, and is, perhaps like the DC-3, one of the ultimate examples of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". Sure it's been upgraded several times (the current model is the C-130J) but the project to design a replacement was shut down, and the C-130 is still in production. Unfortunately, somewhere in the region of 70 were lost during the Vietnam war, and more than 15% of the 2,350~ production hulls have also been lost, discounting airframes that were retired or withdrawn from service. It could even land on an Aircraft Carrier seen here. The Forrestal is smaller than modern Nimitz class carriers.
The C-130 also spawned the infamous AC-130 line of gunships, all current variants of which sport a 105mm "light" howitzer as a main gun, and a 40mm Bofors Autocannon as a secondary, along with either a two 20mm or one 25mm gatling gun to achieve More Dakka. It is also carries the BLU-82 "Daisy-cutter" and the famous MOAB; conventional bombs so large their explosions look like low-yield nukes.
- Even the world's least cool plane, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, has one cool thing about it: Fully 50% of all of the registered civil aircraft in the world are high-wing Cessnas. That's right, every other (civilian) airplane on this page is at most a small percentage of the other half. As a matter of fact, with more than 43,000 (yes, thousand) C172s having been produced since 1955, more Skyhawks have been produced than any other aircraft in the world. It's likely that almost all civil (and many military) pilots' first time actually using a yoke was in a 172.
- The Cessna 172 has also had its own Moment of Awesome, besides simply being the world's most numerous aircraft: On December 4, 1958 two pilots, Robert Timm and John Cook, took off from Las Vegas McCarran Airport in a brand new Cessna 172 registered N9172B and nicknamed Hacienda after their sponsor, the Las Vegas Hacienda Hotel, to set a record for the world's longest flight as a fundraiser for cancer research. The flight lasted until February 4, 1959, a total of 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes and 5 seconds. Timm and Cook were able to achieve this feat by refuelling from a truck which would race along behind the 172 as they flew low and slow to winch up additional fuel: the two pilots would fly in shifts while the other slept in a sleeping bag that replaced the right front seat. They eventually had to call their flight off because the engine had exceeded its time between overhauls and was barely able to produce enough power to climb away after refuelling. Their record for flight endurance stands to this day. Hacienda is now preserved as a museum exhibit and is suspended from the ceiling above one of the baggage claims at McCarran Airport.
- The Avro Vulcan is a bomber that looks like a fighter, and thanks to its huge wing area maneuvers much like one at high altitude, to boot. There are not many bombers you can roll at an air show. In 1982, months from retirement, it pulled off one of the longest distance bombing raids in history (Ascension Island to the Falklands), with the help of its only slightly less cool cousin, the Handley Page Victor (originally a bomber, but converted to a tanker). One has been restored to flying condition. To give an idea of the coolness of the plane, its display at the 2008 Farnborough Air Show was on the Wednesday, a trade day. The trade tents emptied when this aircraft was doing its thing. In addition to its kinked delta flying wing shape, there's the NOISE of it. The intakes for the Bristol Olympus engines resonate at high power in certain air conditions, causing the famous Vulcan howl.
- For sheer Up to Eleven value in terms of size, there's the Antonov An-225, the world's heaviest plane. It can carry a payload of 250,000 kg, has 6 engines producing 51,600 lbs thrust each, and has a maximum takeoff weight of 640,000 kg. Despite this, it can take off and land at airports inaccessible to other aircraft remotely close in size, and its maximum takeoff distance is only a bit longer than that of a fully-loaded 747. The downside however, is that it's so huge that take-offs can cause severe air turbulence on the ground, rendering an airstrip unusable until the disturbances die down.
Perhaps another thing that makes it really cool is that not only is it unique (a second airframe was built, but has never flown, and efforts to finish it have been abandoned; Antonov says they'd need an investment of at least $300 million to complete it), many speculate that no bigger plane will ever be built, as there is simply no need for it. On the other side of speculation however, the plane is frequently contracted to carry heavy and oversized loads like power generation units and entire locomotives. It's all a matter of requirement. This plane was originally designed for two purposes: carrying the Buran shuttlenote and, in perspective, as a launch platform for Spyral spacecraft.
- While the Soviets designed a one-of-a-kind aircraft specifically to shuttle their shuttle around, the Americans decided to take the uncharacteristically thrifty approach of acquiring a couple of Boeing 747 airliners on the pre-owned market and refit them to create the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. For the first decade of service, the original SCA still bore the red-white-and-blue cheatline of American Airlines, the aircraft's previous owner (the actual branding had been removed, of course.) The design was not without it's compromises, however: With the Shuttle Orbiter mounted, the aircraft was severely limited in performance, both in terms of altitude and range, requiring multiple refueling stops. Without the orbiter, the aircraft had to carry ballast to correct it's center of gravity (being designed with the very heavy orbiter sitting atop it in mind). As a bit of amusing trivia, the large peg on the top of the SCA, which would dock with the Shuttle Orbiter for transport, includes a placard from a smart-ass Boeing engineer reminding the NASA technicians to install the orbiter "black side down."
- The F-14 Tomcat was the world's first and only homoerotic fighter jet. Between its advanced radar, swing wings, and ability to use the totally awesome AIM-54 Phoenix missile to engage targets up to 150 miles away, this plane practically drips "cool". Unfortunately, it didn't do so enough to prevent it from being retired from US servicenote , unlike those in the Iranian Air Force (though experts aren't sure how viable they are, due to the difficulties in obtaining replacement/repair parts thanks to the current political environment). The F-14 was designed to be a pure fighter, and was very good at it. Late in its service life, given the lack of a Taliban air force to fight against in Afghanistan, the Navy started using Tomcats for bombing missions. Turns out it was good at that, too, despite no thought being given by the US Navy to that mission in its design. According to official US Navy battle doctrine, any pilots caught singing "Highway to the Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins while piloting the F-14 were to be shot down on sight, while "Take My Breath Away" warranted being shot at some more if you eject. Special mention to its Mid-Season Upgrade variants: The F-14B "Bombcat", with better engines and which were much better at bombing (though with some fuel problems) and the F-14D "Super Tomcat", the modern, upgraded version.
- The F-111 Aardvark is a long range all-weather tactical strike aircraft (roughly the same size as an F-14 or Su-27) that's able to deliver nuclear weapons. The original design purpose was to serve in the fighter role for both the USAF and USN, under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but it was discovered that technological limitations note and wildly divergent requirements (the Navy wanted a fighter/interceptor, the Air Force wanted a bomber) made this impractical, so the plane was re-purposed. As a bomber, it could go very fast at low level, also fulfilled the roles of reconnaissance and electronic warfare in its various versions. The F-111 pioneered many military aircraft technologies, including but not limited to the first use of variable geometry wings in an operational combat aircraft (barely beating out the USSR's Su-17 "Fitter"), afterburning turbofan engines, and more, much of the work for which later went into the F-14, above, also the F-111 was nuclear launch capable, and it is theorised in some circles that the squadrons of these based at the UK during the cold war were one of the reasons why the USSR never contemplated launching nukes (they were scared of them to the point that they tried to get the get the planes moved elsewhere during the various negotiations that took place during that time). Was only used by the Royal Australian Air Force (who affectionately called it "the pig"), but has been retired as of 2010 due to being too expensive and spare parts being hard to find. It was maneuverable, too. During the Gulf War, an unarmed electronic warfare variant (the EF-111a Raven, a.k.a. SparkVark) maneuvered an Iraqi Mirage F1 into the ground, becoming the only F-111 family member to acieve an aerial kill.
- The Avro Arrow is a Canadian-built interceptor with a long list of firsts. The Mark I, with interim J-75 engines, had performance specs easily comparable to the best of the contemporary American Century Series. The Mark II with Canadian-built PS-13 engines was head-and-shoulders above its contemporaries (theoretically, that is; the only completed Arrow 2 was scrapped before its first flight), and could stack up surprisingly well against modern aircraft prior to the F-22 and the Eurofighter. Rollout was on October 4, 1957. Unfortunately, politics and a steep price tag, combined with changing threat perception, killed it. Ironically, the blueprints were all destroyed out of fear that Soviet spies would steal them and thus be able to produce the best fighter in the world.
- The F-15 Eagle, later modified to became a strike plane, is the first of the fourth-generation fighters. This fighter has never suffered a single confirmed loss to air-to-air combat... save from another F-15, in an accident. This record is helped by the fact that the F-15 has been flown and landed successfully with an entire wing missing after a mid-air collision. Having a lifting body fuselage helps, but still seriously badass.
Among the F-15's recorded kills are an air-to-air kill on a helicopter with a laser-guided bomb. It's also the only aircraft to shoot down a satellite, using the ASM-135. Doing so required the aircraft to accelerate to super-sonic speeds while in a vertical climb. It was the only aircraft in the US inventory at the time capable of this. It wasn't nicknamed 'the little rocket with wings' for nothing. It was the only fighter the US had at the time with more thrust than maximum takeoff weight. The Harrier could only do this by reducing payload if it needed to take of vertically.
- Continuing the legacy of the Eagle and Strike Eagle is the "Silent Eagle", as well as the F-15 ACTIVE. In different ways, both take the basic structure of the original and improve upon it.
- If you want truly cool planes, look no further than the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Hiko Kyodotai aggressor squadron - rather than being painted to resemble common enemy aircraft like USAF aggressors, the F-15DJ's of this squad are painted purely to look as cool as possible. It's worth noting that the vast majority of paint schemes for F-15 variants in Japanese flight simulators like Ace Combat are adapted from Hiko Kyodotai liveries.
- The B-1 Lancer is a supersonic strategic bomber, being the only swing-wing aircraft still in the American inventory after the F-111 and F-14 were retired. While not a true stealth aircraft, its design has a radar signature only 1/100th that of the B-52 Stratofortress, facilitating its ability to survive in hostile airspace.
There are plans for a version that could serve as a missile interceptor as well as a bomber, the B-1R (for Regional), though these have yet to advance beyond the study stage. One of the modifications, besides to weapon hardpoints, is to refit the B-1's engines with those used in the Raptor, increasing its top speed from the current Mach 1.2 to Mach 2.2note , with a 10% reduction in overall range (though still pretty long-legged, even without in-flight refueling).
- The F-16 Fighting Falcon is the first production combat plane to use true fly-by-wire to take advantage of relaxed stability. Regarded as one of the best Energy-Maneuverability fighters of its generation, The "Viper" (so nicknamed for the fighters from Battlestar Galactica) has been the backbone of the U.S. Air Force since the early 80s. In the first Gulf War, it flew more sorties than any other Coalition aircraft (13,340 to be exact). A few years later, it was the plane that scored the first combat kills of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. It's also been exported to 25 other countries. While it's a little on the old side now, it's been upgraded along with the F-15 and F/A-18 to be able to utilize a helmet-mounted sight and the new AIM-9X model of the Sidewinder, which is capable of truly spectacular Roboteching. It'll be in service until the 2020s.
