Airplanes have only been around for a little over a century, but they have a history as storied as nearly any other invention in the history of the world. There’s a reason for that, too: their military value is hard to overestimate. Therefore, like other weapons systems, their advancement has been supercharged by the billions upon endless billions of dollars that the militaries of the world have poured into them.
You can thank our collective desire to not be killed by the other side for the fact that we went from Kitty Hawk biplanes to the surface of the moon in the span of a single human lifetime, and didn’t stop there. From dogfighters to bombers and gunships to choppers to medivac transports to reconnaissance craft, here’s our take on some of the greatest war planes that ever flew…
In some ways, WW2 functioned as a giant pressure cooker for R&D, forcing combatants to pour resources into a never ending bid to one-up the enemy and seize (or keep) the edge. By the end of the war in the skies, the first jet fighters were in operation and it was possible to flatten a city with a fleet of bombers that could blot out the sun. But very few of these later-war planes managed to eclipse the grace, rugged effectiveness and sleek style of the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire.
The Spitfire, developed in 1936 and mass produced beginning in 1938, was a single-seat interceptor/fighter that outshone the more numerous RAF Hawker Hurricane during the Battle of Britain (July – October 1940) and went on to become the main workhorse of the RAF for the rest of the war, serving in a wide variety of roles including photo reconnaissance. This beloved plane’s outer shell rarely changed, but it proved more than capable of handling increasingly powerful engine variants that bolstered its performance greatly and lengthened its usability in service. Like many of the war’s most reliable weapons, its use continued after the end of the conflict and into the 1950s and beyond (the Irish air forces used it until 1961). Today, enthusiasts still fly the remaining active 60, and many others, lacking engines, serve as popular museum exhibits.
8. Focke-Wulf 190
This single-seat, single-engine fighter, wielded by the German Luftwaffe during World War II, was the bane of Allied existence in the early years of the war. At high-enough altitudes it was vulnerable to interceptors, but at low and medium altitudes it outclassed even the RAF’s aforementioned Spitfire (in everything but turn radius, that is) until the Brits released the Mark IX variant. On the Eastern Front, the FW-190 found rapid early success against undergunned, obsolete Soviet fighters, many of which were caught with their pants down on the ground anyway.
Most of the German fighter aces of the war primarily flew this fighter, but it wasn’t just for dogfights: the plane’s mighty 801 BMW radial engine made it ideal for both day and night time sorties, bomber escorts, and round-the-clock raids on enemy ground forces. It is widely considered to be one of the best fighter aircraft of the entire war.
7. B-29 Superfortress
Featuring state-of-the-art technology like an early computer-powered turret firing system and a pressurized cabin, and with a price tag of $3 billion ($43 billion today), the mass production of this four-engine American behemoth was the most ambitious and expensive weapons project of the entire Second World War (beating the cost of the Manhattan Project by a full billion).
It delivered in spades, too: neither the Germans nor the Japanese had an adequate answer to the sky-darkening fleets of these monsters that could pound a major city into rubble in a matter of hours, and return for seconds in only a few more. Silverplate B-29 variants, stripped of all but the rearmost turret guns to lighten the weight, were even hand picked by Captain Paul Tibetts for a special mission towards the end of the war in the Pacific. In August 1945, a superfortress of this class, named Enola Gay, delivered the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima, effectively ending the war and ushering in the atomic age.
6. Me 262
It arrived too late to change the tide of World War Two in favor of the Germans, but not too late to spook the Allies and change aviation history forever. The Messerschmitt Me 262, nicknamed Schwalbe (‘swallow’), was the world’s first operational jet fighter. It was designed in the prewar years but production issues and the prioritization of other projects ensured it didn’t take off or enter active service until April 1944, when the Luftwaffe was already a smoking shell of its former self. Still, it knocked nearly 600 Allied planes out of the sky before VE Day and, in much the same way the American Civil War’s ironclads instantly made wooden warships obsolete, ended the age of propeller-driven, single wing aircraft only a few years after those had fully replaced biplanes.
The Allies had no answer to this (although the British did debut the jet-powered Meteor in 1945), but had enough resources to simply bomb the Me 262s and the factories that produced them on the ground, limiting their effectiveness on a strategic scale (which was already severely hampered by late-war shortages of fuel and pilots). When the victorious Allied powers had time to build new planes after the war, though, you better believe all the effort went into the production of jets. We have the Me 262 to thank for that.
