Rare Airplanes in Flight

We look at some of the rarest airplanes in the world and, along the way, discover the remarkable stories behind them.

de Havilland Mosquito photos by Scott Slocum|

When I first came across Jane's All the World's Aircraft as a new associate editor at Flying magazine in the mid-1990s, I was already a longtime aviation-history enthusiast — an incurable condition I inherited from my father. Jane's, as I hope you know, is the record of aircraft development. Most years since 1909, Jane's, founded by Fred Jane, has published a volume that audaciously proposes to do just what the name of the tome promises: document every production airplane in the world (along with a good number of kits and projects and, frankly, wild dreams).

While I knew a good deal about the stars of the aviation universe, Jane's opened my eyes to the fact that the history of aircraft development is a vast subject. I quickly realized it is too deep, broad, overlapping and variegated for one mind to ever be able to take in. This fact somehow made the whole history of aircraft all the more beautiful and sacred to me. There have been many thousands of different kinds of airplanes built over more than a hundred years' time in more than a hundred countries around the world. Of all those aircraft, the sad fact is that only a very small percentage have survived to fly today. The history of aircraft is, by definition, the history of rare aircraft.

The good news is there are a lot of airplanes still flying in the world, and a few of them are very rare aircraft indeed. This is because there are many restorers out there, many of whom have a keen interest in a certain airplane or a particularly interesting period of aviation history. It takes a village to keep rare airplanes flying or, in some cases, to bring them back from the dead. As you will see in the pages that follow, without the combination of dedicated individuals and the resources offered by an institution — generally a museum — with an interest in preserving history, there would be far fewer rare airplanes flying today.

When we first discussed this story, our idea was to cover the rarest airplanes in the world, a laudable goal but one we quickly realized was impossible. By definition, the rarest airplane in the world is one of which there is only one example flying. We believe in the idea that it being a “flying” example matters; some reasonable airplane enthusiasts may disagree. In the end, we can only hazard a guess as to how many one-of-a-kind airplanes are flying, but it is surely in the hundreds.

Instead, what we have arrived at here is a collection of rare airplanes, most but not all of which are one-of-a-kind examples. We've tried to cover every period of aviation history, from early flight to the jet age, and we've tried to take into account the only thing we are really sure about: For one reason or another, these airplanes are ones that we care about deeply. We think you will too. — Robert Goyer

Known as the "Wooden Wonder," the de Havilland Mosquito is as beautiful in flight as it is rare. It took restoration workers three years to rebuild the wooden airframe of the salvaged bird. In these photos, KA114 graces the skies over New Zealand.|

de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito

The de Havilland Mosquito

has the multiple distinctions of being an important historical airplane, an uncommonly configured one and a beauty on top of that. The example shown here is currently the only flying model of its kind.

With nearly 8,000 built, the Mosquito was not a rare airplane in its day. It was launched into service in 1942, a critical juncture of World War II for the British. At first, it primarily saw duty as a photo-reconnaissance craft. As the war progressed, it was pressed into service as a sub hunter, a high-altitude light bomber and, perhaps most famously, a night fighter fending off Messerschmitt Me-109s during a number of German offenses later in the war. The key characteristics of the DH.98 were its speed — it was 30 knots faster than a Spitfire and capable of nearly 400 mph at altitude — and its high-altitude capability, which let it fly at altitudes that were difficult for the Germans to defend.

The Mosquito was unusual for a number of reasons. First, it was an Allied twin light fighter. Along with the P-38 Lightning and the F-82 Twin Mustang, it was one of only a few such types, all of which are characterized by great speed and marginal armament.

The DH.98 is unique in that it is made of wood. Its monocoque fuselage and built-up wing were created with birch, balsa, spruce and plywood and an ingenious amalgam of fasteners, glues and other attachment schemes. The wings are built up with ribs and spars of wood with plywood skins that are doped in a very similar fashion to fabric-covered wings. The result was a light and strong structure. The powerplant was the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12, the same engine that powered some of the most famous single-engine fighters in the Allied fleet.

The previous last flying Mosquito was destroyed in 1996, when engine trouble caused a low-altitude loss of control during a demonstration flight in England. There are an estimated 30 nonairworthy Mosquitoes around the world.