It is also notable for pioneering many things now considered standard in 4th and 4.5th generation fighters. It utilizes relaxed stability, giving it excellent manoeuvrability in exchange for requiring constant corrections from a computer. It was also built beyond specifications - the Air Force asked for a jet that could sustain 7.33 g turns, but General Dynamics instead built it to sustain 9 g's. The latter, which is roughly the limit sustainable by humans, is now standard in modern fighters. Even today, the original F-16A without the additional weight of more advanced avionics is still among the best of its generation in terms of sustained turn performance. It's also the current plane that the United States Air Force Thunderbirds use. It's also quite pretty
- The F-16 is such a great design that it's also spawned a couple of other jets based on it. First is the Mitsubishi F2, also known as the "Viper Zero", which is basically a bigger F-16. It's notable in that it was the first ever jet fighter to have an Adaptive Electronic Scanned Array (AESA) radar, beating out the F-22 by a few years. On the opposite end of the scale is the Korean T-50 "Golden Eagle". Designed as a lead in fighter trainer based on the F-16, the design is so good and versatile that combat versions such as the TA-50 and FA-50 have been developed. The jet is basically following in the footsteps of the venerable T-38 Talon/F-5 Tiger, the success of which is one of the factors that inspired the F-16 in the first place.
- Although it's basically a rocket, the Space Shuttle looks enough like a plane that goes into space, and was until its retirement the only reusable space vehicle, in spite of its flaws. The Space Shuttle Discovery in particular was the workhorse of the fleet, flying more time (365 days, 12 hours) and more miles (nearly 150 million) than any other spacecraft in history except for space stations. And if that's not cool enough, she was America's phoenix, rising from the ashes of disaster twice, as she was the Return to Flight orbiter after both the Challenger (STS-51-L) and Columbia (STS-107) disasters. Part of the reason the shuttles were retired is that there aren't enough remaining after the loss of Columbia to perform enough missions to maintain a program, and it's literally impossible to build any more. The specialized construction equipment needed to build them has long since been scrapped, and literally nobody could produce many of the critical components of the avionics. For instance, the main control computers were built using integrated circuits that were already obsolete technology types in the mid-80's. In the 90's a processor chip failed in one of them, and there were no replacement chips available anywhere on the planet. They eventually cannibalized a duplicate Voyager spacecraft (used for test purposes on the ground) to get a replacement part. The computers were state-of-the-art masterpieces when they were designed, but that was in about 1978.
- The F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II started out as the plane no one wanted. Developed by Northrop as a pure dogfighter during an era where everyone thought that dogfighting was obsolete, the only reason it entered service (and recieved an F series military designation) was so that the US could supply its allies with an inexpensive, easy to maintain fighter. However, the F-5 soon proved itself in combat in Vietnam where the USAF had tested variant called the "Skoshi Tiger", which later led to the name Tiger II in later models. The jets maneuverability meant that it was an excellent dogfighter, on par with the best of the day, including the Soviet build MiGs that were giving larger fighters trouble over North Vietnam.
The F-5 was also later adopted as an aggressor aircraft for dissimilar air combat training in fighter schools in the US, including the famouns US Navy fighter Weapons School - more commonly known as Top Gun. The Tiger I Is agility allowed it to fly like the MiG that the easten bloc countries flew - planes that were often lighter and more maneuverable than those flown by the USAF and US Navy. The plane would later revisit this role on screen, standing in for MiGs in many films in the 80s and early 90s such as Top Gun and Hot Shots!.
Special mention must go to the F-20 Tigershark, a later development of the F-5 that replaced the formers small twin engines with a more powerful single engine. Then Brigadier Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the speed of sound called the F-20 as "the finest fighter". The Tigershark was, much like the F-5 before it, meant to be sold to allies of the United States. However, it lost out to the F-16 due to the fact that the latter was already being produced in greater numbers, despite being more expensive. There have been accusations that General Dynamics sold F-16s at a loss in some cases (in collusion with the Air Force, which didn't appreciate that a capable fighter was developed completely without their input) to prevent the Tigershark from finding buyers, particularly a sale to the US Navy for "adversary" purposesnote which the F-20 was almost universally agreed to be more suited to.
Perhaps the most lasting bit of the F-5's legacy is the fact that it served as the basis for the Northrop YF-17 Cobra, which was basically a bigger F-5 with a different wing configuration due to the larger leading edge root extensions. Developed as their entry into the USAF's Lightweight Fighter Program, the YF-17 eventually lost to the F-16. However the design was vindicated when it was further developed into the F/A-18 Hornet family which continues to serve with the US Navy and US Marines today.
- The F/A-18 Hornet can strap almost every weapon known in North America on it, and its family still refuses to go down for the count after over 30 years. The family got off to a slow start, with the YF-17 "Cobra" losing out to the F-16 for the US Air Force's Lightweight Fighter contract, but when beefed up for carrier use it was exactly what the Navy and Marines were looking for. One of the, if not THE finest multirole fighter ever built. It is also one of the best operational high angle-of-attack performers from the US prior to the F-22. It`s used in multiple air forces, to great effect, and it's the current aircraft used by the US Navy's Blue Angels demonstration team.
- In the US Navy, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replaced the F-14 in the fleet defense role, while the F-35, once deployed to the fleet, will step in for the attack role also currently covered by the F/A-18. Despite its designation and visual similarity to the earlier F/A-18s, the Super Hornet is a largely new aircraft that is significantly larger (similar in size to an F-15 in fact) that has little parts commonality and is improved in nearly every way other than flight speed and maneuverability (in which it's "merely" on the same level as the previous models). It was designated as if it were merely an incrementally improved version so that the Navy could tell Congress that's all it was in order to make it a less attractive target for budget cuts.
- It's a great testament to the design that even more advanced "stealth" versions of the F/A-18 have been proposed multiple times. The latest proposals include more radar cross section reductions coupled with stealth weapon pods that would allow it to carry more weapons stealthily than an internal weapons bay, while switching to a normal external loadout in operations where stealth isn't needed.
- Swedish SAAB has made a number of very cool planes over the years:
- The SAAB 21 was later modified into the jet powered 21R, making it the only production airframe to be successfully used for both piston and jet engines. (The Northrop XB-35 flying-wing bomber had its piston engines replaced with jets, thereby becoming the YB-49 but neither proceeded beyond prototype stage. The Yakovlev Yak-3 airframe was used for the Yak-15 jet, which actually made it into productionnote and handled well in the air, but retaining the Yak-3's landing gear configuration meant that the jet engine was angled down toward the ground during take-off and landing. This is why every other jet has a tricycle landing gear and it's why the Yak-15's service life was extremely brief. Nobody likes having their engine dig a trench in the airfield. The SAAB 21R didn't have this problem because its airframe had a tricycle landing gear all along.)
- SAAB J 29 Tunnan, "The Flying Barrel", one of the world's first jet fighters with a swept wing, after a member of the engineering team was allowed to look at some German documents stored in Switzerland, and was very agile despite its appearance.
- The SAAB J 35 Drakennote is one hell of a sexy-looking fighter, almost to the point of Perverse Sexual Lust for some. For years, it was the plane of choice for the Swedish Air Force's aerobatic display team, the Acro Deltas. It was also actually the first plane to perform the famous Cobra maneuver, years ahead of the Su-27. Suffice to say that there is a reason why the Useful Notes page about the Swedish military is called Swedes with Cool Planes. Although the historic point at which that name becomes warranted is a matter of some debate.
- The SAAB 37 Viggennote is the first plane to use integrated circuits in its flight computer, the plane that used a "fighter link" system, enabling one plane to share its targets with three other planes and ground control ten years before any other country could do something similar. Also the only plane to ever achieve a lock on the SR-71 Blackbird, by feeding target location from ground-based radars to the fire-control computer in the Viggen. When this happened, the Blackbird pilot and RSO had a special congratulatory certificate made and sent to the Viggen pilot who got the missile lock on their plane.
The Viggen was also (like the later Gripen) capable of taking off or landing on roads. During the Cold War, the wartime airbases in Sweden were mostly stretches of highway with some improvements. The master plan was to scatter the military aircraft all over the country when warclouds were seen approaching, so it would be hard for the enemy to do a Pearl Harbor-style decapitation strike. It could also be rearmed and refueled in ten minutes by seven people, six of them conscripts. The Viggen is so cool, the Riksdag decided to pursue accelerated development of the Viggen instead of completing the Swedish nuclear weapons program. It wasn't a hard decision, and the world is probably much better off for that.
The Viggen used a commercial grade powerplant, the same powerplant as the Boeing 727, with an afterburner and thrust reversers tacked on (and made in Sweden by Volvo Flygmotor under license from Pratt & Whitney). Those aren't as powerful as military engines, but are much more reliable and don't require as much maintenance.
- The SAAB JAS 39 Gripen: "Gripen" means griffin in Swedish, and JAS stands for "Jakt, Attack, Spaning", which translates to "Fighter, Attack, Reconnaissance". Imagine a plane taking off from a straight stretch of highway. The Gripen can do that. Really handy for getting through rush hour traffic. The Gripen also is the smallest fighter currently in production and relatively cheap for a fighter as well. For example, the Gripen uses the same powerplant as the F/A-18 Hornet with half as many engines, and the upcoming NG variant will use the same engine as the Super Hornet. This makes it one of the most fuel-efficient modern fighters, significantly reducing operating costs. The engines are licensed copies built by Volvo Flygmotor. It's just as capable as the Viggen, but more modern.
- The English Electric Lightning is described by a guy working on the tabletop game Birds of Prey as looking like something out of a Gerry Anderson show. It was capable of Mach 2.2 and very high altitude, and able to just barely exceed Mach 1 without using afterburners, making it the first aircraft capable of supercruise. It could challenge aircraft that were a whole generation ahead (like the F-15) in a climb race, and could catch other craft that operate in extremes almost untouchable by most fighters. It gave the USAF and CIA fits because it was capable to climb above the U-2 in a maneuver called a zoom climb, which consisted in basically trading speed for altitude and which allowed it to climb to 70000 ft, well above it's stated ceiling of 54000 ft. In a ballistic trajectory it could reach as high as 84000 ft. Up to its retirement, it was the most sought after posting in the RAF. Despite being long obsolete (as it was incompatible with modern medium- to long-range missiles), it was just that cool.
- The F-104 Starfighter is the fighter jet equivalent to having all brawn and no brains. It flew fast, it looked fast, and it crashed fast; they didn't call it the original "lawn dart" for nothing. In Germany, it was joked that the best way to acquire an F-104 was to buy a random parcel of land and wait. Sooner or later one would fall from the sky. In spite of its accident rates and being used in roles for which it wasn't designed, though, if nothing else it counts as cool because it's about the closest thing you can get to strapping on an engine and going supersonic. One of its other, very apt, nicknames was "The Missile with a Man in It."
- The Italian-built F-104S was even cooler due the reason it was designed and built: it was more reliable and thus crashed less often, with later refits making it progressively more reliable. Also, as a side bonus, it was faster, had better avionics, and could carry a larger payloads with more modern weapons and nuclear weapons (Italy never built nuclear weapons, but has 40 B61 nuclear bombs on sharing from the US, and there are rumours of French nukes too).
- The F-104 was also infamous for exactly how it ended up being so widely used. Several militaries preferred other designs like the Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger, but ended up with the F-104 because Lockheed bribed top political leaders.
- The Concorde was a supersonic passenger plane made through a joint effort of British Aerospace Company and Aérospatiale. A relatively rare example of a Cool Plane that was not designed to break stuff, and not run by a military at all. Hard to believe that, ten years ago, you could cross the Atlantic in under 4 hours. Also very handy for observing eclipses.
