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The World’s Most Fascinating Planes

The World’s Most Fascinating Planes
Taylor Rains

Aviation is incredible and has come a long way since its birth, with the world producing faster, bigger, and more ingenious aircraft every few years. From the Wright Flyer in 1903 to supersonic jets just 50 years later, aircraft will never cease to impress me, but there are a few that stand out among the rest. These five aircraft are, in my opinion, the world’s most interesting aircraft because they all serve a unique purpose, and each is different from the rest.

1. Concorde

Everyone has heard of the famous Concorde aircraft. A beauty in the sky with a remarkable design, the Concorde had a significant presence in the airline industry from 1976 to 2003. It shuttled passengers from London to Washington D.C. in an incredible 3.5 hours and flying at supersonic speeds (Mach 2.04) nearing 1500 miles per hour. To put this into perspective, a Boeing 737-800 aircraft has a cruise speed of about 580 miles per hour with a Mach 0.785.

The Concorde aircraft was the plane of the future, and people lined the streets to watch it take off and land, so why did it retire only 27 years after its introduction? There are dozens of reasons the aircraft was sent to the boneyard early, including noise and environmental concerns, high tax dollars, expensive maintenance, and its lack of economic viability. On paper, the Concorde looked perfect, with engineers and enthusiasts praising it as if it were Princess Diana. Its speed, sleek look, and supersonic capabilities grabbed the world’s attention, but its feasibility was nonexistent in the long run. Without going into too much detail, one of the biggest concerns from the airline perspective is its low capacity and high fuel burn. Holding only 98 – 128 passengers and burning the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 made it an expensive commodity. Airlines soon realized that it was impossible to keep profitable after 30 years of service, with the British and French governments even jumping in to help subsidize the cost (and using taxpayer dollars to do so). Furthermore, the 2000 Air France crash also shook the industry, casting doubts over the plane’s safety. Rising gas prices and expensive maintenance costs broke the Concorde’s reliability, forcing it to retire in 2003.

Faults aside, the Concorde aircraft will always be a fan favorite, going down in history as one of the most incredible engineering masterpieces of the late 1900s.

2. Beluga

(Image: Airbus)

 

The Beluga, nicknamed for it’s a resemblance to the beluga whale, is an A300-600ST (Super Transporter) that was designed to haul aircraft parts and oversized cargo. Although the basic design (wings, engines, landing gear, and lower part of the fuselage) is identical to that of the A300-600 airliner, the upper section of the fuselage has been extended to form a horseshoe-like shape with a 25-foot diameter. In comparison to its predecessor, the Super Guppy, the Beluga’s larger fuselage doubled its payload and increased its total volume by 30%.

Airbus operates five of these aircraft, and they are essential in keeping the company’s growing network running smoothly and at capacity. With a 147-foot wingspan and a height of 56 feet, it can carry up to 47 tonnes and travel at 493 knots. Although it may be a little funny looking, it is a workhorse for Airbus’ operation.

3. Orbis

(Image: Orbis)

Aircraft don’t need to have a special design to be interesting; the Orbis’ purpose is what makes it a necessity in this world. Known as the “Flying Eye Hospital,” the Orbis brings aviation and medicine together. Taking flight in 1982, an MD-10 aircraft turned eye operation center flies to countries around the world in need of eye care, such as Jamaica, Chile, and Vietnam. Orbis states on its website, “Thanks to our generous and compassionate supporters, the Flying Eye Hospital has been a call to action for better eye care around the world for more than three decades. Wherever it lands, it raises awareness, creates change and rallies supporters – from local governments, global organizations, philanthropists, to the general public – to join the global fight to end avoidable blindness.”

Not only does the aircraft take doctors to perform surgery and provide medical care to communities around the world, but it also trains local doctors and invites governments to see the operation to encourage them to invest in eye health. The company explains the importance of the project in a statement, “This level of access has allowed Orbis to help change health policies for the better, reach doctors in need of training, improve the lives of those lacking access to care, and not least of all, develop lasting bonds with people around the globe to ensure a long-term impact.”

4. Vomit Comet

(Image: © NASA JSC Image Repository and Terry Slezak)

The Vomit Comet made the list because of its role in training astronauts to live in space. The aircraft is specially designed to dip and climb in a rollercoaster-like fashion to simulate anti-gravity. In a single session, astronauts fly for two to three hours and experience weightlessness up to 40 times for 25-30 seconds each. However, this flight is not for the queasy, and many astronauts and passengers alike get nauseous – hence the nickname.