For more than 16 years there were no flying Mosquitoes, until this airplane, KA114, made its return to the air. This example was originally manufactured in Canada — de Havilland licensed production to various companies in Britain and abroad. KA114 never saw combat and was found deteriorating in a farmer’s field in Alberta, Canada, when it was purchased by the Canadian Museum of Flight in 1978 and then, in 2004, by the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, which oversaw restoration. That work took eight years and was conducted in Auckland, New Zealand, by restoration experts at AVspecs. The paint scheme on the airplane is that of the Royal New Zealand 487th Squadron, which flew Mosquitoes during the war.

The airplane made its first flight in more than 60 years in New Zealand in September of last year. Earlier this year it voyaged back to North America, to its new home in Virginia Beach. — R.G.

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Rudder control in the Starship is accomplished through control surfaces on the massive winglets. Pitch is managed through the canard up front. (Photo by Rod Reilly)|

Beech 2000A Starship

The collaboration between Beechcraft and unconventional airplane design company Scaled Composites, led by Burt Rutan, is evident when looking at the Beech 2000A Starship. Even today, decades after its introduction, the airplane appears futuristic. Attached to its fuselage are a canard and massive winglets, all with control surfaces. In place of the tail section is a small inverted fin. Powered from the rear by two Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67A turboprops, each producing 1,200 shp, the Starship shoots through the skies at speeds as fast as 385 knots.

It is unfortunate that this beautiful yet unconventional airplane didn’t have a chance to succeed. After deciding to stop producing the airplane, Beechcraft recalled and destroyed nearly half of the fleet. If you are not among the few lucky enough to have spotted one at your local airfield, it is well worth visiting one of several museums that have Starships on display to take a closer look at this functional piece of art.

In addition to the Starship’s avant-garde design, the materials used in the turboprop — which seats up to eight people — were on the leading edge in the early ’80s, when the airplane was developed. It is made of primarily ­carbon-fiber composites, materials that were just starting to be used in civilian airplane structures at that time. The Starship has also been credited as the first civilian airplane to employ an all-glass cockpit — Rockwell Collins’ Pro Line 4 AMS-850. While very high-tech at that time, the system now looks like a puzzle of little screens, compared with the large multifunction screens that make up today’s clean cockpit layouts.

Fifty-three Starships were produced before Beechcraft decided to cease ­production in 1995. And not only that, but a few years later, the Wichita, ­Kansas-based company ceased all support for the airplane as well. Yet, for the few Starship operators out there — according to owner and operator Robert Scherer, there are only four — the lack of support doesn’t appear to be too much of an issue. At least not yet.

Scherer has found his airplane, serial number 51, to be very reliable. However, to ensure that he will be able to continue flying his Starship, he accumulated a sizable inventory of parts. Scherer bought out Rapid Aircraft Parts’ supply of Starship parts and purchased four airframes for spares. Scherer doesn’t hoard the parts; he makes them available for other needy Starship owners to purchase.

Convincing mechanics to work on the airplane has also been easy for Scherer. “On the road, any jet shop can do Starship maintenance,” he said. “Most mechanics are excited to work on a rare aircraft. But frankly, she never seems to break down. In 15 years I’ve had to have only a couple of things fixed when on the road. But those were non-Starship items, like a starter generator and a cabin air ventilation fan.” The biggest issue Scherer faces now is that, as of next year, Rockwell Collins has decided to discontinue its updates for the FMS-850 avionics. So Scherer is currently in the process of researching alternatives to enable continual database updates.

In addition to the unique design features, Scherer loves the Starship for its stable handling characteristics, high-altitude capabilities (its service ceiling is 41,000 feet) and wide cabin, which he says is several inches wider than that of the King Air B-200. He also says the cockpit is “spacious and well laid out.”

Were it not for maintenance problems in early Starship models, which gave it a bad reputation and prevented sales, the turboprop may just have become a huge success. — Pia Bergqvist

Delmar Benjamin flew his replica Gee Bee R-2 for years on the airshow circuit, offering aviation enthusiasts a glimpse back into the golden age of air racing. (Photo by Gilles Auliard)|

Gee Bee R-2

With their teardrop shape and arresting appearance, the Granville brothers’ Gee Bee Super Sportsters evoke the thrill and nostalgia of the golden age of air racing arguably more than any other aircraft. The first Super Sportster, the Model Z, debuted in 1931 after a building process of just five weeks. It went on to claim the Thompson Trophy but crashed shortly thereafter when the right wing failed during an attempt to set the world speed record, killing pilot Lowel Bayles.

