Top Five Coolest Airplanes Ever


I’m trying to keep my mind off of Super Tuesday today. The last three days have been wonderful, from Joe’s stunning win here, through the endorsements of Amy, Pete and Beto. But while Joe was concentrating on South Carolina, Bernie was getting a huge head start everywhere else, especially California. And Bloomberg was spending half a billion dollars to try to win the very voters Joe needs to stop Bernie.

Burl with one of his early models.

Burl with one of his early models.

So… how about a Top Five List? I’m feeling kind of basic today (I’m in a “Top Five Side One, Track Ones” mood), so let’s make this the sort of list we could have made when we were 11 years old and building model airplanes. Back when we weren’t cool (yet), but we had a keen sense of what we thought was cool. We can make it a sort of tribute list to our friend Burl Burlingame, who along with many other accomplishments was the best modeler any one of us ever knew.

And just to head off the “war-monger” cries from some of my friends, I’m sorry, but warplanes have always been cooler than civilian aircraft. Not because they’re warplanes, but, well, just look at them. Built for speed and performance, they’ll always be cooler than, say, a 707. The way a 1964½ Ford Mustang or a 1962 Jaguar XK-E is way cooler than a minivan.

This was inspired by a video YouTube suggested to me this morning. I had called up Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and YouTube suggested something called “Best Rock Songs Vietnam War Music.” And again, it’s not “War” that makes it cool. Think about the Vietnam War movies you’ve seen. Don’t they tend to have awesome soundtracks?

So, intending to just leave it playing while I worked, I called it up. And the first image on the screen was the above one, of an F-4 Phantom taking off. (No, wait — the flaps are down, so I think it’s landing. But I don’t know. Bob Amundson, can you give us a ruling?) It showed while CCR’s “Fortunate Son” was playing.

So I got to thinking, and here’s the list. And not in order of coolness — more chronological:

  1. Fokker DR.I Triplane. The Red Baron‘s plane, it was both wicked and ungainly looking — but all planes looked awkward back then, right? The SPAD was all right, and the Sopwith Camel had a great name, but the Fokker was cooler. Also, 11-year-olds who build airplane models like to say “Fokker.” Almost as good as saying the full name of the Fw 190.
  2. P-51 Mustang. Maybe the nicest-looking, solid-but-sleek design in aviation history. And quite a formidable fighter. Also, it looked so modern. (Weirdly, the P-47 Thurderbolt came later, but looked 20 years older — at least to my eye.) I had trouble on this one. I was torn between this and the Spitfire, which won the Battle of Britain (OK, the Hurricanes helped) — the ultimate emblem of British pluck. But as big an Anglophile as I am, I went with the American plane.
  3. C-47 Skytrain. Or Dakota. Or Gooney-Bird. OK, it’s not fast, and it’s not sleek. Definitely the Plain Jane of the bunch. But it was so awesome in its plainness. One of the main instruments that won the war for us. The Band of Brothers jumped out of them, they saved Berlin in the Cold War, and… It was the first plane I ever flew in, hopping over the Andes, up and down the Pacific coast of South America. An unbelievable amount of noise and vibration, but a real thrill for a kid. So I’m playing favorites here.
  4. F-4 Phantom. My generation’s version of the P-51. It had a solid look to it, like nothing could knock it out of the sky (a handy attribute when flying Wild Weasel missions), but also looked like it could fly like a bat out of hell. And it sorta could. These also loom large in my legend, from the ones that flew out of MacDill AFB when I lived there in high school to the ones the Kansas Air Guard flew over our house (we were under the takeoff pattern) when I worked in Wichita.
  5. X-15. The world’s first operational spaceplane, the futuristic great-grandchild of Yeager’s X-1. This was another one I had to think about a bit. It was competing with the SR-71, another sci-fi sort of aircraft. But the X-15 was the one I thought was cool when I was a kid, and it wins on sheer speed. The Blackbird could cruise at Mach 3.2, but in 1967, the X-15 set the speed record that still stands: Mach 6.70.

I almost put the Navy’s ultimate WWII plane, the F4U Corsair, on the list (foldable gull wings! Pappy Boyington!). But the P-51 beat that out as well as the Spitfire.

The North American X-15 rocket plane, made to fly to the edge of space.

The North American X-15 rocket plane, made to fly to the edge of space.