Concorde was also quite fast. Not in all-out raw top speed, but in the length of time for which it could maintain its top speed (Mach 2+). Almost all fighters need to use afterburners to go supersonic and can only do a small sprint of afterburner fire before running low on fuel and being forced to back off. Concorde, on the other hand, could supercruise (fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburners) at a speed that most fighters could barely manage, for hours on end, a feat matched only by the SR-71 Blackbird and XB-70 Valkyrie. Only now have fighters began to enter this kind of performance territory, with the F-22 having supercruising capabilities (although the English Electric Lightning was just capable of it).
Thanks to the supercruise, a service of 27 years, and the financial consideration that a plane on the ground costs money, despite that only 20 of them ever being built, of which 16 are production models, it clocks more supersonic flight hours than all other planes in history, combined.
The Concorde also had a near flawless safety record, only marred by the Air France Flight 4590 crash, which resulted not from any flaw in the aircraft itself but from the ill-fortune of running over a strip of metal shed onto the runway by an earlier flight. The crash nonetheless played a minor role in the retirement three years later of the Concorde fleet, which was in any case having a hard time paying for itself with the downturn in air travel after the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
- The F-4 Phantom II — the "Double Ugly," to give but one nickname — was operated by 10 countries other than the U.S., including the UK and West Germany. Fast, heavily armed, and shot down Soviet-built planes like no one's business. Featured in both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy's display teams, and to this day, the only aircraft to be used by both teams simultaneously. It set the standard for all fighter jets to come after it.
There had been quoted that even the 1958-1960 prototypes had enough thrust-to-weight ratio to achieve Mach 2.6, if the airframe could be made to withstand heat and enough fuel could be carried. Neither was done. During Operation Skyburner, on December 22, 1961, a special version achieved Mach 2.6 strictly to set a record. Given that the F-4 certainly doesn't look aerodynamic enough to be that fast, the joke is that it just beats the air into submission.
According to both pilot and eyewitness accounts, the "Flying Brick" could cruise around Mach 1 at very low level (that is, about 100 ft) without afterburner or using it just intermittently, achieve Mach 2 on full afterburner also while "skimming treetops", and perform attack and evasive manoeuvers in similar conditions, despite the primitive 1960s avionics. Although the pilot might have needed a strong pair of balls made from steel...
The F-4 Phantom II saw a long list of variants, but a particularly interesting proposal that was never constructed was the F-4X, which was originally conceived as a reconnaissance plane to give to Israel. Allegedly, the advances in cooling system technology would've allowed the F-4X to have a top speed exceeding Mach 3. The project was immediately scrapped when this was made clear; it would not be difficult to adapt the new F-4 to an interception role. To make matters worse, such a high performance plane threatened the SR-71's legendary and unmatched speed and the funding for the newer F-15 Eagle. The F-4X was a rare example of a Cool Plane that was too cool to be made.
- The F-8 Crusader, nicknamed "The Last Gunfighter" for being the final US design to use 20mm cannon as its main weapons. Its derivative the XF8-U3 Crusader IIInote , which was theoretically capable of Mach 2.9 and practically capable of Mach 2.6. The XF8U-3 was able to fly rings around the much heavier Phantom, but the US Navy decided not to purchase it because its maneuverability was judged less useful in the age of radar-guided missiles, and because operating the primitive Sparrow missiles of the time (which required the firing aircraft's radar to be pointed at the target for the full length of its flight) was much easier in the two-seat F-4 Phantom. Then the Vietnam War rolled around, and it turned out that that the NVAF MiG-17's and MiG-21's ability to outturn American fighters gave them a huge edge in air-to-air combat, and the Sparrow missile turned out to be many years away from being ready for prime time. Cue collective Face Palm by Crusader fans. The five XF8U-3 prototypes were then provided to NASA, which used them for atmospheric testing due to their ability to reach extremely high altitudes. The NASA pilots also engaged in unauthorized mock dogfights with Navy F-4 Phantoms, which the Crusaders invariably won. Until the Navy brass, no doubt embarrassed by their own top fighter getting trounced by the one they rejected, complained to NASA and forced an end to this practice. Still, the name "The Last Gunfighter" became an appreciated misnomer. The whole exercise convinced the military that guns still had a place in dogfights: not as the primary weapon, but for those up close and personal times when missiles weren't preferred. The F-4's were retrofitted with gun pods which improved over time, and all fighter aircraft since keep room for a cannon on board.
- Ironically, the Crusader's much-vaunted guns were actually almost totally useless in dogfights, having a tendency to freeze up when the plane was maneuvering at high speed. Consequently, only four of the 19 air-to-air victories scored by the Crusader were accomplished with the guns, the remainder being scored with the Sidewinder missile.
- The A-7 Corsair II was loosely based on the Crusader, having the same basic layout but without supersonic capability which was seen as unnecessary for an attack aircraft, and removing the complex wing tilt mechanism. While slower, it had larger payload and much better fuel efficiency. The Corsair was quickly nicknamed "SLUF" (Short Little Ugly Fucker) by its pilots, and was beloved for being easy to fly. Once it was upgraded with the Rolls-Royce Spey engine, it proved very effective in both Navy and Air Force bombing missions in Vietnam. Afterward, it became a mainstay of the Air National Guard, and there was even a proposal to convert them for supersonic capability, essentially recreating the F-8 Crusader yet retaining the Corsair's ground attack capability, but the arrival of the F-16 put an end to this. The final mission of the A-7 was to train the first F-117 stealth fighter pilots, since most had previously piloted two-seat fighters and the A-7 taught them how to fly combat missions without a backseat weapons operator.
- The Ekranoplan is a boat/plane hybrid designed to take advantage of Wing in Ground Effect. One features in the James Bond novel Devil May Care and some really were that size, and in fact look a lot like something straight out of a James Bond movie.
- The Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" strategic bomber was built in 1953 and is still in service with the Russian Air Force today. It's the fastest propeller-driven plane in the world, as well as the loudest. Its crews (and even those of US and UK fighter-jets sent to intercept them) routinely suffered hearing loss, and its engines were so loud they could apparently be heard by submarines using their own sonar...which is really funny and ironic, seeing as the Tu-142 variant is also used as an anti-submarine aircraft. Video here. After subsonic strategic bombers were made useless by improvements in missile technology, many Tu-95s were converted to long-range antiship missile platforms.
- Part of why the Bear and its airliner version below were so obscenely loud is that the tips of their propeller-blades broke the sound-barrier, thus generating a spiralling pattern of continuous sonic-booms from the tip of each of the plane's 32 propeller-blades. Experienced Bear pilots knew to keep just enough rpm for long-range, moderate speed cruise, for the noise to stay at tolerable level.
- The Tu-114, the civilian passenger variant of the Tu-95 was still noisy as hell (and would handily fail any of the modern noise level restrictions), but it was the safest Soviet airliner ever built, and had one of the best safety records among airliners in general (only one accident had fatalities, and it wasn't a crash but a malfunction leading to a ground fire) and also held many airliner speed records in its day. To this day, the Tu-114 retains the all-time speed record for propeller aircraft, thanks to being fitted with the most powerful turboprop engine ever made, the monstrous fifteen THOUSAND shaft-horsepower Kuznetsov NK-12MV, times four. It was also notorious for having abnormally long landing gear for its size, due in large part to the enormous diameter of its eight propellers (two per engine spinning opposite directions, four blades per prop, so each engine spun twin 4-bladed propellers. When Nikita Khruschchev made his famous visit to the United States, he arrived aboard a Tu-114 and there were no air-stairs tall enough to reach its main passenger door, forcing Khruschchev and everyone aboard the plane to exit through the emergency ladder built into the nosewheel of the landing-gear. Is there a trope for "Crowning Moment Of Awkward"?
- The B-52 Stratofortress entered service in 1955, and is projected to stay in service until 2040. It has even outlived three projects to replace it (XB-70 Valkyrie-cancelled after two prototypes were built due to developments in SAM and ICBM technology; B-2 Spirit-order scaled back to 22 units, then cancelled once delivered due to runaway costs; B-1 Lancer-cancelled by Carter administration, revived by Reagan administration and produced in far too few numbers to actually replace the B-52) and has had numerous families serve three generations on it, several of which were on the same aircraft. "This ain't your grandpa's Air Force, but it just might be your grandpa's plane!"
- Affectionately called The BUFF, for "Big Ugly Fat Fucker", or sometimes ending in "Fellow" when discussed in polite company. Like its Soviet counterpart the Tu-95, it was converted to a conventional bomber and a missile carrier, putting its massive bomb-carrying capacity to devastating use in the Vietnam War. It also holds the record for longest combat mission ever, doing a 35 hour journey from Louisiana to Saudi Arabia and back to launch cruise missiles at Iraq during the Gulf War.
- The V-22 Osprey, despite numerous real-life failures of cool, has managed to have so many games, movies, and toys feature it or designs based on it that it can't avoid becoming a cool plane (or, more accurately, cool tilt-rotor). Add the fact that the V-22 now qualifies as One of the Safest Planes in the Marine Corps Inventory its probably safe to assume that it legitimately qualifies as a cool plane. The Osprey has replaced some of the Marines' transport helicopters, being able to take off vertically but then tilt its rotors forward to become a propeller-driver plane with much greater speed and range than the helicopters it replaced. The high-profile crashes early in its development cycle came as a result of mechanical failure when the V-22 transitioned between "helicopter" and "plane" modes, but only a simultaneous total failure of both engines can cause this (a single engine can operate both rotors) it's an extremely rare event.
- The Su-27 "Flanker" and its many derivatives, single-handedly responsible for more raging, frothing-at-the-mouth fanboyism and nationalistic internet flame wars than Xbox Live, if you can actually comprehend that. In fairness, it is a VERY capable plane: first flown in 1977, it is still the one of the most capable high angle-of-attack performers existence 4 decades later, trounced in that regard only by thrust vectoring equiped planes like the F-22, X-31, and Sukhoi's own modernized Su-35S. The main downsides are somewhat inferior avionics and a large radar cross-section, allowing enemies to see it before it can see them. On the other hand, most "Flankers" have a secondary rear-facing radar in their tail boom, making it very hard for any non-stealth aircraft to sneak up on them no matter the angle of attack. Newer variants are taking care of these problems though - and there are a lot of them, as the successful plane has been extensively customised for many different customers, and many other designs are derived from it. So many derivatives, in fact, that it is often said that there are more individual designations than actual models. But these variants take the cake:
- The Su-34 "Fullback" two-seat tactical bomber. It has a toilet and food heater in the back. There is literally nothing more that needs to be said than that. Now you can microwave some Chinese, while dropping nukes and microwaving the Chinese.
- Mecha Expansion Pack brought to life with the Su-30MKI, Su-33, and Su-35/Su-35S.
- The sturdy Su-37 was even more awesome than the flashy Su-47. It is the plane they nicknamed "Terminator", for crap's sake! And then they had to redub it "Flanker-F" because everyone on the air defense command got shaky knees whenever it was mentioned.
