Top 25 Most Beautiful Airplanes | Flying Magazine

Top 25 Most Beautiful Airplanes

While we can name hundreds of really smart, powerful, utilitarian or awesome airplanes, there are far, far fewer of them that we would call truly "beautiful." What is it that makes an airplane an aesthetic wonder? Some might tell you it's all in the eye of the beholder, but they're wrong. Beauty in an airplane comes from a symmetry of components, a coherent identity and a compelling presence. The Piper Aztec is a useful airplane; the Beech Baron (not on our list) is a beautiful airplane. While you might come up with an airplane or five you think we should have included, we doubt you'll find fault with the ones that did make the cut. We're also pretty sure that you'll agree with our choice for number one, the most beautiful airplane ever. As always, we'd love to hear what you think. Enjoy.

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Top 25 Most Beautiful Airplanes

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25 Grumman F7F Tigercat

Sometimes there’s beauty in a design that takes technology to its limits. Such is the case with the Grumman F7F Tigercat, the first twin-engine U.S. Navy Fighter. The Tigercat came about too late for action in WWII and instead saw only limited duty in the Korean theater of operations. Still, it was an impressive fighter. With twin Double Wasp radials cranking out 2,100 hp apiece, the 400-kt F7F was a cat with claws, its big round engines balanced by the huge tail, necessary for adequate rudder authority for engine-out operations. The sleek cockpit (single-seat at first and tandem with pilot in front and radar operator in back later on) completes the no-nonsense look of a cutting edge fighter airplane overtaken by the jet age but not forgotten.

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Kogo via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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24 Beechcraft Duke

The heyday of the piston twin produced some remarkable designs, but none was more beautiful than Beechcraft’s aggressively styled Duke, a near-250-kt twin that pushed the limits of the owner flown piston cabin class twin. The pressurized model was introduced in the late 1960s and over the next 15 years Beech built a steady stream of them, many of them going to high-powered individuals who valued the airplane’s no-excuses styling as much as its outstanding performance. The jet-like nose section, the pouncing stance, the ahead-of-their time winglets and the gorgeous, high-dihedral conventional tail combine to give the Duke the look of going fast just sitting on the ramp.

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Michael Kelly

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23 Nemesis

The winged goddess Nemesis may have been gorgeous. But in the eyes of true pilots, not even the image of a goddess could match the beauty of the airplane with the same name. The Nemesis NXT, which grew out of the highly successful Nemesis Formula One race airplane designed by Jon Sharp, is made out of composite materials, allowing for smooth, aerodynamically flowing lines that minimize drag and maximize speed and good looks. Adding to the speed and beauty are the laminar flow wings, the span of which is nearly identical to the length of the striking fuselage.

View our Reno Air Races photo gallery here.

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22 Northrop Grumman B2 Bomber

With the development of stealth technology, which allowed airplanes to dramatically reduce their radar signature and hence more easily penetrate enemy defenses, the paradigm of tactical and strategic bombing changed forever. The first truly stealthy bomber design, the Northrop Grumman B2 Spirit, was developed to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The flying wing design eliminated sharp junctions, the radar absorbing finish cut out other hot spots, the serrated trailing edge cut exhaust signature and the engines, embedded within the wing, do their work in secret. Does it work? Yes. The B2 has never had a missile fired at it, though we aren’t saying it’s because it’s too beautiful to shoot down.

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U.S. Air Force

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21 Hawker Sea Fury

A 3,000-horsepower Bristol Centaurus radial engine leads the Sea Fury’s cigar-shaped fuselage. A small glass on top is the only evidence of a cockpit. With its sexy lines, rumbling roar and impressive speeds, it is no wonder that the Hawker Sea Fury has long been a favorite at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Being designed for the Royal Navy in World War II (though not completed until after the war) by the British company Hawker Siddeley Aircraft, the beautifully shaped elliptical wings fold up for carrier storage, which makes the airplane stand out even more on the ground.

