My top 10 favourite aircraft
14 Jun 2021
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Aviation is one of those things where, depending on the angle taken, you can vanish into a world of geekery and never return.
I have always been interested in the design of aircraft, being of the opinion they represent the ultimate expression of the maxim – form follows function; especially when it comes to fighter craft. Interestingly, unlike many other things in life, the aircraft I loved as a kid I still do – at no point have I ever looked back and thought my tastes at the time were immature… these aircraft were cool then, and they still are; except now I understand the different levels of cool each contains!
Lately I have been pondering building a collection of models of my favourite aircraft, many of which I had built when I was a kid. But the realities of time and space probably means I never will; I already have a bunch of kits I bought years ago, with all the best of intentions, that have remained unmade. So in lieu of assembling a collection that I probably will never build, I thought I’d plop them here for safe keeping…
Looking over my top 10 list, it’s clear that I have a very defined attraction to aircraft that either were scantly disguised rockets with pilots strapped to the front, or aircraft whose aerodynamic form made them look like something from the future, sometimes both. Perhaps most interestingly, pretty much all of them are long relegated to the annals of history, products of a time and place that was very different to today’s high-tech air environments. Maybe that’s what makes them so interesting, and timeless – they were products of a time, and design philosophies, with very narrow focal points aimed at achieving a single goal.
So without further adieu, here is my list…
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter: The first production aircraft to achieve Mach 2, and the first aircraft to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet, the 104 was pretty much a lightweight rocket that went great in straight lines. Nicknamed the ‘Widowmaker’ by the Luftwaffe due to its appalling accident rate, the Starfighter in my books still ranks as one of the most insane aircraft ever fleeted; the pinnacle of a pilot strapped to an engine.
English Electric Lightning: The only Mach 2 capable fighter made by the UK, the Lightning was renowned for its insane climb rate and was reported to reach 88,000 feet with Flt Lt Mike Hale at the stick; Hale also intercepted the U2 spy plane at 66,000 feet, previously considered a safe operating altitude. Hals also pitted the Lightning against for 104 in time-to-height and acceleration trials, which it comfortably won! Like the Starfighter, the Lightning was an exercise in excessive speed and it’s design, with it’s unusually stacked turbines, simply made it look uncompromising in chasing its purpose.
Blackburn Buccaneer: In a way, the Buccaneer is the complete opposite of both the 104 and Lightning, with its design brief being to attack Soviet ships, it was designed to fly fast, insanely low. The fact that it was full of solid machined billet makes only that much cooler.
Mig-21 (Fishbed): Perhaps one of my favourite aircraft of all time, the Mig-21 looks like it will be the only airframe to be in active service for close to 70 years! What I love about the 21, like many other Soviet era machines, is that it’s a bare bones, no frills affair. Pure function with little given to technological niceties. Like the 104 and Lightning, the 21 exhibits the same early cold war thinking of strapping just the essentials to an engine and calling it an aircraft.
Saab 35 Draken: Gawd, what’s not to love..? This is what happens when a small country designs an aircraft to fit its own, very specific needs.
Saab 37 Viggen:Like its predecessor, the Viggen is just so cool.
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: Engineered with a slide rule, the Mach 3 capable, SR71 to this day remains one of the most awe inspiring aircraft ever made.
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon: Like the SR71, the F16 proves the inherent beauty derived from pure engineering; it looks this good, because that’s what the numbers said. But while the 71 has a speed deranged menacing beauty, the F16 is elegantly graceful.
Unless you let the Israeli ‘s have their way with it… then it becomes very angry looking.
Mig 25 (Foxbat): I have always loved this beast, and like Schwarzenegger, you could not say it was attractive but the sheer size and brutishness of it was simply awe inspiring. Like so many of the aircraft I’ve listed, the Foxbat had a single manic purpose, so effectively was an aircraft slapped together around two enormous turbines. How enormous? Just look at that picture.
The Foxbat set the altitude record at 123,520 ft, and was the only other aircraft capable of hitting Mach 3+, with a theoretical max of 3.2; though a cruising speed of 2.83 was the set limit as it would trash it’s engines at sustained higher speeds.
Dornier Do 335 Pfiel: And stepping way back, we have the Do 335 – the fastest piston engine, prop driven aircraft made by the Reich, with a top speed of 763 km/h, only equaled (or slightly bettered) by late model P51 Mustang’s. Like the 104, Lightning and Mig21, the Do 335 gives every impression of being an aircraft strapped to the engines, rather than the other way around.
The McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, and the Hawker Siddeley Harrier (and the consequent generations/variants). These three skirt my list of all time favourite aircraft but don’t quite make it. Regardless, all have traits that I love – the F4, proving you can do anything with enough power, and it had the bulldog looks to match – there’s nothing sleek or petite about it. The A-10, an airborne tank. It’s highly utilitarian design with a character hard to not admire, as a design exercise – conceiving an air-frame to be built around an absurd cannon, it’s like a brief from a sci-fi movie. And lastly the Harrier, which is, and always will be, just cool.
Douglas X-3 Stiletto: The X3 is a special mention because unlike any of the above, it was a purely experimental aircraft. But if you ever wanted to see an example of science fiction come to life, or how timeless engineering design can be, this is a good starting point… even though it dates back to 1949!!
Copyright 2023 Gerard Thomas. All rights reserved.