- The MiG-29 "Fulcrum" is the successor to the MiG-21. This air-superiority fighter has brilliant agility and was one of the first to use a helmet-mounted sight to aim missiles, which form an absolutely lethal combination in close-range combat (between 5 to 10 kilometers). Combat training with former East German MiG-29s in the 1990s turned out to be so lopsided that the US began to develop helmet-mounted sights in a hurry. Unlike its "big brother", the Su-27, the MiG-29 hasn't had much in the way of upgrades and new variants, so it's no longer as deadly as it used to be. Though it has excellent thrust-to-weight ratio, it's notorious for being lacking in fuel and range. Soviet MiG-29 pilots, when they learned about the NATO reporting name, quickly adopted it for their own use; they considered "Fulcrum" to accurately describe the MiG-29's pivotal role in the Soviet Air Force.
The Indian Navy has ordered and received a handful of the MiG-29K, a naval variant of the MiG-29 with folding wings and numerous upgrades. Originally this designed was rejected by the Soviet/Russian Navy in favor of the Su-33, but Mikoyan kept on improving the design for potential export customers until India came calling. The Russian Navy also piggybacked on the Indian order to replenish its own supply of carrier-based fighters, since in the era of post-Soviet budget cuts it was a less expensive prospect than reopening the Su-33 production lines...particularly since the Su-33 design would've needed further improvements to come up to the standards of the most recent "Flanker" models. Whether this variant restores the MiG-29's lethality to its previous levels remains to be seen. To this day, the MiG-29 remains the only Russian-built aircraft ever to see use in the air-force of a NATO member. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Germany's reunification, twenty-four MiG-29s that had been in East Germany's air-force got integrated into the new Luftwaffe and continued flying until 2004. Twenty-two of those MiGsnote were then sold to Poland (as Germany didn't want to continue dealing with the expense of operating a non-standard fighter that can't use NATO weapons, no matter how cool it might be), another NATO member since 1999, where they continue service.
- The Soviet MiG-25 is a Mach 2.8 (2100 mph) capable jet that was designed to shoot down the XB-70 Valkyrie nuclear bomber, built way the hell back in 1964 that made the entire U.S. Air Force collectively soil themselves, until a defecting Soviet pilot landed one in Japan in 1976. They discovered that many sacrifices were made to reach its design speed such as poor range, and it had all the agility of a brick. To save costs of insulating the electronics the Soviets build the plane to be run on vacuum tubes... In the process making its radar extremely powerful and making the plane resistant against EMP. You can take that aircraft to Mach 3.2, but you'll need to replace the engines afterwards (they were recycled from a long-range cruise missile project and not designed to last). The Soviets learned this from first-hand experience. It still was (and is today) a real record-setter, as it is the fastest production armed aircraft in the world.
In spite of the Valkyrie project being canceled at the prototype stage the MiG-25 was kept in the Soviet inventory. It became a pretty good photo recon aircraft in later versions, as well as the only real way to give SR-71 flights grief. See also Foxbats over Sinai and those reports of reconnaissance missions over Israel's nuclear facility Dimona and into Pakistan airspace.
Amusingly, the MiG-25 had a nickname among Russian pilots: the Flying Liquor Store, because it used pure grain-alcohol both as a coolant for the avionics and as a de-icing fluid for the wings.
- Ten years later after the introduction of the MiG-25, the Soviets brought out the MiG-31 "Foxhound" as the '-25's replacement, addressing many of its shortcomings. Just as fast (if not a little faster) in practical terms, able to go supersonic at low altitudes (unlike the '-25), higher fuel capacity and efficiency, more advanced multi-tracking radar (and the first operational fighter with PESA radar), vastly superior missile armament, and (as of 2010) remains in active service in the Russian Air Force. It still eats considerably more fuel than other comparable fighters and is as manoeuvrable as an elephant in close-range dogfights, though.
- The Soviet Tu-22M "Backfire" is a Mach 2.2-capable bomber with a payload of up to three nuclear anti-shipping missiles and in-flight refueling capability. The design raised some eyebrows in the Pentagon, especially when they overestimated its range (which, at over 1600 km combat radius, is still impressive). When this first appeared, they actually thought this was a strategic bomber, which says something. This resulted in an agreement with the USSR to limit production to 30 a year and take out the refueling probes. Still in service and undergoing upgrades. Also, "I'm Bringing Sexy Backfire" jokes actually work; it's a very good-looking bomber. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as Tu-26, based on early erroneous intelligence reports and the fact that it's not actually a variant of the Tu-22 "Blinder" no matter what the Russians claimed.
- The A-10 Thunderbolt II, aka the Warthog, is ugly as hell and just barely capable of exceeding the speed of smell if you put it into a steep dive, but it can fly in a damaged state that would make other planes just fall and go boom, several times over. The aircraft could be smashed to hell and the pilot could be missing all four of his appendages (maybe even his head) and still complete the mission, making it back to base in time for happy hour at the O' Club. Of course, probably the biggest reason why this plane fits under this trope is the depleted-uranium GAU-8 30mm Avenger rotary cannon which the plane is literally built around which can literally slice a tank in half and which by itself is bigger than anything short of an SUV. You've heard of the Implacable Man? This is the Implacable Plane. The exact amount of parts it can lose and still fly (according to The Other Wiki) include one engine, one tail, most of its fuel supply, and a wing. Basically, half the plane can drop off and you're still good. Hell, forget guns; the Hog has been known to take missile hits and keep going undeterred.
In fact, it's so durable that it survived two attempts at retirement by idiotic USAF generals who thought that the plane was too ugly, too low-tech, and generally too useless to serve in their Air Force. Both Gulf Wars proved just how wrong they were, and the Hog is getting an well-deserved avionics upgrade (the A-10 pilots fly using avionics not much better than what their grandfathers used when flying the P-47 Thunderbolt) and new wings which will keep it flying well into the 2040s, just like that other Badass Grandpa the B-52. Now that's durable. Note that every time the Air Force has pushed the idea of retiring the Warthog, Army generals have said "we'll be happy to take them." Which provides more incentive for the Air Force to back down from the idea, since the idea of the Army expanding its fixed-wing aviation capability is seen as an encroachment on Air Force territory. The Warthog may even be able to survive past 2040, there has been talk about convert the surviving A-10s (which will probably be most of them) into UAVs for ground attack missions. No aircraft in history Served for this long, and will still be used after that. This thing can endure missiles, guns, retirement attempts, and time.
The A-10 performed outstandingly in Gulf War I (for instance, near the end of the air-only phase, the first two sent out destroyed more Iraqi tanks than all the B-52 alpha strikes in the previous month) despite not being all that well suited for the conditions. The (relatively) clear air were good for it, but the engines had no defense (other than their spectacular robustness) to things like the sand that inevitably drifted onto the runways. Of course, to an engine that works just fine after eating half the plane's wing, what's a little sand?
The skill and cleverness of the Warthog pilots has done much to overcome the limitations of the avionics. For instance, they had no IR sensors in Gulf War I, which should have made them useless at night or in smoke or cloud. The pilots realized that they got a repeater image from the heat-seeker on the Maverick missile on a tiny screen in the cockpit, and used that as an IR imaging system. Turns out you don't actually have to fire the missile for its IR sensor to relay images back to the plane. It had a miniscule field of view, but it was enough to get the job done. Perhaps the most notable example of both the Warthog's insane ruggedness and pilot skill is Captain Kim Campbell, USAF, who flew home a heavily flak-damaged A-10 with nothing but the full-manual controls, pulling off the world's first successful A-10 fully-manual landing in the process.
- In the early 1980s, a US air force study found that the Air Force didn't have enough Warthogs to provide the Army with adequate close-air support (the plane's very job-description) and advised the development of another plane to fill the needed role alongside the A-10 (the Warthog had long since elapsed out of mass-production and its manufacturer gone out of business, so the equipment needed to resume production of more A-10s was gone). Famous aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, known for kicking off the home-built airplane revolution, offered to try his hand at a military design. The result was the ARES, or Agile Response Effective Support, a low-cost plane at $1.6 million a piece (for comparison, the F-16, one of the cheapest fighter-jets of the same time-period, had a unit-cost of between $14.6 million and $18.8 million per plane) albeit an odd-looking one. In this case "odd looking" meant that the single engine's air-intake was on the left (port) side of the fuselage, and no symmetrical duplicate of it on the right (starboard). The 25mm cannon was recessed in the starboard half of the nose beneath the cockpit, so that when the gun fired, its exhaust gases would push the nose left, cancelling out the gun's recoil force trying to pull the nose to the right. This "lopsided" layout actually also did another important thing by ensuring that none of the gun-gases could be ingested by the engine's air-intake. The plane's entire control-system (not counting the engine's controls) was 100% mechanical. The asymmetric engine position required a series of ducts to keep thrust centered, with the beneficial side-effect of helping to mix the turbofan engine's core-exhaust with cooler bypass air to make it less visible to heat-seeking missiles. Further masking of the engine's infrared signature was provide by the boom-mounted twin vertical tails betwixt which the exhaust pipe was located. Its feather-light weight and forward-swept canards further contributed to its impressive agility. The bubble-canopy gave the pilot an especially clear view in all directions, and in addition to its 25mm cannon, it could carry weapons on under-wing hardpoints. The Other Wiki has an article here.
- The A-10's Soviet counterpart, the Sukhoi Su-25 "Frogfoot", may not be very famous in the West, but it was a very formidable design in its own right. Unlike the A-10, it was a much more "conventional" design, with slightly swept-back wings and engines buried in the wing roots. Its cannon, the 30mm GSh-30-2, may neither fire as fast nor hit as hard nor carry as much ammo as the mighty GAU-8/A Avenger, but it is one of the most powerful aircraft guns in the world given its small size and exceptionally light weight. The Sukhoi is smaller and doesn't carry nearly as much in the way of weapons, but in its defense, the A-10 doesn't usually carry a full loadout. And a lightly loaded Su-25 can just about go supersonic, which the A-10 can't do. However, even if it is a less survivable design than the A-10, the Su-25's toughness is phenomenal. The addition of titanium blast panels near the engine exhausts made it highly resistant to hits from Stinger missiles, and one Su-25 took three missile hits but returned to base safely. During the 1980s in Afghanistan, this plane was a major menace to the Mujahideen, and was able to hover over the target area for far longer than faster fighter-bombers. Grateful Russian infantry called this plane the Graych (Rook) due to its outspread wings and tendency to hover protectively over them. Interestingly, the Su-25 has a distinct resemblance to the Northrop YA-9, the design that was beaten out by the A-10 for US Air Force service (although copying is highly unlikely owing to the significantly smaller size of the Sukhoi).
- The AV-8B Harrier II/Harrier GR5 was developed jointly (sorta, see The Other Wiki for details) by the US and UK. No matter what walk of life you come from, you've undoubtedly heard of the "Jump Jet." It can land vertically, take off inside 400 feet with a full weapons load, and take on almost anything that flies, sails, drives, or crawls. And in the USA, it's flown by Marines. Ooh-rah!
