They’re so commonplace that we take them completely for granted – but planes are beautiful, graceful and awe-inspiring machines. They’ve taken humans to remote places and on regular commutes, on great adventures and out of sticky situations. In all their forms, planes are great to look at, but some have the X-factor. This is a collection of our favourites.
Beech Model 17
It’s hard to believe that this striking, modern design has been flying since 1932. The Beech “Staggerwing” was the equivalent of a private jet in the ‘30s. It’s a pretty high performance vehicle for the era, with retractable landing gear and a powerful engine. Each was built by hand, from scratch – and carried a basic price tag of $14,000 ($250,000 in today’s money).
It was successful in the extreme, breaking world records and contributing to the war effort during WWII. Production of this uniquely beautiful plane continued until 1949. 785 Beechcraft variants were produced in total. With a loyal following and strong heritage, a good Beech D17 Staggerwing can fetch £300,000 today.
This pug-nosed little prop plane might look quite standard to the untrained eye, but the DC-3 revolutionised air travel. It’s beautiful to look at, too; considering it’s a design from the 1930s, it’s aged remarkably well – it could easily be mistaken for a modern airliner if it weren’t for the prop engines.
The DC-3 was a pioneer. It had great range, it was fast and it could carry up to 32 passengers in comfort and style. It was the world’s first “proper” passenger plane, but the DC-3 had incredible versatility. It was a military success, too, and post-WWII the market was flooded with unused military variants – which ultimately made it unprofitable. Still – its legacy lives on and it remains one of the most attractive commercial planes ever to grace the sky.
It’s strange to think that the original design by Bill Lear was derived from a military aircraft. At its peak, the name LearJet was synonymous with private jets, luxury and the high life.
It might not be the original executive jet, but it’s definitely the executive jet. Because of the LearJet’s reputation, it became a symbol of class and refinement. With that came an air of elegant grace, which was somewhat dashed by the eventual “accessibility” of private planes (to all kinds of celebrities, at least) – but we still think it has a classic, timeless look.
It can be difficult to say a machine designed to destroy is beautiful, but the F-22 Raptor is a really stunning piece of kit. Military hardware doesn’t care too much about looking good; efficacy is much more important than fashion out in the field. But somehow, the F-22 has fulfilled the brief – be an excellent, cutting edge fighter – while looking like a million dollars (or $150 million, per unit).
The Raptor beautiful and deadly. Very deadly. It has stealth capability, can breach Mach 2 and can carry a slew of air to air and air to surface weapons. Although the tech in the F-22 is ageing, there’s still a US federal ban on exporting the aircraft, to protect the secrets under the radar-reflecting skin.
Here’s another example of form following function and somehow getting beautiful results. Concorde’s paper dart shape isn’t just iconic – it’s utterly glorious. The needle-nosed precision of it, the dainty, elongated features. It looks fast, even when at rest.
But it had to look that way, or it never would have worked. The intense angle of attack of the slender delta wing gave the aircraft its famed supersonic speed and contributed to the overall look. That dipping nose cone was purely a functional requirement for takeoff and landing visibility. For all its beauty, each element of Concorde was just a symptom of requirement – but it really pulled it off.
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