This microgravity concept has a long history, beginning with the simulation of the wave-like flight by two German scientists in 1950. In 1957, the Air Force started NASA’s Reduced Gravity Program, flying three C-131 twin-engine propeller planes to train astronauts for the Mercury and Apollo programs. Five KC-135 Stratotankers were used after 1967, with the last one retiring in 2004.

Astronauts are not the only people able to ride on the Vomit Comet. Today, students, engineers, celebrities, and anybody else willing can board Zero-G Corp’s Boeing 727-200F to experience the feeling of weightlessness. Tickets are only $5000 a person.

5. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

(Image: Lockheed Martin)

Built for stealth and speed, the SR-71 Blackbird aircraft was a military necessity during wartime in the mid-1900s. The plane was a high speed, long-range, reconnaissance aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force that set many records during its 24-year career. The jet was able to sustain an altitude of over 85,000 feet and fly at almost 2,200 miles per hour (Mach 3.3), but that was not its only impressive feat. The jet was equipped for mission-critical intelligence gathering and provided the military with imagery of prison-of-war camps and supply deployments, as well as intelligence on the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon.

The aircraft was first delivered in 1966 and retired in 1990. Although it is no longer in service, NASA still uses the Blackbird for studies on aerodynamics, propulsion, and thermal protection materials. If you’d like to see one up close, 15 are housed at museums across the U.S., such as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL and the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.

There are dozens of amazing aircraft out there, but these are just a few of my favorites, meant to highlight different planes for a variety of purposes. I know not everyone will agree with my choices, so drop your favorites in the comments!

View Comments (6)

6 Comments

  1. wesleyklein443

    December 16, 2019 at 10:36 am

    Cool list of different type of aircraft. I personally did not know about the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. One of my personal favorite aircraft is the de Havilland DH 106 Comet (world´s first commercial airliner).

    Also an addition to the part about the Beluga. Airbus is currently testing/developing the next generation of heavy lift aircraft, called the Beluga XL. It´s about the enter service in 2020 and it´s based on the Airbus A330 series.

  2. Dr.Ells

    December 16, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    Nice article! However, the editor of FlyerTalk should warn the author NOT to include a photo of deceased people who died in a tragedy — the Challenger. If I am correct, that is Ms. Christa McAuliffe (sp?) and colleagues in the (no need to repeat “v”) “comet.” Please, show a shred of respect.

  3. dsellens

    December 18, 2019 at 9:49 am

    How wonderful to see the crew of the Challenger again and especially in such a joyous moment. It really helps us remember them and how much they loved their jobs and were honored to serve as US Astronauts. We should never forget them or hide them in some closet in some misguided show of respect. To do so would dishonor them and their sacrifice.

  4. RevJJ

    December 18, 2019 at 5:40 pm

    I’ll always love the SR-71 because the Cobra Night Raven, a toy I had as a kid, was based on it.

    https://dygtyjqp7pi0m.cloudfront.net/i/25219/23410179_1.jpg

  5. DManzaluni

    December 19, 2019 at 5:16 am

    The Concorde flew moderately profitably for a decade or so, being ‘subsidised’ by governments and wealthy flyers while it amortised its costs. By the end of its life, much of its economics was pure profit for the airlines that flew it.

    But NO airline oredred it after the initial production run. And unfortunately September 11th killed off a significant number of its users.

    Still, by about 2002 there was so much profit in Concorde as so much of the cost had been amortised that a number of airlines WERE falling over themselves to buy it.

    Unfortunately, the year before, whoever was responsible for paying for storage of the formas for building it thought it a bright idea to save money by taking the storage warehouses out of service and destroying all those formas! Thereafter, everything became uneconomical about the plane, engines, parts and (mostly) the jet fuel still used by the tiny numbers of Concordes in service.

  6. DManzaluni

    December 19, 2019 at 5:17 am

    The Concorde flew moderately profitably for a decade or so, being ‘subsidised’ by governments and wealthy flyers while it amortised its costs. By the end of its life, much of its economics was pure profit for the airlines that flew it.

    But NO airline ordered it after the initial production run. And unfortunately September 11th killed off a significant number of its users.

    Still, by about 2002 there was so much profit in Concorde as so much of the cost had been amortised that a number of airlines WERE falling over themselves to buy it.

    Unfortunately, the year before, whoever was responsible for paying for storage of the formas for building it thought it a bright idea to save money by taking the storage warehouses out of service and destroying all those formas! Thereafter, everything became uneconomical about the plane, engines, parts and (mostly) the jet fuel still used by the tiny numbers of Concordes in service.

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