Like the AK-47, also designed by the Soviet Union in the Cold War era, the cheap production cost and rugged, all-around power of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 made it one of the most widely used and longest-lasting supersonic jet fighters in world history. Decades after its inaugural flight, variants of it continue to serve many nations that were once under the Soviet sphere of influence, and many (like India) that weren’t. During the Vietnam War, the MiG-21 became a maddening thorn in the side of the US Air Force, which relied on the more advanced but more cumbersome F-4 Phantom.
In “one pass then haul ass” hit-and-run tactics, North Vietnamese pilots would ambush American formations with MiGs and bolt before the US could strike back. The MiG continues to be used in conflicts around the world, such as the Six Day War (1967) between Israel and an Arab coalition, the Iran-Iraq War, and various African conflicts around the Horn. It was even still in use in the Lybian and Syrian Civil Wars in the last decade. Its performance relative to other aircraft has diminished as technology has improved, obviously, but its long service history is a testament to its engineering.
This helicopter had humble enough origins. In the 1950s, the US Army required a simple medical evacuation/general utility chopper and chose the Bell 204, a single shaft, turbine-powered craft with a two blade main rotor, out of 20 competing designs. Add simple enough upgrades to counter the Bell’s initial cabin space and power issues and you have the HU-1: a simple, easily customizable workhorse that can serve as everything from its initial design functions as a medical transport copter to an aggressive gunship. The Army called it the Iroquois.
Its crews, and the ground forces alongside which it saw action, though, dragged out its HU-1 designation with an affectionate nickname: the “Huey.” If ever there was a more iconic chopper, we’ve yet to encounter it. In fact, we know it’s the most iconic design of all time due simply to the fact that it’s the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear the word ‘helicopter’ at all.
It began as a black (ie, highly classified) project ordered by the US military and carried out by Lockheed (pre-Martin) and its Skunk Works division. Then, from 1964 to 1999, the SR-71 Blackbird took flight high above where the naked eye or even advanced radar installations could pick it up. It was fast, too. In fact, its Mach 3+ top speed was so fast that if it detected an incoming surface-to-air missile, it wouldn’t deploy flak or targeting-confusing scraps of metal like you see in the movies, or even take evasive maneuvers. Instead it would instead simply shrug and outrun the missile.
To be fair, 12 of the 32 that were built were lost, but not one of those losses was due to enemy action (though the Vietcong did try, nearly 800 times). Instead the only plane capable of taking out the SR-71 was the Blackbird itself (sophisticated enough engineering, it turns out, requires a whole lot of maintenance). Well, that and politics. As other spy planes became available, the cost and secretive nature of the SR-71 program turned much of the military industrial complex against it. In 1998, it was permanently retired.
You probably know the F-16 by its popular name: the Fighting Falcon. Its pilots and crews, however, inspired by its serpentine appearance and resemblance to a Battlestar Galactica ship of the same name, call this rugged, single engine beast the ‘Viper’. Introduced in the early ’70s after heavy losses in Vietnam proved the need for a lightweight superiority fighter, and after the so-called ‘fighter mafia’ secured funding from the Department of Defense for such a project, the F-16 (one of several F- planes) features a bubble canopy for visibility, a side mounted control stick, the world’s first relaxed static stability/fly-by-wire (RSS/FBW) flight control system, and an internal M61 Vulcan cannon (think minigun).
As a superiority fighter it’s hard to beat: it’s a fast, easily maneuverable, supersonic multirole jet that continues to see service around the planet. In the US Air Force, delays in Lockheed Martin’s own F35-Lightning II program, designed to replace much of the military’s existing superiority fighter arm, have given the F-16 a service extension. That tells us that while the F-16 might no longer be the most advanced plane in the sky, its rugged reliability cannot be ignored.
What the HU-1 “Huey” was to the US Armed Forces during the Vietnam War, the AH-64, more commonly known as the Apache, has been to roughly every conflict since the turn of the millennium. This twin-turboshaft attack chopper with tailwheel-type landing gear and a crew of two comes with four stub-wing pylon mounted hardpoints to carry extra armaments and supplies while in flight, in addition to the 30mm chain gun housed near the landing gear. That’s a lot of technical jargon. All you need to know is, if you see one of these four-bladed beasts heading your way with the nose pointed down, run.
The Apache started seeing serious action during Desert Storm, only a few years after its initial manufacture, and has since gone on to replace the Cobra as the backbone of the US Army’s attack chopper force. Its service history hasn’t been without issues, though, with maintenance crews often finding themselves exhausted with routine upkeep and with several Apaches having been downed to malfunctions and enemy fire. But American soldiers caught in a firefight are never upset to see one swinging in to lend a hand.