Another of the Harrier's capabilities is vectored thrust, allowing "Vectoring In Forward Flight" or "VIFFing" - essentially redirecting thrust from the engines on the fly to allow some truly spectacular dogfighting moves. This is on a plane deployed in 1969 - and there has yet to be another plane with this capability (Vectored Thrust is distinct from thrust-vectoring, which only changes the angle of the rear jet-nozzle through which all the exhaust emerges, while Vectored Thrust diverts the engine's thrust through four louvered grilles, the front two are fed bypass air from the turbofan's...fan, and the rear two are fed hot exhaust after it's spun the turbine). The upcoming F-35B Lightning employs a different kind of thrust vectoring to achieve the same results, though it can only take off vertically when lightly loaded, and due to the more complicated design of the F-35B's vertical-thrust, it's not capable of VIFFing.
One of the AV-8B's older cousins, the Sea Harrier, was the source of nightmares to Argentine pilots during the Falklands War. It wasn't called La Muerte Negra ("The Black Death") for nothing. Ironically, the Sea Harrier was originally designed as fighter bomber, but did horribly at the job. Out of not having enough fighters (or in fact, any other carrier-based fighters on account of having retired all conventional carriers) the British equipped some of the Harriers with anti-air missiles and send them out to fight the Argentine fighters. The Harrier's VIFFing, initially treated as an air-show gimmick, turned out to be absolutely lethal in combat against the Argentine Dagger and Finger fighters, and the small size helped as well. By the end of the day, they quickly came out on top and left both sides with their jaws down.
The Harrier family also has the dubious honor of being one of the hardest planes to fly and having killed an impressive amount of trainees.
- The Panavia Tornado, a highly flexible jet used primarily by the RAF, with interceptor/strike, ground attack and air defence variants. Entering service in 1979, serving with distinction in both Gulf Wars, it still forms the backbone of the RAF, and as of the time of writing, is being used to attack IS positions in Iraq and chase Russian jets out of British airspace.
- The Dassault Mirage family (III, IV, 5, 50, F1, 2000, and the prototype 4000). The family patriarch, the Mirage III, was one of the first Mach 2-capable fighters, and the family has variants for ground attack, nuclear strikes, and reconnaissance. The Mirage III and 5 were most notably used by the Israelis in 1967 and 1973 to great effect against Arab MiGs, with the Israelis later making some modifications to the type (the IAI Kfir) when an arms embargo cut off supply of new Mirages. The most current iteration of the family, the Mirage 2000, is the current front-line fighter of the French Air Force, though it is now being replaced by the Rafale (see below). When you don't want to use American planes, or both Ivan and Uncle Sam won't share their toys, Mirages make good substitutes.
It is noteworthy that when M. Dassault offered his plane to the French Air Force and they failed at seeing its awesomeness, he basically told them "You don't want to fund the plane? Fine, I'll pay for it with my own money!". The rest is history. The French finally bought lots of Mirages as well.
- The Lockheed U-2 is a glider-like high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Operating at altitudes of around 70000, it was deemed to be safe from interception, and even though the eventual loss of several aircraft (during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and more well-known Gary Powers over Soviet territory) led to the development of the Blackbird (see below), the U-2 outlasted that bird and remains in service today with the USAF and NASA.
- The SR-71 Blackbird is a plane so advanced it set the still-unbroken world record for flight speed of a manned jet aircraft on its retirement flight. Even at an age of nearly 50 years, its looks can only be described as "hardcore futuristic". Unlike its nearest rival (and sometimes adversary) the MiG-25, it could maintain its high speeds for hours on end. To give an idea of how fast this thing was, standard evasive action upon detection of surface-to-air missiles (which were fired at it in Vietnam) was to simply accelerate.
During flight, the airframe would experience so much heat from air friction that the plane could lengthen itself by more than a foot. This was taken into account in the design. On the ground, the plane would leak fluids through gaps caused by overlapping skin panels but, once at altitude and speed, the surface area would stretch itself out and seal the plane tight. Back on the ground, crews would have to physically pound the plane back to pre-takeoff length. On the same note, the maximum speed of the aircraft is based on the airframe, NOT the engines. At speeds at which the rest of the airframe would fall apart due to heat and drag, the engines would STILL be trying to accelerate the plane even faster. The plane could manage Mach 3.35 in sustained flight, anything above and the airframe would begin to heat to the point of cracking itself. The memoirs of veteran SR-71 pilot Major Brian Shul told having hit Mach 3.6 at 80,000ft for short time twice: during training in 1983 over Arizona and later in April 1986, over Libya. (Obviously, at Mach 3.6, "short time" has different meaning, one minute is enough to fly 100kms.)
An interesting note: because of the hybrid engine it used (period standard jet engine for what counts as low-speed for the -71, and ramjet for insane speed by any standard), the faster it moved, the LESS fuel it used.
The actual top speed is still classified. Whenever the Russians would demonstrate a plane that could go faster than the last public record set by an SR-71, the Americans would just take an SR-71 up for another public flight, and open the throttle a little more.
Until 1981, possibly a bit later than that, U-2 & SR-71 crews weren't allowed to discuss altitudes with air-traffic-control above 60,000 feet (for reference, air-traffic controllers refer to an altitude as "FL" for flight-level followed by altitude in feet, rounded to the nearest hundred feet, and then divided by 100, so fifty-thousand feet would be FL500). Soon after this restriction was lifted, the following exchange is alleged to have occurred.SR-71 radio call-sign Aspen 21: Control, this is Aspen two one requesting clearance for flight-level seven zero zeroAir Traffic Control: (laughing audibly on the mic and then speaking incredulously) Good one! If you can climb up that high, it's all yours!Aspen 21: (nonchalantly and without missing a beat) Roger that, dee-scending to that altitude.All who heard the exchange: !!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Another funny SR-71 story: The Ultimate Ground Speed Check.
- The Lockheed YF-12 is the fighter version of the SR-71's prototype the A-12. It can do everything the Blackbird can and launch long-range (60 miles!) Eagle air-to-air missiles, a predecessor to the Phoenix. Mach 3 was cruising speed for this bird. Top speed mach 3.35 continuous. It could deploy its missile a top speed thanks to internal weapons bays, but had to let the missile drop 60ft (18m) from the plane before the rocket motor ignited so it would not hit the the plane - it was so fast it could keep up with its own missile. Advancing missile technology, a reduced interest in shooting down nuclear bombers, and a cost per unit that makes the F-22 look like a bargain bin item ultimately doomed this Charles Bronson of cool planes. In case of alien invasion, it would be a nice thing if we could still make them, but we can't. The specialized tooling had been dismantled in the late 1960s for secrecy purposes. There weren't any more spare parts for the SR-71s in service already in the 1980s. To design a Mach 3.35 fighter a modern engineer has to start from scratch.
- The XB-70 Valkyrie was a Mach 3 capable bomber that could almost match the SR-71 for speed, exceeded its range, and generated most of its lift by riding its own sonic-boom shockwave. Unlike the SR-71, which was armed with nothing but cameras, the XB-70 wielded nuclear bombs. Unfortunately, thanks to ridiculously high costs, advanced surface-to-air missile technology developed by the Soviets, and a disastrous crash during a parade flight (caused by a hapless F-104 pilot who got too close and got sucked into the Valkyrie by the vortex of traumatized air surrounding it), it was canceled. Its role was later taken up by the super-stealthy but much, much slower B-2 Spirit.
- The Russian Tu-160◊ "Blackjack" is the fastest and shapeliest heavy bomber ever to enter active service. Its silhouette and white anti-flash colour lead to this plane receiving Russian nickname "White Swan". Also, Tu-160 is currently the world's largest combat aircraft, largest supersonic aircraft, largest variable-sweep aircraft built and has the heaviest takeoff weight of any military aircraft besides transports. Each of the 35 Tu-160s is individually named after a Russian who made a significant contribution to the nation's bomber force in the past, either as a pilot or a designer.
- The B-58 Hustler featured a delta wing much like that of the F-102 and F-106 interceptors, and it's no mystery why; this bomber was designed for high-altitude hit-and-run nuclear strikes. It was capable of flying at 'Mach 2', which is no small feat for a bomber — and it set several flight records, including on a nonstop flight from Tokyo to London. Sadly an example of Too Cool to Live, as Russian advances in SAM technology forced it to fly at altitudes too low for it to go supersonic. Additionally, she had a relatively limited range, with any hypothetical strike against Russia being a One-Way Trip. It was retired after only ten years of use.
- The F-117A Nighthawk, the "Stealth Fighter" is actually a pure bomber but classified as a fighter for Rule of Sexy reasons by the USAF to get it budgeted, but that still doesn't prevent the dozens of B-movies and video games made about it from erroneously pimping it out into a sort of Mach 30 hyperfighter with lasers or something. It proved to be immensely effective during the Gulf War, Kosovo, and the War in Iraq with only one combat loss, ever, a case of Rock Beats Laser on the part of the Serbs. The F-117A was retired from active service in early 2009, to be replaced by an F-35/F-22 combination.
This cool plane is a case of Cold War era SchizoTech, several systems came from other planes (one from the C-130!) and each one was hand built. One of the Have Blue prototypes had a problem with its exhaust, so an extension had to be made. An engineer noticed that one of the filing cabinets was about the right size and made of a tough enough steel... One F-117 prototype lost half its tailplane in flight. The FBW software was so robust (required by the design's inherent instability on all three axes) that it coped with the loss so well that the pilot didn't notice until he was told.
- The B-2 Spirit is the Spiritual Successor to Jack Northrop's flying wing designs of the 40s and 50s (even having almost exactly the same length and wingspan). In 1981, the dying Jack Northrop was given security clearance to see the then-classified B-2 and reportedly responded by writing down (he was too ill to speak) "Now I know why God has kept me alive for 25 years." It can strike anywhere in the world with nuclear bombs within 72 hours thanks to its 6000 nautical mile range (thanks to being a flying wing, it had a bonus feature of having among the best fuel economies of all manned military aircraft flying today) - and its victim won't know about it until it strikes. It has a similar radar signature to the F-117 (read: like a small bird) despite having a 172 ft wingspan, due to more advanced stealth features. It's a cool $2 billion apiece, and only requires two pilots. Only 21 B-2s were ever built, and given names as if they were warships (each one is "Spirit of (some state)," save for two, the "Spirit of America" and "Spirit of Kitty Hawk"). As a final mark of coolness, it was given the name "Aurora" when under testing, inspiring fictional Cool Planes.
The F-117 and B-2 are both Real Life examples of Sinister Geometry. Back when the F-117 was still a black project, two F-16 pilots on patrol saw an F-117 silhouetted against the moon but couldn't detect it on their radars. They thought that they had seen Flying Saucers, but were later told the full story back at base and told to keep shut about it (it was super top-secret, after all).
- For "cool" in the unusual and unique sense, special mention goes to the PZL M-15 Belphegor, a Polish jet biplane (and the only production jet biplane in the world, as well as the only jet cropduster and the slowest production jet) design for Soviet agricultural use. The noisiness of its jet engine, coupled with its weird design, caused it to be named after the demon Belphegor.