Undeterred, the Granville brothers, along with engineer Pete Miller, set out to perfect the barrel-shaped raceplane. The result was the R-1 and R-2 Super Sportsters, built for pylon and cross-country racing, respectively. Both featured the same iconic design: a fuselage just large enough to encase a powerful Pratt & Whitney radial engine; a minimal tail; wide, stubby wings; and the unusual positioning of the pilot directly in front of the vertical fin. That combination made for a racer that sacrificed stability for speed and pilot control, thus demanding a highly capable pilot able to fine-tune the aircraft’s every move.

Of the two racers, the R-1 would become the most famous, winning the Thompson Trophy at the hands of pilot Jimmy Doolittle. The R-2 competed in the Bendix Race, finishing fourth due to oil leaks. Both models would come to an untimely end, the R-1 during a fatal crash in the Bendix Race of 1933 and the R-2 during a practice flight the same year.

None of the original Gee Bee Super Sportsters survive today, and for decades, no true replicas ever saw flight. Until the early 1990s, that is, when Delmar Benjamin and Steve Wolf decided to build a replica of the Gee Bee R-2. Their goal was to fly the replica for 100 hours and, in the process, restore the reputation of the Gee Bees as flyable, safe airplanes. They set their sights on building an R-2, considering it safer than its more powerful counterpart.

As luck would have it, the New England Air Museum was building a nonflying R-1 replica using the original Granville brothers plans. The plans, however, had been donated on the condition that they never be used to build a flying airplane, a stipulation born out of fear the replica would crash and further tarnish the family name. Ultimately, however, Benjamin and Wolf were granted access to the airplane, after which they met with original R-2 engineer Pete Miller, whose memory of the design remained strong over time.

After they poured 6,000 hours into the project, the R-2 made its first flight in December 1991, with Benjamin at the controls. Except for the addition of hydraulic brakes and a swiveling tailwheel, Benjamin and Wolf had remained true to the original design, and found the result a delight. “With each new flight I became more infatuated with the ship and gained more respect for the courageous souls straddling the sticks sixty years ago,” Benjamin said.

A year after completing the airplane, Benjamin had already logged 145 hours in the R-2 (the original R-2 flew just 32 hours in its lifetime). The replica spent a number of years flying the airshow circuit before it was donated to Fantasy of Flight, where it is currently undergoing flutter testing in preparation for future flights. — Bethany Whitfield

The P-63 Kingcobra's rear-mounted engine gives it a unique appearance. (Photo by Scott Slocum)|

Kingcobra

While well over 3,000 Bell P-63s were built over the course of World War II, the ­Commemorative Air Force’s N6763 ­Kingcobra is a particularly unique airplane in that it is one of only a few P-63s still flying and also one of only two P-63F models ever manufactured.

The Kingcobra was initially launched in an effort to improve upon the shortcomings of the Bell P-39 Airacobra, an early American World War II fighter often used for low-altitude missions. The Kingcobra is a wholly redesigned airplane, but it closely resembles its predecessor in outward appearance and retains the unique positioning of the engine in the center of the fuselage, behind the cockpit. The ­airplane’s four-blade propeller is turned by a shaft that runs beneath the cockpit floor.

While the U.S. Army Air Force explored nine new fighter designs from 1942 to 1943, the P-63 is the only one that ever entered mass production. At the same time, the P-63 has the distinction of being the fighter produced in the greatest number that never saw use by the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. With a top speed approaching that of the P-51 Mustang, the Kingcobra was fast, but it couldn’t provide the kind of range or high-altitude performance the United States needed. Instead, like the Airacobra, it went on to serve the Russian forces in large numbers, acting in several low-altitude pursuits.

Of the several Kingcobra variants built in the final years of the war, the P-63F featured an extended vertical tail and a more powerful 1,425 hp Allison V-1710-135 engine, which provided 100 additional horsepower over the engine used in the P-63E. The Kingcobra shown here, N6763, was delivered in the fall of 1945 to the Army Air Forces by Bell test pilot Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin, who would go on to test-fly the famed Bell X-1. The P-63F’s use by the service was short-lived, however, and just two of the variants were built before further interest in the aircraft came to a halt.

