Top 25 Coolest Aircraft | Flying Magazine

Top 25 Coolest Aircraft

What makes an airplane "cool?" Suffice it to say, we know it when we see it. It just kind of hits you. Almost all of the airplanes here do something really differently (whether subtle or in-your-face). Most of them are the longstanding objects of fascination by us pilots. Will you agree with them all? No way! But we know that you'll think that most of them are as cool as we do. Enjoy checking out Flying Magazine's "25 Coolest Aircraft."

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25 Solar Impulse

While a pilot looking to achieve an aviation first may have had ample opportunities in the early 1900s, a pioneer’s ambition has become a lot more difficult after a century of powered flight. However, with global warming being a controversial topic in this new millennium, a Swiss team is forging the way on a journey around the world in an airplane powered strictly by solar energy. The Solar Impulse 2 has a wingspan of 236 feet with 17,000 solar cells on top providing power to four electric motors and recharging lithium-ion batteries to allow the airplane to continue flying once the sun goes down. The first version of the airplane has already conducted test flights on three continents, including a flight across the United States.

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24 Taylor Aerocar

Molt Taylor's two-seat Aerocar was a remarkable design that combined airplane and car in a package that delivered a credible airplane and a credible car. To make the transformation to road use, the pilot would simply fold the wings back, making them a ready-to-roll trailer, stow the prop and drive away using the same Lycoming O-320 that powered the airplane's prop. The switch from plane to car or from car to plane took just a few minutes, and the resulting vehicle was truly useful if not high-performance in any regard. The car could do around 60 mph on the road and the airplane cruised at nearly 100 knots with a modest range of 300 miles.

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23 Aurora

There isn't a shred of evidence to support the contention that Aurora ever existed, much less rocketed across the skies over Southern California and Nevada at speeds above Mach 5, as legend has it. The super-secret spyplane is rumored to have been designed in the late 1980s as a replacement for the SR-71 Blackbird. By the mid-1990s, the name Aurora, which first surfaced in a 1985 Defense Department budget document, was being attached to just about any secret military aircraft capable of creating a sonic boom. Aurora theorists say the airplane had a sharp delta configuration with twin tails and square exhausts. And of course it was all black. Whether a top-secret spy plane named Aurora really existed might never be verified, but the persistent legend of the airplane — and the many billions of dollars of unaccounted defense spending that could have been funneled to an Area 51 project — will probably keep the myth alive, at least for those who want to believe.

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22 Cirrus SR22

The Cirrus SR22 is an innovation chamber from tip to tail. Dreamed up back in the 1990s by brothers Dale and Alan Klapmeier, the Cirrus singles (starting with the SR20) were and are revolutionary rides. With fixed gear for lower insurance rates and simpler operation, an ingenious throttle design for easy power management, large LCD cockpit displays, a huge cabin filled with light and forward speeds that are the envy of pilots of many retractable singles, the carbon fiber SR22 is a dream machine. Its thousands of owners agree. Oh, yeah, and if things go terribly wrong, there's a whole-airplane recovery parachute system to save the day.

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21 Voyager

Conceived and designed by Burt Rutan, the Voyager's singular mission in life was to fly nonstop and unrefueled around the world. Not only is the twin-boom carbon fiber and Kevlar creation cool, it belongs in the pantheon of aviation machines that rank as the most remarkable ever to lift skyward. Of course, many of you will remember that it almost didn't. With a payload-to-weight ratio of about five times its own empty weight, the Voyager, piloted by Burt's brother Dick and Jeana Yeager, scraped its fuel-laden wings on the concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California to begin its journey on Dec. 14, 1986. Maneuvering around bad weather and even a typhoon in the cramped cockpit, Rutan and Yeager spent the next nine days aloft, cruising at a pedestrian 100 knots or so before successfully landing back at Edwards and taking their rightful place in the history books alongside the the likes of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

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20 Gossamer Albatross

Like many of Paul MacCready's designs, the Gossamer Albatross was an aeronautical science project with a dash of adventure thrown in. The first human powered plane — which relied on just one guy, Bryan Allen, pedaling his heart out — was created to cross the English Channel, which it did in 1979. The design was remarkable because there was no room for error. While Allen probably would have survived a crash at the craft's top speed of just over 15 mph, the design had to allow the cyclist to also pilot the plane. MacCready gave his plane long, high-aspect-ratio wings (like a sailplane) and kept it light, around 220 pounds, through the use of thin mylar sheets for the wing covering and a long canard forward surface to forego the weight and complexity of a conventional tail.