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Dave Miller via Creative Commons

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20 Piaggio Aero Avanti

Beauty isn’t always the goal for beautiful airplanes, but in the case of the striking Piaggio Aero Avanti, it’d hard to believe it wasn’t a major consideration. Created in the mid-1980s when the similar canard configured Beechcraft Starship team had just begun, the Avanti established a standard never equaled. Design wise, the sheet-metal (and not composite) Avanti is a masterpiece. The twin pusher engines, downward canted (anhedral) tail plane and forward wing combine forces to create a design at once futuristic and hauntingly organic, all of this in notable addition to the airplane’s phenomenal jet-like performance and turboprop-like economies of operation.

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19 Cessna Airmaster

There’s an art to achieving ambitious ends with materials better suited for raw utility than sleek aesthetics, and in its seminal Airmaster, Cessna (behind genius designer Dwayne Wallace) made a modern beauty from legacy materials. The fuselage is welded steel, and the wings are wood, with the whole structure covered in fabric. The fact that a “tube-and-rag” design could achieve such beautiful lines remains a wonder. The design itself utilized then modern ideas for light airplanes, including the graceful cantilever (no struts) wing, and helped propel Cessna into the modern age and an era of all-metal designs that would revolutionize light aviation.

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18 Supermarine Spitfire

The signature elements that make the Spitfire so appealing to the eye, namely its elliptical wing and sleek airframe, are also what give the legendary British fighter such exceptional maneuverability and speed. Introduced in 1938, the Spitfire was also one of the best flying airplanes of World War II, with none of the nasty habits that got young pilots of other fighters in trouble. In fact, Brad Pitt, a relative novice who holds a private pilot’s license along with his wife Angelina Jolie, recently bought a Spitfire for a cool $3.3 million and is reportedly learning to fly it in Oxford, England.

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Bryan Fury75 via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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17 de Havilland Mosquito

Looking from a distance, it is hard to envision the materials that make up the streamlined shape of the twin-engine de Havilland D.H.98 Mosquito. Being designed during World War II, with a limited aluminum supply in Britain, the Mosquito was built mostly out of various types of hardwood and plywood, giving it the nickname “The Wooden Wonder.” The Mosquito’s engine nacelles are nearly perfectly aligned with its pointed nose and the smoothly tapered wings complete the harmonized design. Equipped with a bomb bay and capable of great speeds, the Mosquito became one of the fastest, most versatile and most beautiful warbirds of its era.

View more de Havilland Mosquito photos here.

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Scott Slocum

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16 Lancair IV

Thanks to the pioneering work of Burt Rutan, Experimental aircraft designers were early adopters of innovative design. Kits including the Wheeler Express, Seawind, Glasair III, Berkut and White Lightning all pushed the envelope, but none achieved the striking beauty of Lancair IV. Designed by Lance Neibauer, the four-seat carbon-fiber airplane is very fast and boasts a very long range. It’s also a gorgeous design, which should come as no shock; Neibauer’s training was as a design artist. With a turbocharged Continental TSIO-550 engine, the pressurized Lancair IV does around 280 knots with a range of better than 1500 nautical miles. Beauty and speed.

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15 Macchi-Castoldi M.C.72

The Italian-made Macchi-Castoldi M.C.72 doesn’t just look remarkable; it is extraordinarily so. With a fuselage about the size and shape of its pontoons, and rectangular metal wings with essentially no dihedral, the single-engine seaplane racer has contra-rotating propellers spun by a 2,850-horsepower liquid-cooled, 24-cylinder Fiat engine, which occupies most of the fuselage. Designed by Mario Castoldi and built by Macchi in the early 1930s, the M.C.72 held the world speed record for several years. It reached a top speed of 383 knots and it is still the fastest and arguably the most beautiful piston-engine seaplane ever built.

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14 Hughes H-1 Racer

It’s hard to argue that there has ever been a more striking civilian-designed airplane than the Hughes Racer. Built and piloted by industry titan Howard Hughes in 1935, he promptly crashed the H-1 in a beet field in Santa Ana, California, on his first flight, after exhausting its fuel supply. The airplane’s 14-cylinder twin-row Pratt & Whitney R-1535 radial engine powered it to a record speed of 352.39 mph on that flight. Hughes rebuilt the H-1 with a longer wing better suited to breaking the transcontinental speed record, which he did in 1937, flying the H-1 nonstop from Los Angeles to New York in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds for an average speed of 322 mph.

