In a sense, all airplanes are classic airplanes, because each one represents the very best its designer and builder could do, given the talent, materials, and time available at the moment. No development group ever set out to make a second-best airplane. Instead, every aircraft, and especially every classic aircraft described and pictured within these pages, was the product of the loving care of an intelligent design team.
French fighter pilots who were seriously challenged by top-rank German airplanes during World War I welcomed the rugged SPAD VII. See more classic airplane pictures.
The following pages in this article provide links to profiles of classic airplanes built over the last century. You'll begin with classic airplanes of the Early Years, including the Wright Flyers first successful flight. Learn about the military fighter airplanes of World War I and World War II, and explore the aircraft built during the Golden Age of Flight. Then fast-forward to the present day Jet Age and see how much classic airplanes have progressed over the last 100 years.
Lockheed's immortal P-38 Lightning was a multi-role fighter-bomber that was a scourge of the Axis, particularly the Japanese, during World War II.
Each and every one of these classic airplanes was manufactured by skilled and motivated people who worked long hours -- often at their own expense -- to turn out a world-beater. Each was flown by test pilots who risked their lives to make the designers' dreams come true. Each was flown in war or for commerce by equally dedicated pilots who wanted only to use it in the most effective manner. And each was maintained by loyal workers, often unappreciated, who were responsible for the lives of all who piloted and flew in the craft.In truth, classic airplanes are no more than mirrors in which we find reflected the human beings who created and used them. See the next page for links to profiles of classic airplanes built between 1903 to 1913.
The Early Years, 1903-1913The collaborative genius of Orville and Wilbur Wright completely transcended the efforts of all of their predecessors in the field of aviation. Not only had they leaped beyond the most advanced innovator of the day, Otto Lilienthal, they corrected the errors they had found in his mathematical tables.
In 1909, Louis Bleriot flew his Bleriot XI monoplane above the Notre-Dame de Paris.
On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers' four flights carried them into the record books as the first to make a controlled powered flight, and established them as being far ahead of all competitors in Europe.The links below provide details and specifications for early classic airplanes:
The Wright Flyers: 1903, 1905, and 1908
Learn about the Wright brothers' first powered flight, which took place on December 17, 1903. Their first airplane, the Kitty Hawk Flyer, was the world's first military aircraft.
The need for speed and the powerful engines of the Bleriot XI led to the tragic deaths of many famous pilots, including America's first licensed female pilot. Get the details here.
Curtiss Golden Flyer
Sometimes called the Gold Bug, this classic airplane was built by Glenn Hammond Curtiss and was inspired by the Wright Flyer. Spot the differences and similarities between the Golden Flyer and the Wright Flyer in this article.
The Wright brothers would demonstrate their leadership in the next five years, only to lose it suddenly and dramatically to new ideas from abroad. Follow links to classic European airplanes of World War I on the next page.
World War I, 1914-1918World War I had a tremendous effect upon the development of aviation, creating an entirely new military arm, one only dimly foreseen in the past, but immediately important. Huge industries sprang up to produce the aircraft, engines, and components required for the new and extremely expensive service. Because the stalemated war in the trenches was so horrible, the war in the air was given a sense of chivalry and honor by the press and public.
Above, the Red Baron (red plane) is shown closing on the Sopwith Camel of Canadian Lt. Wilfred May, unaware that Capt. Roy Brown has slid into position behind him.
Each new aircraft was carefully examined and the men who won five victories to become aces were regarded as popular heroes.Below are links to some of the classic airplanes that these brave soldiers flew:
Nicknamed "the Jenny," this classic airplane was originally mass-produced for the American effort in World War I but was also used as a crop duster, a stunt plane, and an entertainment aircraft after the war. Learn more here.
Learn about this extremely influential classic airplane, also known as "Bebe." Copies of the Nieuport 17 were eventually produced at other companies around the world -- some with fatal results.
Because of the Gothas' weight and balance problems, more of these German fighter planes were lost due to pilot mishap and accidents than enemy fighters. Learn about this long-range heavy bomber.
Albatros D. Va
Even though the German Albatros was handsome and well built, it didn't prove successful in the German air effort during World War I. Read about this classic fighter plane.
Sopwith Camel F.1
The most famous of all fighter planes, the British Camel brought down more enemies than any other Allied plane during World War I. Find out how this classic airplane was also lethal to its own pilots.
Fokker Dr I Triplane
In an effort to remedy the problems of the Albatros, the Germans built the Fokker Dr I Triplane, which showed promise until a flawed wing design caused a series of fatal crashes.