- The Mil Mi-24 'Hind' was nicknamed the "Devil's Chariot" by the Mujaheddin when it first saw action in Afghanistan. The Hind was the first true helicopter gunship and pioneered the idea of the attack helicopter. Early versions had a 4-barrel 12.7mm gatling gun (later versions had this changed to a 30mm twin barrel cannon attached directly to the fuselage since it was too big for a turret, and late models had a 23mm twin-barrel cannon in a turret), 4 rocket pods carrying 32 rockets each and 4 anti-tank missiles, as well as the capability to carry 8 troops inside its armoured hull. Although it was fast and deadly, it was said to suffer from poor agility owing to its weight, the rotor blades would strike the tailboom and break if the pilot pulled back on the joystick too quickly, and the engine exhausts below the main rotor led to a lot of rotor disintegrations when heat-seeking Stinger missile struck. The Hind nevertheless remains in use even today, upgraded and deadlier than ever, and its distinctive silhouette can strike fear into the hearts of the unwary.
The unofficial name given by the pilots for the gunship is "Crocodile" owing to its paintjob. When fully loaded, it couldn't lift off vertically and had to use a runway- mostly due to the fact that the large wings blocked the rotor downdraft and made hovering a real pain, albeit with the ability to generate extra lift from the wings at high speed. Newer Hind variants have smaller stub wings to help them hover, at the cost of reduced lift at speed.
- Hughes (now Boeing) AH-64 'Apache' is the quintessential yardstick by which all attack choppers are measured by. The Apache has carved out a reputation as a fearsome tank killer, most notable features being its 30mm chain gun turret which is slaved to the monocle gunsight of the gunner's helmet (meaning wherever the gunner points his head the gun will swivel to follow) and its sophisticated and recognizable IR/night vision targeting system mounted on the choppers nose, along with up to 16 Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The AH-64D Apache Longbow mounts a radar dome on top of its rotor to operate an improved version of the Hellfire, though the radar is removable to reduce weight and increase range when not hunting tanks. It is also very damage tolerant, with many Apaches taking enemy hits and still making it back to base (one report had an Apache pilot in action saying on the radio "I think I'm hit; I feel some vibration"; upon landing his Apache was found to have a hole on the engine compartment "big enough to put your fist through"), essentially making it the helicopter equivalent of the good ol' Warthog.
Mention must also go to the AugustaWestland Apache AH1, or WAH-64, the British variant of the Apache, which takes everything good about the American model and adds better engines, more powerful rockets, arctic warfare hardiness, folding rotors, the ability to operate in maritime conditions off ships, an automated self-defense system that defends against all forms of missile attack, and enough room to store survival gear, rifles, and plenty of ammo if the chopper is shot down. Unlike the US Army, the Brits have all of their Apaches equipped with the Longbow radar. Crazy-Prepared indeed.
- The Sikorsky S-67 Blackhawk, not to be confused with the transport helicopter by the same name, the S-67 was an attempt by Sikorsky to make a high speed attack helicopter, and although that was achieved it was deemed unsatisfactory for the US army's needs, highly manoeuvrable, the S-67 established on 14 December 1970 a new world-class speed record over a 3km course of 348.971km/h. Its development was abandoned after it crashed in 1974.
- A heavily modified S-67 airframe was used to create the S-72, a hybrid helicopter/airplane prototype. With the main rotor removed, it could fly like a conventional plane with a pair of the same jet engines as the A-10 Warthog. Then they added a four-bladed rigid rotor (conventional helicopter rotors need to be flexible to control lift, but this design instead expelled compressed air from the engines through the rotor blades) that could be locked into place to function like wings during forward flight, allowing it to seamlessly transition from helicopter to airplane mode in mid-flight. Or at least, that was the idea. Sadly it was cancelled before this rotor system could actually be given a test flight. Due to the shape formed by the rotors when fixed into place, it was named the X-Wing.
- The RAH-66 Comanche, the world's first attempt at a stealth helicopter, it was designed with recconassince in mind, intended to be the Army's next generation armed reconnaissance helicopter. It also was the first helicopter developed specifically for this role. Was eventually canceled after 22 years of development on 23 February 2004, due to costs and UAV's proving to be more efficient and cost effective for that role.
- The oft-forgotten Granddaddy of the Apache was, weirdly, made by Lockheed, a company not known for making helicopters. The AH-56 Cheyenne was a couple of decades ahead of her time, developed during the Vietnam War, it incorporated beyond-state-of-the-art technology such as a "rigid" (more properly called hingeless) rotor that gave it maneuverability that would be impossible to safely accomplish in a helicopter with the more conventional "articulated" rotor-head while simultaneously allowing for much greater airspeed capability. To further exploit that capability, the Cheyenne even featured a pusher-propeller that gave her a max speed of 212 knots (that's 448 km/h or 244 miles per hour, only one mph slower than a Koenigsegg supercar). In the event of an engine failure at fast-cruise speed, the pusher-prop could simultaneously slow the Cheyenne's airspeed while acting like a ram-air turbine (a sort of 'windmill') to provide interim power to the lifting rotor and tail-rotor to help keep itself airborne long enough to find an adequate place to make an emergency landing. The gunner (who sits in front of the pilot, opposite the seating layout of most fighter-jets) sat in a seat capable of freely rotating 360 degrees. The Cheyenne's gun was mounted on a chin-turret directly beneath the gunner's seat, so the gun itself could be synchronized to rotate with the gunner's seat. Boasting a 30 mm cannon and a 40 mm grenade launcher to boot, the stub-wings allowed the helicopter to carry up to three-dozen TOW (Tube-launched Optically sighted Wire guided) anti-tank missiles. Alas, Lockheed's single-engine design made many top brass wary, leading them to instead favor the AH-1 Cobra, resulting in the Cheyenne's cancellation. The Cheyenne was also notable for having one of the most instantly recognizable designs in history (it resembled no other helicopter ever built/flown before or since)
- Another reason the Cheyenne was cancelled was entirely practical. It was originally designed to deliver its missiles in a diving attack much like the Russian IL-2 Sturmovik of World War Two. The problem was that the Russian Army was expecting somebody else to try that sort of thing due to the success the Russian Air Force had had with it. As such, they developed mobile anti-aircraft vehicles such as the ZSU-23-4 ( tracked vehicle with radar and four 23mm autocannon, known to a generation of U.S. troops as the "Zeus-23")designed specifically to blow attackers pulling that sort of trick out of the sky. The Cheyenne's attack profile would have put it right in the middle of the "Zeus-23's" engagement envelope, aka "kill basket". BTW, the Zeus is one major reason modern anti-tank helicopters like the Apache attack by hovering behind high ground, "popping up" to launch, and then scooting away at treetop level (sometimes between the trees, actually) to avoid counterfire afterward. And why several helicopters, including the "Longbow" variant of the Apache, have mast-mounted sensors on top of their rotors allowing them to target enemy vehicles while still hidden by the trees, and then firing missiles through the tree cover.
- The most iconic and famous helicopter in the world, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Colloqually known as the 'Huey') is the most numerous helicopter ever built (over 15000) and the 2nd most numerous aircraft built since 1945. doing everything from VIP transport to flying ambulance to attack helicopter. and has continued in service well past the five decades since the first Huey lifted off the ground. note the Huey also effectively changed the way most armies fought battles, Instead of fighting an enemy along established front lines, troops would now be taken into and removed from combat by helicopter and dropped at key strategic positions such as enemy escape routes. note . Synonomous with the Huey is the signature 'thump' sound of its rotors spinning and also has its own cool song, Flight of the Valkyries. da-dada-daadaaa da-dada-daadaaa!! da-dada-DAAAAAAADAAAAA! da-dada-DAAAAA!
- The above-mentioned AH-1 Cobra was an adaptation of the Huey, mating its engine, rotor and tail boom to a narrow-bodied 2-seat attack helicopter fuselage. While originally something of a stopgap, and long since replaced by the US Army, the Marines have kept using and improving them in the form of the twin-engine "SuperCobra" subfamily, to the point that the latest version, the AH-1Z Viper (introduced alongside the ultimate Huey variant, the UH-1Y Venom) is roughly equal to the Apache in capability. This also leaves the H-1 family as the first (and to date, only) in the history of the Tri-Service aircraft designation system to use up the entire alphabetnote for its version suffixes.
- The DeHavilland Sea Vixen - Just look at it! It's like something out of a science fiction movie. It was also the first British built two-man fighter capable of supersonic flight (in a dive). It was originally planned for it to be equipped with four ADEN cannons, but the guided missile was here to stay and service versions had no guns at all, substituting four guided missiles and two flip-out rocket packs. It is also unique in having a cockpit offset from the centreline of the aircraft to allow a separate space besides it for the observer/navigator/ECM officer.
- For decades the Boeing 747 was the jumbo jet and the pride and joy of Boeing. And even with the production of larger passenger planes, this is still in production and in service because, while it is hefty, it is still much more practical to use and maintain for most airline services than the other jumbos meant to eclipse it. The iconic nose has never changed since 1968, and yet it doesn't seem dated.
- Before the 747 came the Boeing 707, the first American jetliner. The prototype, the 367-80note , is one of only two airliners ever to Do a Barrel Roll (the other was Concorde), during what was supposed to be a straightforward flyby demonstration. The test pilot, Alvin "Tex" Johnston, knew the plane could do it, and he felt his job was to sell planes—a serious concern for Boeing in the 50s, as it had spend the last few decades pursuing military contracts (with such hits as, well, most of the American World War II bombers, plus the aforementioned B-52), so everyone thought they had no idea how to do civilian airliners (people thought that market went to Douglas—which after all had built the DC-3, had the strong DC-6 and DC-7 in production, and the new jet DC-8 in the works—and Lockheed, whose Constellation family was more or less the go-to). Four decades later, Boeing test pilot John Cashman would claim that his last instruction before departing on the maiden flight of the Boeing 777 was "No Rolls."
- The A-1 Skyraider, built for World War 2 but late to the party, saw extensive use through the Korean and Vietnam wars. It's a big, beefy single-prop aircraft that could be mistaken for a fighter based on its overall shape, but could carry a bombload equal to the venerable B-17. It saw service in three branches of the US military and further use abroad, in a variety of mission roles. They were quite durable and could carry a variety of bombs, rockets, and cannons, making them excellent at delivering close air support, while their using propellers in a jet age meant they could linger over battlefields for much longer than jets could, and fly slow enough to deliver accurate strikes against ground targets. They also provided crucial support for the rescue of downed pilots, laying down hell on any enemy ground forces that got in the way. There are reports of these planes being able to take off with the outer halves of their wings accidentally still folded for storage, and at least two MiG-17 jet fighters met their ends at the hands of US Navy Skyraiders. In many ways, the "Able Dog's" sturdy airframe, ordnance capacity, and general ability to firepower to the ground makes it the spiritual predecessor to and inspiration of the A-10.
- The infamous toilet bomb; the Skyraider might not have dropped the kitchen sink on North Vietnam, but it dropped everything else.
- The competing AM Mauler could carry even more bombs or other ordnance (including the ability to carry three 21-inch anti-ship torpedoes; even twin-engine medium bombers like the B-25 could only carry one), but the "Able "Marble" had a very brief service life on account of its unfortunate tendency to bounce when landing on carrier decks. Given the need to catch the arrestor wires, this was a problem. And since torpedo-bombing went out of style with the introduction of missiles, the Mauler's signature advantage over the Skyraider didn't really matter anymore.
- The P6M SeaMaster was probably the finest flying boat ever built. One of the few jet-powered seaplanes, its four turbojets allowed it to briefly reach speeds of Mach 0.9. Unfortunately, it arrived during a time of budget cuts, and flying boats were no longer something the Navy was interested in, especially once they had other ways of delivering nuclear weapons (as was the SeaMaster's original purpose). Sadly all examples were scrappped.