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19 Eurocopter X3

Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) combined technologies from previous designs to produce the X3 — a technology demonstrator capable of producing thrust both horizontally and vertically. The X3 stunned aviation enthusiasts when it blew away the speed record for helicopters in 2013. At 255 knots, the X3 is faster than most propeller driven airplanes. The helicopter has short fixed wings, each with a propeller providing forward thrust through one of two 2,270-horsepower Turbomeca RTM322 turboshaft engines mounted beneath the massive main rotor, which allows the aircraft to climb vertically and hover. The ultra-fast X3 can also climb at 5,500 fpm and bank at angles up to 140 degrees in level flight and as much as 40 degrees in a hover.

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18 Rutan Boomerang

Burt Rutan has brought to life some incredible aircraft designs over the years, but if you ask him which one is his favorite, he'll tell you it's the Boomerang. The impetus behind the eye-catching asymmetrical piston twin was to build an airplane that provided the performance of two powerplants without the dangers that come with an engine-out situation. The unique stall-proof design Rutan came up with pulls it off, allowing pilots to fly it single-engine without even touching the rudder pedals. For that enhanced safety, the Boomerang doesn't sacrifice capability. "Even though it has just four-cylinder Lycomings, it cruises at 260 knots and has a range of 1,800 nm. That is heads above any other general aviation airplane in terms of its performance and significance," Rutan says.

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17 Jet-Powered Wingsuit

Strapping on a jet-powered wing, jumping out of an airplane and flying in formation with a B-17 bomber may all sound like wild ideas, but Yves Rossy, aka Jetman, has accomplished all three in one flight. His non-flexible strap-on wingsuit has four JetCat P200 mini turbines, the kind used on model jet airplanes, each producing about 50 pounds of thrust in spurts to keep Jetman aloft. The wing spans 6.5 feet, weighs about 120 pounds with fuel and smoke, and travels at an average speed of about 108 knots. The wingsuit is controlled through body movements, requiring impressive aerial contortionist moves to achieve some of Jetman's aerobatic maneuvers.

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16 Gulfstream G650

When you're an airplane manufacturer that epitomizes the cachet and innovation of business jet travel, you have to have a flagship airplane that fits the bill. For a leader in the industry like Gulfstream, that airplane comes in the form of the ultra-fast, ultra-long-range G650. First announced in 2008, the G650 raised the bar several notches and then some with a clean-sheet design that utilizes a highly efficient wing and robust Rolls-Royce BR725 turbofan engines to deliver top-of-the-line performance. With the ability to carry eight passengers 7,000 nm at Mach 0.85, the G650 provides a combination of range and speed unparalleled by any other jet on the market. While it's no longer the fastest certified civilian airplane around — a title recently reclaimed by Cessna with its Citation X+ — the G650 remains the quintessentially cool business jet, and one that sets the gold standard in the industry at that.

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15 Messerschmitt Me 163

The Messerschmitt Me 163 was a rocket-powered interceptor developed by the Germans toward the tail end of World War II to combat the heavily defended Boeing B-17 bombers heading into Germany on daylight raids. The 163, fueled by an explosive blend of liquid chemicals, would take off under its own power from a sled that was jettisoned as soon as it rotated. With mere minutes of flight endurance, the 163 would literally rocket skyward at speeds greater than any allied escort plane, going after the Flying Fortresses despite having minimal weaponry with which to attack. After making its run, the German interceptor would turn tail and head back to base, gliding in for a landing after its fuel had been exhausted. This mission profile, however, made the 163 easy pickings for allied fighters.

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14 Hughes Hercules (Spruce Goose)

The world-renowned "Spruce Goose," designed by adventurer pilot and businessman Howard Hughes, is one of the most fascinating airplanes in history, as well as one of the coolest. "Spruce Goose" was just a nickname — the airplane is technically the Hughes Hercules, and it wasn't even built from spruce but largely from engineered plywood and early composites. At the time, the gigantic flying boat, with a wingspan of better than 320 feet, was the biggest airplane to ever fly. It lifted off from a bay on the Southern California coast on November 2, 1947, behind no fewer than eight Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major radial engines of 3,000 hp apiece. That first (and only) flight lasted just around a minute and probably never left ground effect, casting some doubt on whether or not it was technically a "flight" at all.