31 thoughts on “Top Five Coolest Airplanes Ever

  1. Bryan D Caskey

    Oh yeah…good topic [rubs hands together]….where to start?

    First, I agree with two on your list. The Fokker Triplane and P-51 are classics. I love the lines on the P-51, and as we all know, it’s the “Cadillac of the Sky“.

    I get why you picked the C-47. It was a hugely important aircraft for WWII and beyond, being able to take on such a variety of missions and having more service longevity than most aircraft. However, if you want to talk about importance over time, I would humbly submit the B-52 for your consideration

    In support of the B-52, I would note your list entirely omits a bomber, and this lack of diversity should be rectified. 🙂 The B-52 came into service in 1955, and is still in service today. It’s an enormous aircraft, which is pretty dang cool right there, and the longevity is hard to overlook. It’s been getting work done for the USA for decades. In the first Gulf War, B-52s took off from Barksdale AFB (in Shreveport, LA) refuled mid-air, bombed Iraqi targets and returned home. Pretty cool range, if you ask me.

    I would have traded out the F-4 for the F-14, which is exactly what the Navy did, as the F-14 was the replacement for the aging F-4. 🙂 I think part of each of us picking these aircraft has to do with the fact that both of these were the Navy’s interceptor when you and I were close to the same respective age. The swing wings of the F-14 are so cool. I think I built a model of one when I was in high school. Oh, and there’s a little movie featuring the F-14 you may have heard of.

    The X-15? I hadn’t heard of it. I’ll take the Blackbird, which is such a cool looking aircraft with its radical design. Did you know it leaks on the ground because it’s made to fly so high that the seals all close up at that high of an altitude? I also love some of the stories surrounding it. Two quick ones:

    First, I heard it was originally named the RS-71 by the military. However, when LBJ announced the aircraft in a Presidential address, he got the letters backwards in a moment of dyslexia, and the military brass all looked at each other in a “I’m not telling him he got it wrong! We’ll just re-name the aircraft!” moment. Almost like something out of Catch-22.

    Oh, and you want speed? I love this SR-71 speed story.

    Just my two cents. As always, your mileage may vary.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The F-14 is wonderfully acrobatic. I like that thing it does when it hits the brakes and tilts its nose up and looks like it’s stopping in midair (tried to find video of this and failed). It seems to defy physical laws, like something from a cartoon.

      But there’s something just tough-looking about the F-4. Or, in the idiom of my youth, tuff-looking… It’s like an old Camaro or some other kind of broad-shouldered muscle car. It looks almost too solid to fly…

      And yeah, I think it may be a generational thing…

  2. James Cross

    Should’ve gone with the SR-71. Of course the X-15 was faster–it was a rocket! And it needed help to get in the air. Just think two words: *spy plane*. What could be cooler than that?

    And if you wanted to avoid your list being all warplanes you could have put the Concorde on it.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, but… there was something unreal about the Concorde. It looked more like a paper airplane than a real one. Or like something drawn by the animators of “The Jetsons.”

      And what could it do that the SR-71 couldn’t do better?

      And if it was so awesome, where’d it go? And don’t say they got old. We’re still flying B-52s from the ’50s.

      But, you make excellent points about the SR-71. It was also one of the first stealthy aircraft. Look at the shape of it. Later stealth planes didn’t look like airplanes. They looked like boomerangs. But this was a real airplane…

  3. Mr. Smith

    A P-51 pilot recalled an early air encounter with one. He said he pushed his throttle all the way to max to catch it but instead watched it shake him off with ease.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, that’s a good choice, too. And I thought about it. But I left it out because Yeager managed to outfight one from a prop plane. And my list is strong on aesthetics. And to me, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the hottest-looking plane the Germans had.

      But still: Your choice would come CLOSE to my Top Five…

  4. Bryan Caskey

    Oh, and if you like the P-51 and the F4U (which I do) here is a great commercial featuring both of them. It’s actually a commercial I enjoy watching.

  5. Mark Stewart

    I had
    Ford Tri-Motor
    Grumman Goose
    But apparently I didn’t hit send earlier today. And now it’s Primary time.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Love it. Those are all deep cuts. Like only true fans would know that band’s song. Barry would be proud of this list. Love the tri-motor pick – I actually saw a Ford Tri-motor live when it came to Columbia a few years ago.

      1. Mark Stewart

        I took my kids up on the last flight of the day with me. Let’s just say I reevaluated my parenting responsibility that afternoon.