SPAD VII & SPAD XIII
This classic airplane's name is an acronym for Societe pour Aaviation et ses Derives, which was a firm under the control of Louis Bleriot. Get more details here.
De Havilland DH-4
When the U.S. entered World War I, the Air Service decided to produce the British D. H.4s with American Liberty engines. Learn about this classic airplane's role in World War I.
The years between World War I and World War II were known as the Golden Age of Flight. Discover the aircraft built across the globe on the next page.
The Golden Age of Flight, 1919-1938The first two decades after World War I, known as the Golden Age of Flight, saw the appearance of some of the most beautiful and most efficient aircraft in history. All over the world, regardless of their country's size or its relative wealth, aircraft designers were busy producing the very best aircraft they could conceive.
The excitement and infinite promise of flight during the Golden Age was exemplified by the Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, piloted famously in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh.
The Golden Age of Flight was a time when much could be done with relatively small resources, as when the Granville brothers designed an aircraft in an abandoned dance hall, and witnessed it suddenly become a world-beater.Follow these links to classic airplanes of the Golden Age:
Find out how this classic airplane, considered the Rodney Dangerfield of fighter planes, surprised the German Luftwaffes and the rest of the world during World War II.
The American Martin B-10 bomber plane is held as the most important and beautiful contributions to the Golden Age of Flight. Learn why in this article.
Henry Ford, a name commonly associated with classic cars, turned his talents toward classic airplanes in 1924. Read all about the Ford "Tin Goose" Tri-Motor.
Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis successfully flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. Learn about the legend here.
"Aviatrix" Amelia Earhart shared many firsts with the Lockheed Vega, including the first successful flight from Hawaii to California. Find out why she chose this classic airplane for her flying adventures.
An effective light bomber, a trainer and a seaplane, the Hawker Hart was a classic airplane with many accomplishments. Explore the many sides of the Hawker Hart.
Piper J-3 Cub
With its economical price, the Piper J-3 Cub helped democratize civil aviation. Read about the classic airplane that earned its place as "an American classic in peace and war."
See specifications for the Beech Model 17, a classic airplane launched at the very depth of the Depression and which got its nickname from the reverse stagger of its wings.
Granville Brothers Gee Bee Super Sportster R-1
The Gee Bee was built for the 1932 air-racing season and, flown by pilot Jimmy Doolittle, quickly became America's sweetheart. Get a closer look into the adventures of this classic airplane.
Martin Model 130 China Clipper
With the ability to make saltwater landings in exotic places, the "flying boat" took passengers throughout the Pacific for attractive scenery. Discover the glamor of this classic airplane.
By the time World War II began, the progress of aviation had taken many great leaps forward. Move on to the next page for links to classic World War II fighter airplanes.
World War II, 1939-1945World War II accelerated the pace of aviation at an even faster rate than World War I, and on a far greater scale. Aviation was in its infancy prior to the First World War, and almost all of the progress in establishing an aviation industry and in determining the uses of air power took place as the war was going on.
A carrier-based F4U Corsair bears down relentlessly on a pair of Japanese Zeros in a heated moment during the Pacific air war.
Aviation progress had a running start beginning in 1939, so it was possible for aviation to make great strides not only in aircraft performance but also in many new disciplines required to fight an air war. The field saw advancements in navigation, radar, communications and improved ordnance.Follow the links below for more details of classic World War II fighter planes:
This classic airplane started life as the best-selling airliner of its day, placing the U.S. in the lead in commercial aviation. Learn how the C-47 became one of the most effective warplanes in history.
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
The P-38 was the only U.S. fighter plane that was produced prewar and continued to be produced when the war ended. Find out what made this classic plane so intriguing.
Focke Wulf Fw 190
Read about a classic German airplane that was beautiful, versatile, and considered one of the best fighter airplanes of World War II.
Boeing B-29 Superfortress
The most famous B-29 was the Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and forced Japan to surrender, bringing World War II to an end.
Junkers Ju 87 Stuka
Although slow, the Stuka proved incredibly effective as a German dive-bomber during World War II. Discover how this classic airplane fought bravely until the very end.
The Spitfire was a superior plane built by the Supermarine Company for the British Royal Air Force. Get details on this handsome hero of World War II.
Learn about the four-engine "Flying Fortress," aptly named for its ability to survive damage during bombing missions and still return safely.