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13 Super Guppy

At first glimpse, this whale of a plane barely looks like it could maintain enough lift to stay airborne, much less serve as a viable cargo transport. But since the 1960s it's played a vital role hauling precious cargo for NASA space missions across the globe, delivering materials used in the Apollo and Gemini missions, among countless others. Only five Super Guppies have ever been built, and they were constructed using a number of different parts from other airplanes, including the KC-97, the 707, the C-130 and the P-3 Orion. Five decades since its first flight, the Super Guppy is still in service, turning heads wherever it flies.

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12 Carbon Cub

There is no question that fast airplanes are cool. But the low and slow flying the Carbon Cub offers is what many pilots of speedy planes crave. A modern version of the beloved Piper Cub, the Carbon Cub is made of, you guessed it, carbon fiber materials, making it light and strong. The Carbon Cub Sport SS is so light that it easily fits into the light sport category. With a Titan 340CC engine producing 180 horsepower for takeoff, the Carbon Cub can get off the ground in less than 100 feet and climb at more than 2,000 feet per minute at sea level, making this little taildragger a terrific platform for backcountry fun.

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11 F-22 Raptor

Some have labeled it the most capable fighting machine in the world. The single-seat, stealth F-22 Raptor is the first fifth generation fighter in the U.S. military's arsenal. It is now proving itself in its first combat roles in the Middle East, yet faces no airborne foe worthy of a fight. With a radar signature the size of a marble, the Raptor is the only fighter jet that can engage multiple air and ground targets simultaneously, making it a potent threat. Capable of speeds above Mach 2 and with thrust-vectoring technology for extreme maneuverability in a dogfight, there has never been a more technologically sophisticated and deadly airplane rolled into a one package.

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10 Eclipse 550

Vern Raburn's idea to produce a sub-6,000-pound twinjet that would exceed 350 knots and fly more than 1,000 nautical miles at a single bound was crazy. But he did it. Despite its troubled history, the end result is undeniably a beauty and an engineering marvel. Today's Eclipse, under new management, sells the model 550. It will do 375 knots, travel 1,300 nm at lower speeds, and do it all with a fuel burn that rivals some turboprops. The 550 features autothrottles, flat-panel displays, an innovative sheet metal design (friction stir welding) and enough ramp appeal to more than make up for its diminutive stature.

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9 North American X-15

The fastest military aircraft ever built, the X-15 was designed in the 1950s and reached speeds that to this day seem unfathomable. The black rocket plane reached hypersonic speeds, speeds beyond Mach 5, topping out at Mach 6.7. Released from a B-52 at around 45,000 feet, the X-15's pilot would fire up the Reaction Motors XLR99 rocket engines, each producing 57,000 pounds of thrust (translating to half a million horsepower). The power would only last for two minutes, but during that time the airplane could reach as high as 345,300 feet (that's a climb rate of 150,000 fpm). The remainder of the flights, of which the X-15 completed 199, were conducted in a glide.

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8 Boeing 747

The dream behind the world's first jumbojet was in essence a simple one. As air travel came within reach of more and more people, Boeing sought to take advantage of that boom in demand and provide a platform big enough to carry more people at one time than ever before. The innovative design Boeing engineers delivered accomplished that in spades. At more than two and a half times the size of the 707 and with eventual seating for up to 550 people, the Boeing 747 took mass air travel to a whole new level. The tail alone stood at the height of a six-story building, and the first 747 pilots learned how to taxi the beast of an airplane by using a mock flight deck set atop three-story stilts. Despite its massive size, the 747 was also for many years about the fastest airliner in the skies, save Concorde. Since the first 747 rolled out of Boeing's Seattle facilities, the model has flown more than 42 billion nautical miles, a testament to its enduring utility.

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7 Bede BD-5J

For the thronging masses, the BD-5J microjet is best remembered for its scene-stealing role in the James Bond flick Octopussy. Who can forget Roger Moore at the controls of the oh-so-cool red-and-blue striped jet, evading a missile by flying knife-edge through an enemy hangar? Aviation old-timers, of course, remember the piston-powered BD-5 and jet-engine-equipped BD-5J as the talk of Oshkosh when kit-building bad boy Jim Bede unveiled the airplanes in the 1970s. He'd hired Burt Rutan as an engineer, but even that move couldn't keep the company out of bankruptcy. Flying alumnus Richard Bach owned a BD-5J, which he built himself and loved to fly at speeds well above 200 knots. Another former Flying editor, Jack Olcott, flew a BD-5J solo for a pilot report in the magazine. Legend has it that he pardoned himself for a brief moment during the photo flight to perform a gorgeous, impromptu loop before again joining up alongside the chase airplane. How's that for cool?