        Some planes (all eventually) deserve to be in museums…

  6. bud

    1. 1903 Wright Flyer
    2. Me-262
    3. SR-71 Blackbird
    4. Concorde
    5. Bell X-1

    Honorable mentions:
    Fokker Dr.1
    P-80 Shooting Star
    MiG 15
    F-4 Phantom
    Airbus A380
    Fokker D.VII
    Supermarine Spitfire
    Spirit of St. Louis
    NASA space shuttle
    Lockheed Constellation

  7. Norm Ivey

    I’m way out of my element on this list, but as a youth I had a friend who was an aeronut, and Daddy always loved planes. He was Army Air Force and served as a radio operator after he was rejected for pilot school because he couldn’t hear high frequencies. Let that sink in for a moment. He finally got the chance to fly when he went and got his pilot’s license in his 70s. He was the model plane builder, not me. So here’s my no-particular-order list simply based on my tangential exposure to aircraft.

    1. B-17. This is the plane Daddy served on, and I remember him building a model of it when I was about 8 years old. It wasn’t until decades later that I saw one in person and realized just how big they are.
    2. P-38 Lightning. Such an odd looking beast. Daddy had a model of this one as well.
    3. The Spruce Goose. Train-of discovery: I read a quote by JP Getty claiming that Howard Hughes was richer than him and some other billionaire (back when that meant something). Went and looked up Howard Hughes in the Periodical Guide to Literature and was able to find an article about Hughes and the Goose on microfiche. Years later, was finally able to see a newsreel of the plane’s one and only flight. Just a fascinating story.
    4. P-51 Mustang. Daddy’s cousin (from the wealthier side of the family) actually owned and flew one of these back in the 80s. I never saw it in person, but Daddy had pictures of it and painted a picture of one in flight.
    5. Boeing 747. Again, it’s one of those things that you can’t appreciate its scale until you see one in person. And it’s the first plane I remember kids talking about on the playground.

    1. clark surratt

      I’m the real redneck. My coolest plane is the DC 3. It was the first commercial plane I boarded, and then I learned its history and what airline mechanics though of it.

  8. Bob Amundson

    The photo is most likely a Hooyah (go Naval Aviation; Oorah Marine Corps) shot, low speed, fully locked and loaded with weapons and extra fuel tanks; not a good idea to land with that configuration.

    I’m having fun reading this thread, and I just can’t make begin to decide what is cool. I’ve always loved the A-6 and A-10; perhaps not cool, but lethal. The F/A-18 is a fully functional air defense and ground attack platform; that’s cool. The Sopwith Camel did well against the Fokker Tri-Plane. I love the P-51, but it started slow when it was first powered by an American made Allison engine; it needed the British made Rolls Royce engine to become the fighter that protected the B-17 “Flying Fortress.”

    I could go on and on, but time to hit the road; heading to spring training baseball.

  9. Brad Warthen Post author

    A couple of you have pointed out my oversight in leaving off bombers, and I think you’re right.

    I was thinking “hot planes,” and that prejudiced me toward fighters…

    But if I apply the rules that I set out — to look at it like an 11-year-old model builder — I should have included the B-17, the coolest of all bombers, ever. (Runner-up, B-25.)

    I loved it when I was a kid. It’s the plane my uncle flew in — and was shot down in, three times, the last time behind enemy lines. (After he evaded the Germans and got back to England, he was sent home — and avoided flying for the rest of his life.)

    Especially as a communitarian, I should value a B-17, as a celebration of the brotherhood between 10 guys fighting as a team, rather than the radical individualism of the one-seater. (Although B-17s weren’t really a community to my uncle. He signed on to fly with any and all crews, rather than just one, so that he could get his 25 missions and go home sooner.)

    But what should I bump? The Gooney Bird, maybe? I mean, I largely put it on the list because it was so uncool, it was cool. But there’s no question that, when I was a kid — even though my first airplane travel was on C-47s — I would undoubtedly have put the B-17 WAY above it on the coolness scale.

    But still… I hate to bump the Gooney Bird…

  10. Brad Warthen Post author

    Flying Tiger

    And since I’m dedicating this post to the memory of Burl Burlingame, here are a couple of pictures of Burl, and me, with some cool planes. They were taken at the Pacific Aviation Museum, where Burl was the historian, in 2015…

    Burl and me


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