“100 Airplanes” Goes Viral

I wrote last month about our Web feature "Flying ­Magazine's Top 100 Airplanes," which we launched on flyingmag.com just before the big airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July. As you might have heard, the list was an immediate hit, generating nearly 2 million views within just days of its release. Within that short span it became by far the biggest digital product not just in Flying's history but also in the history of our parent company, which spans more than 50 titles.

The process of creating a list of the top 100 airplanes was one of the most enjoyable tasks I've devoted myself to in my 18 years at Flying (apart from the actual flying of airplanes, that is). Creating the compendium of 100 airplanes wasn't easy fun, however: Starting with a pool of tens of thousands of aircraft and narrowing it down to just 100 was a fiendishly difficult endeavor. It was fun precisely because of that fact.

The success of the Top 100 list doesn’t prevent me from admitting that the idea was one of the most irresponsible of my career, because the mayhem that has ensued was completely predictable. As one commenter put it, “Top 100 airplanes? Could there be a better way to cause a room full of mild-mannered pilots to devolve into a bloody cage fight? I don’t think so.”

And that’s exactly how it’s gone. If you read the many comments the list has inspired, it’s impossible not to pick up on the fact that many of you have a stake in the argument. For some, that’s because you’ve lived with a particular airplane for a long time, and we all know that, after a while, an airplane can become a member of the family (albeit one we might at some point sell on the open market so we can purchase a faster member of the family). Other readers are invested because they worked with a particular model — there are a few airliners on the list, as well as military airplanes — and others wistfully recall a particular model from days of childhood.

Others are fond of a particular airplane just because they are. When I was a kid I was for some reason crazy for the Bell Airacobra. I would sketch pictures of it during lunch at Jackson Street Elementary and dream of flying one. My infatuation with the fighter somewhat alarmed my father, who thought that his son should be daydreaming about more respectable airplanes, Corsairs and P-51s. Maybe he was right. The P-39 didn’t make our list (though I did think about it.)

When perusing our readers’ often emotional responses to “100 Airplanes,” two basic themes emerge: One is that we’re crazy for not including the commenter’s favorite airplane on the list. How could we! In fact, I have great sympathy for this complaint — it’s hard to see your favorite airplane not get picked for the dodgeball team, but I was surprised at the level of emotion that some readers expressed. One gentleman e-mailed us that he was “offended” that we’d left out his favorite flying machine. He was not “surprised” or “perplexed” or “upset,” but “offended.” Now, I would have understood if we’d insulted one of his family members, but being offended by the omission of an aircraft from a Web-based list is taking it too far, right?

Then again, maybe it’s not. We pilots do love our airplanes. Just read Harrison Ford’s description of flying his favorite model (which I won’t divulge here; no spoilers on my watch!). He clearly has a deeply personal attachment to it. So I’m glad we included it in our list, if only to keep from making him mad. I’ve seen the man handle a bullwhip.

The second big gripe is that our selection process was somehow irresponsible because we didn’t have a pre-established set of criteria for our selections, qualifications that the airplanes would have to meet in order to make the cut. One commenter even went as far as to demand that, if we had a rubric of some kind, we make it public.

I will give a few hints. Our methods weren’t simple. They couldn’t be. We tried using such sensible criteria as speed, popularity and impact, but they failed us at every turn. (What good would a list be if it were dominated by titanium-wing NASA superplanes?) Other approaches failed us just as spectacularly. When trying to apply a factor like popularity, we discovered some remarkably worthy airplanes were excluded from the list while some remarkably pedestrian models would have made the cut.

Finally, after weeks of head scratching, we came up with a test that worked and that we’d use again.

At this point, we’re just not telling what that is. See if you can figure it out.

Regardless of how we arrived there, in the end, the secret behind “100 Airplanes” is a simple formula: It’s all about the airplanes. They sell themselves. Because the challenges inherent in the design of airplanes require people to come up with ingenious ways to overcome obstacles, airplanes become a testimony to genius, a moving, breathing record of human achievement. So, “100 Airplanes” has been popular because the subject matter is so compelling. We were just along for the ride.


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