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13 Cessna Citation X

When Cessna launched its dramatically shaped Mach .92 Citation X (like the Roman Numeral for ten), the aviation world let out a collective gasp. Never before had such a dramatically shaped bizjet taken flight. Cessna aerodynamicists gave the X a huge belly bulge intended not to look beautiful but to take advantage of the drag reduction effects of area rule design at transonic speeds. Coupled with its statuesque T-tail, giant engines, whisper thin sharply swept wings and defiant nose, the fuselage of the Citation X defined the no-compromises design of the fastest civil airplane in the world.

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12 Ryan ST

When it comes to training aircraft, there aren’t many that are true beauties. An exception is the Ryan ST-A, a two-place tandem open cockpit monoplane that served as a primary trainer for tens of thousands of pilots leading up to and during WWII. It’s hard to say what the defining characteristic of the model is, whether it’s the five-cylinder radial engine, its snaggletooth jugs protruding from the cowl (or in the ST-M version with a neatly cowled inline engine), the bygone-era open cockpit (scarves were mandatory gear and can be considered part of the design) or the polished sheet metal fuselage complemented by fabric-covered wings and tail and a spindly looking gearset that improbably added to the beauty of the design instead of detracting from it. Whatever the secret, it works.

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Julian Herzog via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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11 Lockheed Model 10 Electra

Best remembered as the airplane Amelia Earhart was piloting when she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in the South Pacific in July 1937, the Lockheed Model 10 Electra was the first airplane designed with input by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who would go on to conceive several other legendary airplanes including the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, F-104 Starfighter and SR-71 Blackbird. Johnson’s biggest contribution to the Electra was the suggestion that it should incorporate a twin tail for improved handling. The multi-tail configuration would become a company hallmark. First flown in February 1934, the Electra was as commercially successful as it was beautiful, with 149 built and many more to follow in the form of the Model 12 Electra Junior and Model 14 Super Electra.

View our Amelia Earhart gallery here.

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BriYYZ via Creative Commons

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10 Vought F4U Corsair

The Vought Corsair was one of the sexiest fighters of World War II, but it was actually shortcomings of the original design that led to its legendary inverted gull-wing shape. The drooping wing was needed to provide clearance for its massive propeller and sturdy main landing gear. Yet these design elements made it difficult to land on carrier decks, and the Navy relegated the Corsair to land duty only while improvements were ordered. Later Corsair models employed a shorter-diameter, four-blade propeller, a more forgiving landing gear and a redesigned cockpit seat that dramatically improved its acumen as the carrier warplane it was always intended to be.

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Gerry Metzler via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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9 de Havilland Comet

How do you make a machine capable of carrying dozens of passengers beautiful? Look no further than the British de Havilland Comet. Unlike other airliners of its era, the Comet was the first jet-powered airliner. Its four de Havilland Ghost 50 Mk1 engines were encased inside the wings, creating sleek, undisturbed lines. Not only was the Comet stunningly beautiful, it also cut the travel time for long-haul airline passengers by several hours. Unfortunately the operational life of the Comet was cut short due to stress fractures in the fuselage from continuous pressure changes, and airlines turned to emerging American jetliners before de Havilland was able to correct the Comet’s flaws.

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8 Cessna Model 177 Cardinal

The Cessna Cardinal was created by Cessna in the late 1960s as a replacement for the Skyhawk, which never happened. Still, the Cardinal cut a striking figure, defined by a graceful cantilever wing, sleek nose, elegantly shaped windows and two wide doors for easy access. If the fixed-gear Cardinal is pretty, the retractable gear model completed the package, giving the Cardinal the modern, automotive lines that rivaled Detroit’s best looking coupes. However, the Cardinal proved expensive to build and no match for the Skyhawk, so Cessna discontinued it. Even so, Cardinal owners (and admirers) remain enamoured of the model’s enduring beauty.

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Aleksandr Markin via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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7 North American P-51D Mustang

Part of the allure of the North American P-51D Mustang, it must be noted, is imparted not in the eye of the beholder but rather the ear as the legendary World War II fighter’s 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engine pours out its visceral, howling whistle during passes at more than 400 mph. The P-51D is a stunningly gorgeous airplane as well, instantly recognizable for its long, slim nose, teardrop canopy and belly air scoop. The D model Mustang arrived in Europe in 1944, becoming the Allies' primary long-range escort fighter. In all nearly 8,000 were built.