In 1946 N6763 was sold with just 24.1 hours of flight time on its airframe. The Kingcobra went on to dabble in air racing, and over the years ownership of the airplane changed hands a number of times. Today the airplane resides in San Marcos, Texas, where it is maintained and flown by the Commemorative Air Force. — B.W.

The Bleriot XI's Anzani motorcycle engine barely produces enough horsepower to get the fragile craft off the ground, but that doesn't diminish the appeal of this historic bird, which is one of only two surviving originals still flying after all these years.|

Bleriot XI

The restored Bleriot XI in the collection of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York is the second-oldest flyable airplane in the world and the only restored Bleriot-built original known to be airworthy. Bearing factory serial number 56 and registered as N60094, the airplane still makes short hops on calm summer and fall Saturday afternoons for admiring spectators, rising to a height of just a few feet above Rhinebeck’s grass runway before settling back again and taxiing to show center to pose for photos.

The flights are a reminder of the simplicity of aviation's pioneering days, when so much suddenly seemed possible with fabric stretched over a wire-braced wooden frame and linked with an engine and propeller. Simplicity was the idea behind the famed Bleriot XI, a basic design that in all honesty probably shouldn't have been able to accomplish what it did when it made its historic crossing of the English Channel on July 25, 1909. Lateral control of the Bleriot XI is accomplished by warping the trailing edges of the wing. Power came from a 25 hp, three-cylinder motorcycle engine barely capable of lifting the Bleriot out of ground effect, much less sustaining the machine on a flight of 31 miles across choppy, open water from Calais to Dover. After the cross-channel flight, for which French pilot and airplane designer Louis Bleriot won a £1,000 prize from the London Daily Mail, the Bleriot XI became world famous, and rich thrill-seekers from across ­Europe and the United States lined up to buy one.

The Bleriot XI in the Rhinebeck collection might never have flown again after a crash in Saugus, Massachusetts, in 1910. College professor H. H. Coburn would bicycle past the badly damaged airplane as a boy. The Bleriot intrigued him. As an adult, Coburn bought the Bleriot and put it in storage. Finally, in 1952, after the Bleriot had been sold to Bill Champlin of Laconia, New Hampshire, it was passed on to Cole Palen, the founder of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, who performed for decades in the weekly World War I fighter reenactments as the fictional “Black Baron.”

When Palin received the Bleriot XI, it was in shambles. He had to build a whole new wing, stabilizer and elevators. Most of the fuselage is original, and the engine is a correct Anzani Y type, modified from a racing-motorcycle design. The highest Rhinebeck’s restored Bleriot has ever flown is 60 feet. Pilots who have flown it say it barely gathers enough speed to take off — after all, who knows how much horsepower the 100-plus-year-old engine still produces? — and seems to levitate off the ground more than fly. The margin between stall and max cruise speed is only a few knots.

To think that a Bleriot XI, built just six years after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, was able to cross the English Channel is remarkable. By the same token, to have the good fortune of being able to drive to Rhinebeck, New York, and — maybe, if the wind is just right — see an original 1909 Bleriot fly, well, that's the stuff of fantasy. Thanks to the hard work and vision of the late Cole Palen, it's a fantasy come to life. — Stephen Pope

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Boeing B-29

Of the nearly 4,000 B-29 Superfortresses that were produced during World War II, only one is flying today. Known as Fifi, the airplane was rescued in the 1970s from a U.S. Navy weapons station at China Lake, California, where it sat in the heat of the desert for years and was used for target practice. After years of restoration work, Fifi returned to the air, to the delight of aviation enthusiasts across the country. In 2006, engine trouble again grounded the bird, which was then given four custom-built Wright engines to spin the original four-blade propellers. In 2010, Fifi returned to the skies, where she continues to steal the show wherever she travels. — B.W. (Photo by Scott Slocum)