- The F2Y Sea Dart earns a mention for being the first, and only, seaplane ever to reach supersonic speeds. Developed because of worries that supersonic aircraft were unsuited for carrier-based operations (early supersonic jets had significantly higher landing speeds than previous aircraft, making it that much more of a strain on them to be brought to a sudden stop by arrestor wires, and long-decked supercarriers had yet to be built), the Sea Dart became merely a curiosity when it became clear those concerns were unfounded.
- Led Zeppelin made passenger jets even cooler by creating ones exclusive to rock bands with the Boeing 720 The Starship and the 707 [[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar's_Chariot Caesar's Chariot]]. Iron Maiden would take this one step further with their Ed Force One decades later: not only it's a huge customized plane (first a 757◊, then a full-on 747◊) but the pilot is the lead singer!
Gulf War and Beyond
- The YAL-1 Airborne Laser. A different kind of Cool Plane. This is not your small, fast, sleek and generally badass fighter, like most of the planes mentioned here. No way. This is actually a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, but not just any ordinary jumbo. This one is completely redesigned around a giant laser cannon. In fact, the plane's only job is to carry the laser into the air and keep it there. Its primary target is tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) like the "Scud", but it's good enough to kill ICBMs as well. Possible uses in shooting down fighters and satellites are being investigated, in part to its 400 km range letting it reach far into enemy territory from outside their air defenses.
- The highly controversial F-22 Raptor. The F-22 employs just about every piece of badass 5th-generation super-tech available, with thrust-vectoring, stealth, supercruise, and an AESA radar which is capable of disabling its target's electronics. The F-22 usually attacks at long range using its AMRAAM missiles, and its hapless victims end up dead before they know what happened, or it can close in and out-maneuver most other existing fighters to bring its short-range Sidewinder missiles and Vulcan rotary cannon to bear. It can also use its APG-77 AESA radar to blind its enemy's sensors and disable their missiles, helping it protect other not-so-awesome friendly aircraft. In theory at least - it's never been tested in real war. Its main drawbacks are its low armament capacity when under stealth profile and its insanely hefty price tag, which lead to it being dropped after only 187 were built (the USAF originally wanted 750). Also several teething troubles, including stuck canopies, faulty oxygen systems, etc. As it is now their mainstay air superiority fighter, mostlynote replacing the F-15C, the Raptor has been widely publicized by the USAF and has made several movie appearances, such as in Transformers and Iron Man.
Special mention to the Raptor's ultimately cancelled competitor, the YF-23 (the two prototypes actually built named "Grey Ghost" and "Black Widow II"), mainly by its radical appearance - rhomboid wings and a wide v-tail "ruddervators," making it look like something straight out of science fiction, even after a quarter of a century. This aircraft is currently the benchmark of stealth and speed. It lost to the YF-22 due to less maneuverability at low speeds and higher perceived costs.
- The Indians with Iglas have Moe with Wings in the form of the HAL Tejas. The Tejas is designed to fit as much Badass as possible in the smallest package available, making it a Pintsized Powerhouse. They're VERY lightweight for that matter, at 5.5 tons unloaded, which makes them fricking agile and gives them a surprisingly high power-to-weight ratio; they're a bit slow by modern standards, however, with a top speed of only Mach 1.8 (albeit on a single engine). The plane was formally introduced to the Indian military in January 2015, after 32 years in development. Hey, better late than never, right?
- The Russian Su-47 Berkut◊ (Russian for Golden Eagle), the Chuck Norris of aircraft. Sadly, it was only a technology demonstrator; most sources agree that it did not enter service simply because there was no Air Force on the planet that was cool enough to handle the sheer amount of awesome that the Su-47 radiated for more than ten minutes.
The Su-47's novel wing design offers some distinct advantages and tradeoffs. Compared to most traditional, back-swept wings, forward-swept wings offer greater instability, and thus, with the proper fly-by-wire systems, greater maneuverability. They also allow for a much lower stall speed than traditional wings, and by extension a shorter distance to take off or land from. However, the bending characteristics of forward-swept wings limited the aircraft's speed. Even with modern composite materials, the Su-47 only attained Mach 1.6; engineering modifications only raised that to Mach 1.8 by 2013. Operational 5th generation designs of both US (F-22 and F-35) and Russian (Sukhoi T-50) origin use clipped diamond wings. Because these wings can generate lift at the back of the wing, which is swept forward, it shares some of the advantages offered by forward-swept wings while being more durable.
- Despite the speculations, the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA, the currently-in-testing 5th-generation Russian stealth fighter and expected rival to the F-22, looks more like its other more mundane ancestor, the Su-37 (and its ancestors, the entire Su-27 family), than it looks like the Su-47 Berkut, ditching the Too Cool to Live forward-swept wing for a stealthier but less awesome (looking) design. Still, on a whole, it is more badass than any other Sukhoi plane ever, because it's supposed to be broadly comparable to the Raptor, while being cheaper to makenote . Remember: no matter how cool a single plane is, it can't be sent on two missions simultaneously. The T-50 uses 2-dimensional thrust vectoring canted at an angle, similar to the systems used by the Su-30/35, and unlike the F-22, the nozzles can be vectored independently. It remains to be seen how it stacks up against the Raptor, as production aircraft may be more refined in terms of stealthy details than current pre-production test aircraft that have many non-stealthy features. The shaping of the T-50's back half does make it considerably more susceptible to thermal sensors (it's notoriously difficult to make the back half of a jet stealthy without compromising speed), but this will also likely give it an advantage in high alpha and post-stall maneuvering.
The T-50 does incorporate a greater variety of sensors than the F-22, though their emissions can possibly betray the T-50's position. Though stealthier, the F-22 may be much more demanding in terms of maintenance than the T-50. This is not an insignificant difference in a warzone. It also appears to have longer range than the F-22. Understandable, given the size of the country.
- The Eurofighter Typhoon. The pride and joy of the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy. Can supercruise at Mach 1.5 and can carry a decent strike load while still retaining decent air-to-air capabilities. Indeed, air-to-air is the primary purpose with the aircraft's initial role being that of an interceptor. The Typhoon's "brakes off to altitude" sprint speed is truly something to behold as they go from standing still to vertical and accelerating in just eight seconds!note Also a rival to the F-22 by people who have never flown a plane in their life (the one person who has flown both aircraft has gone on the record as saying that to compare the aircraft is like comparing apples to oranges). It has shown it can achieve parity or better with the F-22 in WVR exercisesnote , and the encounters are a source of fierce debate amongst the aviation community. Still a developing platform, it is already one of the most advanced planes in service. With the future additions of longer ranged ramjet missiles, AESA radar, thrust vectoring engines, agility wingshape modifications, conformal fuel tanks, anti-ship weapons, SEAD capability and fully blown cruise missiles the Typhoon seems set to have the capability of happily taking on almost any mission imaginable.
Also of note, it will eventually be able to carry a mind boggling eighteen Brimstone anti-tank missiles, the most advanced tank hunter missile on the planet. In Libya, it achieved a shot to kill ratio of 98.7% out of multiple hundreds fired! She also climbs like a dream, and is one of the fastest climbing jets on the planet (F-22's is currently unknown) and has been quoted by a pilot to "climb like a homesick angel".
- The F-35 Lightning II: The newest kid on the block. Scheduled to be the successor to the F-16 as the standard fighter of many nations around the globe. Being the F-22's little brother, this thing is supersonic and stealthy, but, with the B (STOVL: Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) and C (carrier borne) variants, can also take off and land vertically and from aircraft carriers respectively. It is supposed to be cheaper than the Raptornote , and more versatile, however the F-35 seems to been struck with the same malaise that hit the F-111, the program keeps running into problems and delays, partly due to "concurrency," or testing and producing at the same time. Initial operational capability isn't expected until 2016-2020. The jet gets quite a bit of slack for being not as aerodynamic as a clean, slicked off F-16, though comparing with an F-16 that's actually loaded for combat gives much more favorable results.
The F-35's main problem is that it's intended as the Jack Of All Trades, a multi-role aircraft capable of serving multiple needs by multiple services in multiple countries, but ends up being a Master of None. The Air Force has huge runways and doesn't mind a heavier dry weight. The Navy has small runways (they're on boats, after all) and needs higher thrust. The Canadians want something different entirely. See the problems? In particular, the carrier requirements of the Navy C variant meant that the A and B variants must be beefed up unnecessarily (due to the goal of commonality) to endure the harshness of carrier operations, something counter to the lightweight fighter that the Air Force and Marine Corps desire.
It should be pointed out that some aircraft (the F-4, the F-16, the F/A-18) have historically become true multi-role aircraft, but only by accident and chancenote ; almost every plane that was designed to be a jack-of-all-trades and serve with multiple services (particularly the F-111) ended up being single-role. Furthermore, the F-35 tries to do everything while being stealthy - whereas every other stealth aircraft so far has been a dedicated specialist (the F-117 was a precision bomber, B-2 is a heavy bomber, and the F-22 and T-50 are mostly air superiority fighters). Small wonder why the program is getting so expensive.
The F-35 does have unmatched sensors, sensor fusion, and integrated avionics designed in from the beginning. Something that many armchair fighter pilots neglect (and some actual fighter pilots as well, particular ones whose service was in an era when airborne electronics were short-ranged and dubiously reliable) - albeit it also needs performance to exploit these advantages or it becomes, essentially, a mini-AWACSnote . Though these, as well as their software, are some of the main cost drivers of the program.
- The VC-25 is a military conversion of the Boeing 747 passenger jet. While it hasn't been converted for attacks of any kind, it is considered by many to be the safest and most technologically advanced passenger aircraft in existence, which is good because it's what Americans have come to recognize as Air Force One.
- The Saab Gripen NG (Next Generation) is a technology demonstrator of the upgrades to the previously mentioned Gripen, to be implemented in the future in the 2012-2020 time frame. It has Mach 1.1 supercruise, 40% more fuel, potentially thrust vector engines and AESA radar. This would make it one of the (projected) cheapest 4.5+ Gen aircraft on the market with a very high standard of capability to be right up there beside the Typhoon and Rafale.
- The Dassault Rafale. Brought in as the French alternative to the Typhoon after they dropped from the project (they need a carrier version, being the only nation other than the US to still operate catapult-equipped aircraft carriers, while the other partners in the Eurofighter consortium had no interest in the added expense and weight this would entail since none of them use or intend to use non-STOVL carriers)note it actually entered service before the Eurofighter. It also boasts supercruise and will have an Active Electronic Scanned Array radar (it currently has a Passive Electronic Scanned Array radar) in 2013, and has an electronic warfare suit called SPECTRA which features a software-based virtual stealth technologynote . It also has a carrier variant. The carrier variant will replace all other fixed wing aircraft of the French Navy except for the E-2 Hawkeye. It will also be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. It's the airplane featured in the first trailer for Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X., probably because it's one of the most good-looking planes of the latest generation. Remarkable for the sheer speed at which France has managed to set its upgrades in motion as opposed to the USA, EU or even Russia when it comes to next gen aircraft. Like the Typhoon, it has shown to be able to stand up to the F-22 in visual-range exercises.