View more P-51 photos here.

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Scott Slocum

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6 Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

Faster than a speeding bullet (or missile, for that matter), the SR-71 Blackbird was conceived by legendary designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and tested in the late 1950s at Area 51. Built with the speed to outrun any enemy’s aircraft or missiles, the SR-71 was intended to be an alternative to the U-2 spyplane after the shoot down by the Soviets of Francis Gary Powers in 1960. Built of titanium and steel and designed to withstand sustained cruise speeds above Mach 3, Lockheed built a total of 32 SR-71s. Twelve were destroyed in accidents, but not one was ever lost to enemy fire.

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U.S. Air Force

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5 de Havilland Dragon Rapide

One of the most captivating and unusual airplane designs of the 1930s is an early airliner – the de Havilland DH89A, also known as the Dragon Rapide. The Dragon series of airplanes were named for their dragonfly shapes created by the two sets of wings, large nose area and long fuselage, which ends in a tailwheel that confirms the airplanes’ vintage. The series of connected windows that enclose the cockpit is reminiscent of the dragonfly’s bulbous eyes. However, the Dragon Rapide appears to be wearing shoes with the sizable wheelpants that merge with the engine cowlings of the two tall, narrow Gipsy Six engines mounted on the lower wings.

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Tony Hisgett via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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4 Lockheed Constellation

Known by lovers of early commercial aviation simply as the “Connie,” the Lockheed Constellation is instantly recognizable for its triple-tail design, dolphin fuselage and four 18-cylinder Wright radial engines. The Connie, first flown in 1943, has been called the most beautiful airliner of all time. There’s no question the Constellation ruled the skies with a top speed of 375 mph and a transcontinental range of more than 3,000 miles. Input for the design came directly from TWA principal shareholder Howard Hughes, who personally set speed records in the airplane. The Connie’s demise came only with the arrival of the Boeing 707 and the Jet Age in 1958.

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NASA

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3 Piper J-3 Cub

Things that are beautiful don’t always need to be paragons of design. Sometimes, the elements, however homey and simple, blend into a whole that is inexplicably, well, perfect. The Piper J-3 Cub (not the first Cub and certainly not the last) achieved the status of the light airplane archetype, its yellow painted doped fabric covering and black lightning bolt zip along the side creating a brand that was at once globally known and locally grown. Good luck finding a pilot who doesn’t love the J-3, but its recognition went beyond the airstrip. For a time “Piper Cub” became the popular parlance for “airplane,” for even non-pilots recognize a beautiful airplane when they see one.

View our Piper Cub photo gallery here.

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2 Concorde

Arguably the most striking shape in modern aviation, perhaps in all of aviation, is the supersonic airliner known as Concorde. The joint venture between France and England was a glorious exercise in excess and compromise. The airplane featured four huge turbojet engines, a whisper thin delta wing and an arrow-like nose that would droop down on approach to improve landing visibility. The result was a Mach 2.02, 60,000-foot cruiser that cut the Paris-New York commute from eight hours to around three and a half hours. A total of 20 Concordes were built, but the airplane was never a commercial success, though it stayed in service for 27 years, a testament to the age of no-holds-barred aircraft design.

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Eduard Marmet via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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1 Beechcraft Staggerwing

The Beech Model 17, universally known as the Staggerwing Beech, is the epitome of aviation beauty, though its designers took all kinds of strange turns to arrive at a finished product. A collaboration of Beech founder Walter Beech and renowned designer Ted Wells, the Staggerwing was so named for its top wing being set considerably behind the bottom wing. That configuration, along with the cutting edge addition of retractable landing gear and the big round engine, created an aggressive, rakish look. The Staggerwing's beautiful art deco design touches sealed the deal on an airplane so beautiful it seems impossible that it was created during the depths of the Great Depression.

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Armchair Aviator via Creative Commons)

Top 100 Airplanes: Platinum Edition Gallery Extra Slide

Top 100 Airplanes: Platinum Edition Gallery Extra Slide

Want more aircraft? Check out Flying's Top 100 Airplanes: Platinum Edition to see if one of your favorites made the cut.

Click here to view the list.

Or check out our 20 Most Famous Airplanes and Aircraft for those that made history in aviation!

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