Grumman F4F Wildcat
The Wildcat started as an underdog and ended a champion, successfully taking down inferior Japanese bombers. See photos and specs in this article.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
German engineers succeeded with their attempt to fit an enormous engine in a small airframe, resulting in the Bf 109 and 100 more variants of the original design.
Douglas SBD Dauntless
A supreme dive-bomber of the Pacific War, the Dauntless is known for its efforts during the Battle of Midway -- sinking Japanese carriers and reversing the course of World War II.
North American B-25 Mitchell
Explore the details of the classic airplane flown by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle during the first bombing raid against Tokyo in April 1942.
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
The P-40 served in all theaters of World War II, including the Pacific, Alaska, Africa, and Russia, and is famous for its performance with the AVG Flying Tigers.
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
The Liberator was vital to the American effort in World War II -- its many roles included bombing, special operations, and carrying cargo and passengers. Learn more here.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
Read about the Japanese Zero, a symbol of Imperial Japan that succeeded early on in the war only to be surpassed by continually improving American aircrafts and pilots.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
The Hellcat's first appearance in World War II battle was during the U.S. attack against the Japanese on Marcus Island in September 1943.
Yak-9s were flown bravely by the Soviets against German fighters. Learn why this classic plane proved faster and more maneuverable than German Bf 109s.
Chance Vought F4U Corsair
Also called the "Bent-wing Bird," the F4U Corsair dominated Japanese enemies in World War II and went on to serve in the Korean War.
North American P-51 Mustang
The Mustang classic airplane had the ability to defeat every Axis fighter it encountered. Learn about it's history and the many restored models that still fly today.
Messerschmitt Me 262
If the production of the German Me 262 had not been delayed, the outcome of World War II might have changed drastically. Learn how this classic airplane could have altered history.
The classic fighter planes of World War II will always be remembered as brave warriors, but the arrival of the Jet Age changed the way we see aircraft. Follow the links on the next page for more details.
The Jet Age, 1946-Present
Jet power in the raw: A double threat of well-armed Douglas AE-4 Skyhawks streaks from the clouds, superbly piloted and ready to take on all challengers.
The end of World War II found the victorious Allies with thousands of fighter planes, all but a few of which were obsolete because the Jet Age had arrived. Although peacetime budgets were cut to a minimum, military and civil leaders poured as much money as possible into research and development.
The result was a series of ever more powerful and reliable jet engines, as well as new and increasingly radical airframes. The growth in jet power was paralleled by a revolution in electronics.
This, plus the combination of new engines, new airframes, and advanced avionics resulted in aircraft of superb performance and amazing longevity.
Grumman EA-6B Prowler
The Prowler serves the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force with its high-performance electronic capabilities. Learn more here.
The Boeing 747's size amazed the public and had many people wondering if it would even be able to fly. Read about the largest airliner in history.
Mcdonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
Get details on the classic airplane that served as the United States' principal fighter in Vietnam and dominated combat aviation with its versatility and speed.
Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
The sharp, angular frame of the F-117A Stealth gave the classic airplane a modern look, but its main feature made it almost "invisible." Learn more about the F-117A's ability to deflect incoming radar beams here.
The Soviet-built MiG-15 fighter appeared in combat during the Korean War and, by 1953, was abandoned by the Soviets as a front-line fighter.
North American F-86 Sabre
Many pilots view the Sabre as the last "pure" fighter plane. Find out what made this classic airplane so special and versatile.
Douglas A-4 Skyhawk
With more than 29 variants used by the U.S. Navy and Marines, the lightweight Skyhawk was truly a remarkable classic combat airplane, remaining in production for 25 years.
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
The B-52, also known as the Buff, has proven successful in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and other important missions. Learn the Buff's many roles.
This Soviet aircraft was one of the greatest jets of its time with different versions serving in nearly 40 air forces across the globe. Get the details here.
The creation of the 707 was a huge step for globalization, making international travel easier for the public. Read more about this landmark in aviation history.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird
The Blackbird was named for its heat-resistant black paint and remains one of the world's fastest, highest-flying aircraft since its first flight in 1964.
McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
The F-15 Eagle was created after the Vietnam War when pilots felt the need for a new fighter plane that would dominate the sky. Take a closer look at this classic airplane in this article.
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
Often referred to as the "Electric Jet" rather than the "Fighting Falcon," the F-16 is fully equipped with the latest radars, night vision equipment and missiles. See specifications and photos here.
Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit
The B-2's unusual appearance and high cost -- approximately $2.2 billion per copy -- prove just how much classic airplanes have evolved over the century.