- The Kamov Ka-50 'Black shark', one of the most advanced and fastest helicopters in existence, the Ka-50 is a single seat attack helicopter designed to replace the aging Hind, aside from its intimidating armament (including a 30mm autocannon normally mounted on the turret of a BMP-2) and impressive armour, the unit also utilizes Kamov's signature coaxial rotor setupnote . It is also capable of performing what is known as "funnel" where it circle-strafes a target at varying elevations while always facing towards the target, something most helicopters aren't capable of. The Kamov is also the only helicopter in the world to feature an ejection seat (it avoids the cutting the pilot to bits issue by blowing the rotors away with explosive charges before the pilot is ejected). A two-seater version called the Ka-52 'Alligator' also exists.
- Not to be outdone and left behind, the Chinese now have the Chengdu J-20, a stealthy fighter under development that already completed its first flight tests. Appearance wise, it might actually be a Shout-Out to the titular aircraft in the Firefox film. It also features the world's most outright pretentious name for any plane, Annihilator, despite it's incredibly lacking stealth traits due to it's excess of fins, making it more of a propaganda piece than a plane.
- The Chinese also have the Shengyang J-31, which is basically their version of the F-35. That said, compared to the plane it tries to copy the J-31 benefits from not having to be a Jack of All Trades and is instead focused on being an effective and stealthy lightweight naval fighter.
- If sheer size were the yardstick to define a Cool Plane, then one of the winners would be the Airbus A380 Superjumbo, currently the world's largest airliner, and the world's only full length double-deck jet airliner in service (the Boeing 747's upper deck only extends from the nose to the wings). Designed to have all the latest and most luxurious features, including king-sized beds, showers, and in a proposal for one airline, a bar. It's even slated to become the personal plane of Saudi Arabian Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who will eventually call his new plane the "Flying Palace". Unfortunately it has also earned a reputation for being rather lacking in the aesthetics department.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have proposals for using the A380 as an almost-literal "Air Bus", using its very low per-passenger cost to operate a long-haul low-cost service by flying the thing in an all-Economy layout; in all-Economy, the A380 can hold 853 passengers. For comparison, the next largest, an all-Economy 747-8I, can hold only 605, a difference of about 250 seats—or in other words, a whole Boeing 767. Imagine flying from the US to Europe for less than $100. Nobody's quite taken up the idea, but several companies are trying.
- The Boeing 777 deserves to be here thanks to its two massive engines (the largest ever produced for a plane, with a fan diameter of >3 meters, and able to power a 747 during test flying) as well as its range, the 200LR (Worldliner as is known) variant able to connect almost any two airports in the world.
- The Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" is a nice looking plane, with high tech composites and fuel efficiency. However it's Troubled Production, Schedule Slip and issues with it's batteries (the Li-ion batteries were catching fire) came during Boeing's Dork Age. Several high profile scandals hit the company just as the 787 was grounded, almost making this cool plane a Creator Killer. Fortunately the teething issues have mostly been sorted out and it is now on its way to being a mainstay in fleets of airlines across the globe. A lot of Dreamliner technologies (engine efficiency features, aerodynamic advances, carbon fibre construction, etc) is being adapted to many of Boeing's mainstays with the updated aircraft getting a -8 designation suffix (such as the Boeing 747-8, which marries the iconic 747 fuselage to Dreamliner-style wings and engines; there is a planned Boeing 777-8X model that will cross the 777's large fuselage with 787 technologies and compete with the Airbus A350).
- While sadly never built, much of the advanced technology that was engineered for the 787 was leftover from its Spiritual Predecessor, the Boeing Sonic Cruiser project, a new delta-wing design approximately the size of the 767 that would cruise at Mach 0.98 providing significantly faster flights without the noise pollution and other complications of a true supersonic plane, all while doing so at around the same cost to operate as existing planes like the 767. When it was first proposed in the early 2000s it garnered a lot of interest from airlines, however 9/11 and the subsequent downturn in traffic and rise in oil prices led to its cancellation with development then shifting to the more conventionally design 787 which traded off the speed benefits for fuel efficiency.
- If the the HAL Tejas is India's Pintsized Powerhouse Moe with wings, Honda's got an Office Lady with wings. The HondaJet is a small business jet. How cool is it? A "glass cockpit" made by Garmin, winglets and it comes with leather seats. Coupled with composite construction it's made to Travel Cool.
- Hailing from the remote land of Canada, we have the Bombardier Global Express line, making it one of the few small planes capable of intercontinental flight, with the prototypical 7000 and 8000's range being comparable to full-size Airliners like aforementioned Worldliner.
- While it took it over 20 years to finally get to defending the Motherland, the Mi-28 entered Russian service in 2006. Its weapons include a "chin mount" 30mm cannon similar to the AH-64, as well as eight guided missiles and two rocket pods. It's planned that by 2015, the Russians will replace their aging Mi-24 stable with these. In the meantime they serve as a more conventional and less complex backup to the Ka-50 (which originally beat it out for the contract, but the Russians ultimately decided they wanted to have both). It also looks like a dragonfly and has probably the coolest NATO Reporting Name ever: "Havoc".
- In an era of 5th-generation fighter planes and UAVs with bleeding-edge cool technology, the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano still shows there is a place in the world for propeller-powered ground attack aircraft. An extremely powerful engine gives its turboprop the juice it needs, it can carry the latest and greatest radar suites and laser-guided bombs, and its slower speed means it can loiter over combat zones much longer than its jet-powered counterparts. These planes are also much cheaper than the kinds of fighter jets and heavy bombers most people associate military aircraft with, coming in at a cost range of $9 - $14 million, which makes them an excellent choice for counterinsurgency and antiterrorism operations for poorer countries. The Colombian military has made extremely effective use of the Super Tucano: a squadron of 25 Supers did more damage to the FARC terrorist group in just 5 years (including killing one of FARC's top leaders Alfonso Cano and his 2nd-in-command, Raul Reyes) than they have ever suffered in their decades-long insurgency.
As experimental craft, these didn't go into mass production nor were ever designed to do so, but to deny their coolness and contributions to humanity's knowledge of aviation would be a crime.
- The Bell X-1: The first manned aircraft EVER to break the sound barrier in level flight, based on a bullet, and colored bright orange, to boot. Flown by the original Chuck Yeager... with a broken rib from a horse riding accident the night prior. Given the limited understanding of supersonic flight at the time (studying it was the entire point of the X-1), its fuselage shape was patterned after something that was already known to be highly stable at supersonic speed: the .50 caliber machine gun bullet, hence its nickname "the bullet with wings".
- The Douglas X-3 ''Stiletto'': One of the wickedest looking planes ever built, though due to development and aerodynamic issues, it was an underpowered dog with a stability problem. It did, however, conquer the "heat barrier" that had plagued the X-2. At supersonic airspeeds, air friction can heat the leading edge of a plane's wings and fuselage red-hot. The X-2's wings, being aircraft-grade aluminum, melted in midair. The X-3 got around this problem by having leading edges made of titanium. For a while, it held the world record for fastest airspeed.
- The X-15: a mach 6+ rocket plane that flew so high and so fast that the military pilots who flew higher than 50 miles (80k) have been awarded astronaut wings (civilian pilots hadn't been awarded astronaut wings for various reasons, though they were awarded them in 2005, 35 years after the fact.) This monster set the world speed record for a manned aircraft back in the 1960s, and it still hasn't been surpassed. The only faster things are spacecraft.
- Not an airplane per sé, but the XH-51 was the first helicopter to truly demonstrate the rotor system that is today the standard against which all other helicopter rotor designs are judged: the hingeless rotor. The popular name for it (a "rigid" rotor) is a misnomer. The XH-51 could safely perform aerobatic maneuvers which until then would have literally been suicidal to attempt at the controls of any rotorcraft, such as zero-G rolls, loops, and Immelmann and Split-S flips. It was more notable because it was made by a company not known for helicopters: Lockheed. This aircraft was the predecessor to the above-mentioned AH-56 Cheyenne.
- The X-24 definitely deserves a place on this page for being an airworthy, heavier-than-air plane without wings. This bizarre little plane was designed to research unpowered reentry and landing for spacecraft. Some design lessons learned in this project were later applied in the space shuttle program.
- The X-24's father, the Northrop M2-F2. You've probably seen film of the thing crashing. It was used in the opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man as the aircraft Steve Austin had his crash in. The real life pilot was blinded in the right eye as a consequence of the crash.
- The current fastest jet-powered aircraft in the world: the Boeing X-43. Its powered by a scramjet and runs on liquid hydrogen, which is also used to cool the engine. The Air Force, with all of its GPS and equipment, couldn't control it and ended up not being able to find it due to it being so darn fast. This craft has since led to the development of the bigger, better X-51, which is a stepping stone to the future Blackswift hypersonic drone.
- The Grumman X-29, a testbed based on the F-5E tiger airframe. The aircraft featured forward-swept wings (much like the Su-47), though they found that while the wings improved agility and angles of attack, it also robbed the aircraft of speed and was inherently more fragile than conventional wings. In an example of What Might Have Been, the competing General Dynamics bid for the forward swept wing test aircraft would have been a modified F-16. Nevertheless, what was learned from the X-29 program went on to help with development of...
- The X-31, probably one of the most maneuverable planes ever designed. Thanks to the design of its thrust-vectoring system, it can pull maneuvers that would stall even the much-touted excellent maneuverability of the Su-27 variants.
- The X-33 was intended to be a technology demonstrator for the VentureStar, a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spaceplane which could reach space without having to discard anything like boosters or fuel tanks. It was envisioned as a replacement for the space shuttle after that craft retired, and was intended to be both cheaper and safer. Unfortunately, difficulties in the design and testing process led NASA to cancel the project in 2001, although Lockheed Martin (the company originally awarded the contract) has continued some limited testing of the idea on its own.
- The Israel Aircraft Industries Lavi was a prototype comparable to (and quite possibly better than) the F-16. All Israeli-designed combat aircraft up until then had been kitbashed variants of foreign imports. With excellent handling qualities and advanced avionics, the Lavi was expected to be a huge export seller — which is why the program was shut down when the US government, not wanting competition, exerted some pressure. China's later Chengdu J-10 is suspiciously similarnote , leading to speculation that IAI sold the Lavi's technology to recoup their losses.
- The Voyager, the first ever airplane to circle the earth, nonstop, without refueling. It did this in December of '86, taking off from Edwards Air Force Base at 8:01 AM on the 14th of December, and landing on the exact same runway 9 days plus 5 minutes later at 8:06 AM on the 23rd. Two pilots took turns flying the plane, sharing a space slightly larger than 2 phone-booths. Fitted with push/pull piston engines, the front engine was only used during takeoff and early cruise, then shut down to conserve fuel. At takeoff for its record setting flight, it carried just over 4.3x its weight in fuel. It consumed 98.5% of that fuel on its flight.
- Burt Rutan, designer of Voyager, outdid himself in the mid '00s by designing Global Flyer, a single-seat, single-engine jet that became the first jet to circle the earth nonstop without refueling, and the first single-seat aircraft to do so. It ended up making 3 around-the-world flights in 2005 and 2006. Both this and the Voyager, above, are now the property of, and preserved by the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC.
Go back to the Cool Plane, before someone else flies off with it.