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Eric Farewell

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6 Space Shuttle

The recently retired Space Shuttle fleet made its first launch in 1981 when the Space Shuttle Columbia launched into orbit. With a max gross takeoff weight of 4.5 million pounds, the Shuttle traveled as fast as 17,500 mph. The solid rocket boosters fired up as much as 5.3 million pounds of thrust to blast the vehicle off the ground and away from the pull of gravity. At about an altitude of 24 nautical miles, the boosters were jettisoned and the three main engines provided the Space Shuttle with 1.2 million pounds of thrust, or 37 million horsepower. The Space Shuttle was really a space ship and not an "aircraft" until re-entry. But coming back into the atmosphere it was all airplane, a huge hypersonic glider that landed on its own gear. How cool was that!

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5 V-22 Osprey

Launched way back in the 1980s, the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey is still a remarkable sight today. The aircraft — it is both a helicopter and a fixed-wing-mode craft — makes use of tilting giant rotor blades to transform itself from a VTOL craft into a fixed wing twin-turboprop. To guard against what would be a catastrophic loss of one engine, the design of the Osprey links the two rotors together so if one engine fails, the remaining good engine will drive both props. As a fixed-wing aircraft, the V-22 is capable of speeds up to 300 knots at altitude. Not bad for a craft that can also land in a field about the size of its rotors' footprint.

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4 Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

The pinnacle of early stealth technology combined with raw speed, the U.S. Air Force SR-71 Blackbird was designed to fly so high and so fast that it could simply outrun missiles, and its dramatic shape hid it from most ground radar. A pair of internally housed Pratt & Whitney J58-1 engines of 34,000 pounds of thrust apiece powered the SR-71 to over Mach 3. The high heat caused by fast speeds raised the temperature of the titanium skin to where it would expand by several inches, so designers made the fuselage panels fit loosely (so much so that jet fuel seeped out of the wings) while it was on the ground.

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3 BAE Harrier

Seeing the Harrier levitating above a runway, its thrust-vectoring technology giving it the maneuverability of a helicopter, is an awe-inspiring thing. Developed in Great Britain and later improved with the help of American engineers at Boeing in the form of the BAE AV-8B Harrier II, this incredible VTOL strike fighter brings capabilities to Western air forces that military commanders had only dreamed about. On the airshow circuit, the Harrier's graceful bow is a crowd favorite, as is the loud roar of its directed-thrust Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine as the airplane transitions to fast forward speed in the seeming blink of an eye. Today the Harrier's vertical lift capability is being replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, but the Jump Jet still wows show crowds wherever it goes.

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2 Bell Rocket Belt

Developed in the early 1960s by Bell under a U.S. Army contract, the Bell Rocket Belt (often referred to as a jet pack) was a hydrogen-peroxide powered pack worn on the back by a single pilot who used it to fly. The idea had been around in science fiction circles for decades, but a combination of Bell's engineering expertise and the dogged determination of its pilots to fly the contraption made it a reality. First flights were tethered, but the Rocket Belt flew free of a tether in 1961, making a 100-plus-foot flight that lasted 13 seconds. Eventually Bell's pilots became very skilled at flying the belt, and put on demonstrations across the United States of the devices capabilities. With a range of just over the length of a football field and an endurance of less than a minute, the Army said "no thanks," and the Rocket Belt was history. This fact, however, didn't keep millions of pilots and would-be pilots from dreaming of owning one.

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1 Concorde

The supersonic airliner may have made its last flight more than a decade ago, but Concorde still captivates the imaginations of millions and evokes awe among airplane enthusiasts and the general public alike. Developed as a joint venture by France and Britain, Concorde's inception dates back to the 1950s and '60s as the two countries looked to become the new innovators in the industry by developing what they saw as the future of aviation — supersonic transport. And when it came to futuristic design, Concorde looked the part, with a delta wing, a droop nose and highly reflective white paint used to help decrease the heat created by traveling at 1,300 mph. With speed that fast, Concorde could take passengers from New York to London in just three and a half hours. A one-way ticket on Concorde would eventually climb to over $7,000 in today's dollars, a price many were willing to pay for a high-profile ride on the supersonic marvel.

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Want more aircraft? C****heck out Flying's 25 Most Beautiful Airplanes for pure aviation eye candy.

Click here to view the list.

Or check out our Top 100 Airplanes: Platinum Edition for our list of the best aircraft ever!

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