The top flying machines in history

Jonny Wilkes takes wing with the flying machines that got humans off the ground and defined history.

The top flying machines in history © Getty Images

Here are some of the most important and pioneering aircraft that reached for the skies…

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1

THE MONTGOLFIER BALLOON

After experimenting with a sheep, duck and rooster, the Montgolfier brothers felt confident enough to launch human flight using their hot-air balloon in October 1783.

Crowds gathered in Paris to watch as Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne let their ornate, 1,700-cubic-metre balloon float up. Unsure of the effects of high altitude on humans, French King Louis XVI decreed that criminals should be the pilots – he was persuaded otherwise before the historic flight.

Illustration of the ascent of the Montgolfier brothers' balloon in 1783 © Getty Images
Illustration of the ascent of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in 1783 © Getty Images

This initial flight was tethered, limiting the height to 24 metres, but this was bettered the following month when the Montgolfiers made a free ascent over the capital.

As paper merchants, the brothers were inspired to try their hands at aviation when realising heated air made paper bags rise. Unsurprisingly, their balloon was lined with the stuff.

2

WRIGHT FLYER

Perhaps history’s most famous plane, the Wright Flyer – built by American brothers Wilbur and Orville – was the first to make a powered, heavier-than-air flight.

The pilot had to lie on his stomach while bending the wings’ material to steer.

The Flyer takes off for its first flight, piloted by Orville Wright, as his brother Wilbur watches on © Getty Images
The Flyer takes off for its first flight, piloted by Orville Wright, as his brother Wilbur watches on © Getty Images

The Wright Flyer flew only four times in a single day, 17 December 1903, before being damaged in high winds, but the boxy biplane was a success. On its best flight at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, the Flyer made 260 metres.

And the Wright brothers weren’t done – they perfected their designs over two more planes.

3

SPIRIT OF ST LOUIS

On 20 May 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off from New York in his monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis, hoping to achieve something never done before – to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop.

By the time he landed in Paris 33 hours and 30 minutes later, he was a global hero (plus $25,000 richer).

Charles Lindbergh (third from right) promotes his historic flight with another voyage in the Spirit of St Louis from New York to San Diego, 1927 © Getty Images
Charles Lindbergh (third from right) promotes his historic flight with another voyage in the Spirit of St Louis from New York to San Diego, 1927 © Getty Images

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Lindbergh had gone to extreme lengths to save weight, including cutting unnecessary bits off his map and refusing to carry a radio, in order to pack in extra fuel tanks for the 3,600-mile voyage.

The design of the plane meant there was no front windshield – Lindbergh could only see through side windows and a periscope – and the cockpit was only 94cm wide. As it was also only 80cm long and 130cm high, Lindbergh couldn’t stretch his legs for the flight.

4

BELL X-1

When a thundering boom rang out over the Mojave Desert of California on 14 October 1947, it announced the fact that the rocket-powered Bell X-1 had just broken the sound barrier – the first plane to do so.

The first supersonic flight by Captain Charles Yeager and his Bell X-1, 14 October 1947 © Getty Images
The first supersonic flight by Captain Charles Yeager and his Bell X-1, 14 October 1947 © Getty Images

Piloted by US Air Force Captain Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager, the orange X-1 (which he called ‘Glamorous Glennis’, after his wife) was launched from altitude by a B-29 and accelerated to previously unexperienced speeds. Known as a ‘bullet with wings’, the X-1 was modelled on a .50 calibre machine-gun bullet.

Following the sonic boom, the X-1 continued until it peaked at 700 miles per hour, or Mach 1.06.

5

ENOLA GAY

Has a flight ever had a larger consequence than that of this B-29 bomber on 6 August 1945?

The Enola Gay was a ‘Silverplate’ B-29 Superfortress bomber, meaning it had been modified especially to carry atomic weapons. Guns and armour were removed to make it lighter.

At 8.15am, the Enola Gay released its payload – the first atomic bomb used in warfare, ‘Little Boy’ – over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress bomber, 6 August 1945 © Getty Images
The Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress bomber, 6 August 1945 © Getty Images

The 15-kiloton blast wiped out 70,000 people (thousands more died in the months to come) and annihilated much of the city. The crew of the Enola Gay felt shock waves from the detonation 11.5 miles away from Hiroshima.

When a second bomb fell on Nagasaki – with the Enola Gay flying reconnaissance – Japan had no choice but to surrender.

6

APOLLO 11

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon on 20 July 1969, the American announced it to be a “giant leap for mankind”.

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon, with the Lunar Module 'Eagle' in the background, 20 July 1969 © NASA
Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon, with the Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ in the background, 20 July 1969 © NASA

The success of Apollo 11 in landing astronauts on the Moon – and then lifting them off safely again – was also the next giant leap for human flight. The mission lasted a little over eight days, and required a number of craft to work together, including the Saturn V rocket and the Landing Module.

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This remarkable success took place only 66 years after the inaugural powered flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903.