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Mitsubishi Zero

There are five Mitsubishi Zeroes in flying condition left in the world, but the one owned by the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, is the only one with an original Japanese engine. As you might imagine, an extensive restoration was carried out to get this Zero in the air, so the number of truly original parts is very low. Still, restorers used enough of the original airplane to be able to rightfully call this one a fully authentic, flyable World War II Zero. The airplane was built in 1943 in Nakajima, Japan, and captured by U.S. forces on June 18, 1944, at the Aslito Airfield. The museum purchased the Zero as military surplus in 1951. — S.P. (Photo by Phil Wallick)

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Howard 500

The Howard 500 is an intriguing pressurized, radial-engine twin developed in the late 1950s as an executive transport by famed aircraft designers Dee Howard and Ed Swearingen. By Howard's own admission, his airplane probably came 10 years too late. Production started in 1963 and ended after only 22 Howard 500s were built. The Howard 500's cruise speed of 338 knots was only 10 knots slower than the turboprop Gulfstream I, and the piston-powered 500 actually had a longer range. Interestingly, the fuselage art on N500HP depicts a Howard 500 dive-bombing a Gulfstream IV, with "Scram!" emblazoned on it. — S.P. (Photo by Chris Heaton)

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**Northrop Flying Wing **

Since returning N9MB to airworthy condition in the mid-'90s, the Planes of Fame Museum has been regularly flying the only surviving bright-yellow Flying Wing. Built in 1944, the airplane is the last in a series of four test models developed by Northrop as small-scale proofs of concept for the Flying Wing bombers. The single-seat aircraft has a 60-foot wingspan and is barely 18 feet long. Its eight-cylinder air-cooled Franklin OX-540-7 engines are capable of bringing the Wing up to speeds as high as 220 mph. Due to its limited range, the Flying Wing's quiet grace can only be witnessed at local airshows in California. — P.B. (Photo by Phil Wallick)

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Cirrus VK30

The VK30 kit-built piston pusher didn't make Cirrus an overnight success. In fact, it was such a market failure that it convinced Cirrus founders Alan and Dale Klapmeier that they really should be building more conventional, FAA-certified airplanes. So in that regard, we can thank the unconventional VK30 for driving the development of the popular Cirrus SR20 and SR22 models. Conceived in the early 1980s, the five-seat VK30 incorporated a mid-engine layout with power supplied by the 300-horsepower Continental 10-SSOG power plant. VK30 kits went on sale in 1988, but only about a dozen were ever built. This airplane, NS2TH, was completed in 1999 after undergoing construction for nine years. Today it is based at Whiteman Airport in Southern California. — S.P.

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Lockheed PV-20 Harpoon

The PV-2 Harpoon bomber was a larger descendant of the PV-1 Ventura built for the U.S. Navy in World War II for use in the Pacific. The PV-2D was slated for combat against the Japanese, but the sudden end to World War II caused the military to cancel its remaining PV-2 orders, and the 35 D-models that were built were decommissioned. This particular PV-2D, serial number 84062 with the marking 062 on the nose, was modified into a tanker and spent 800 hours fighting fires before being parked at a private property in northern California.

The airplane is the only flying example of the Lockheed PV-2D and one of only three remaining airworthy PV-2s. It was recently restored by volunteers from the Stockton Field Aviation Museum in Stockton, California. The restoration, which took approximately three years, was extensive because the airplane had been exposed to the elements and outdoor critters for about 16 years. The team restored the airplane to its original factory configuration, with a dark blue Navy paint scheme. Much of the interior was replaced with either authentic parts or parts made from scratch, using period-correct techniques when possible. 062 flew to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, this year and was on display at EAA's annual AirVenture. — P.B.

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Antonov An-225 Mriya

Developed in the 1980s, the Antonov An-225 Mriya is the largest operational aircraft in the world. It was initially built to carry the Russian Space Shuttle Buran, but has since gone on to serve a broad array of commercial cargo transport needs. While other large aircraft have entered the scene since the An-225's maiden flight in 1988, none of them can quite measure up to the Ukrainian built six-engine giant.

Based on the An-124, the Mriya features a 32-wheel landing gear system and an empty weight of nearly 400,000 pounds. At the time it was built, the An-225 was 50 percent larger than the biggest airliner of the day. In fact, its cargo area is so vast that it can contain the entire length of the first flight of the Wright Flyer.

While another An-225 has been in development for some time, the one flying Mriya- which fittingly means "dream" in Ukranian - remains the only completed bird of her kind, and a wonderful marvel at that. — B.W.

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