The aircraft on this list are all “must see” aircraft for any aviation nerd. They’re all historically relevant in some way, shape, or form. This list can serve as a ready-made “bucket list” for anyone who would classify themselves as either an aviation geek or space geek.
10. Concorde 100-010 (G-BOAD)
There were 20 Concordes built in total, 6 of which were non-commercial aircraft. Of the 14 commercial aircraft, one was lost, leaving 13 surviving aircraft. I chose this particular aircraft as it still holds the record for the fastest JFK-LHR flight (2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds) as well as the fastest flight from LHR-BOS flight (3 hours, 5 minutes, 34 seconds). Plus, unlike many other Concordes on display, you can get in this aircraft, sit in its seats, and even go in the cockpit.
9. North American X-15A-2 (56-6671)
The X-15 is important and included on this list because it holds the record for the fastest crewed, powered aircraft ever built. It has held that record for close to 55 years and counting, and it looks like the record is going to stand for the foreseeable future. The record speed the X-15 flew was Mach 6.7, or 4,965 MPH–fast enough to fly from JFK to Heathrow in less than 42 minutes. Not that the gas tanks would be big enough for that flight… X-15 flights typically were only 10 minutes long, which means that they could only fly a “measly” 800 miles. For the record, this author would love to fly from Dallas to Chicago (~800 miles) in 10 minutes. There were three X-15s made, and 2 remain in existence. The third was destroyed in an accident. I chose this particular X-15 because it holds the speed record and it is the best display (i.e. – you can walk right up to it and see it closely.) Also, the external gas tanks are very unique.
8. Space Shuttle “Atlantis“
There are 3 “and a half” shuttles remaining today (Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour–the aforementioned “half” refers to Enterprise, as Enterprise was only used to perform atmospheric test flights, despite it’s original intent to be developed into a full-fledged shuttle), but I chose Atlantis for this list because it was the last shuttle used in the Space Shuttle program, and I think it boasts the best display with its bay doors open, and the Canadarm extended.
7. Hughes H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose” (NX37602)
It’s the largest flying boat ever built, and it’s shrouded in history. It wasn’t used practically as it was too late for the war effort, and It only flew once. It has been displayed in two different locations–one in Long Beach, CA (Where they built an entire dome-structure dedicated to house it) and where it resides today in Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. It’s one of the largest flying aircraft ever (and depending upon how you measure and what you count, it still shares the title.) Further, the display of the aircraft is awesome–you can even sit in the cockpit.
6. VC-137C SAM 26000, “Air Force One”
All “Air Force Once” aircraft are notably historical, but this one in particular has some real unique history with it. SAM 26000 is essentially a Boeing 707-353B. Two Boeing 707-353Bs were converted into Air Force One aircraft–the second (SAM 27000) is in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. SAM 26000 is most famous, however, as it is the aircraft that John F. Kennedy took on his ill-fated trip to Dallas in November, 1963. In the middle of the plane is the location where LBJ was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States. One can still see in the rear galley where the wall was removed to accommodate JFK’s casket in his trip back to Washington for his burial. Today, it’s located in the “Presidential Aircraft” hangar at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
5. Apollo 13 Command Module, “Odyssey”
Sometimes our failures are a lot more memorable and important than our successes–especially our more successful failures, and especially in life-and-death situations.. Apollo 13 was all of these things. Of course, Apollo 13 was the “unsuccessful success” of NASA’s Apollo program. During the course of the flight, the crew had to rely on the American ingenuity of NASA scientists a quarter of a million miles away and their own skills to get back to Earth safely. Today, the “Odyssey” command module is part of the incredible space collection on display at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas.
4. Ryan NYP N-X-211, “The Spirit of St. Louis”
The Spirit of St. Louis requires no introduction. In the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh became the first pilot to fly over the Atlantic Ocean non-stop, from New York to Paris. To travelers today, that flight is one of the most commonly flown “over the pond,” but to Lindbergh, it was very risky. Today, the aircraft hangs in the “Milestones of Flight” gallery in the National Air and Space Museum (on the National Mall) in Washington, DC.
3. Boeing B-29 “Enola Gay”
This “silverplate” B-29 is one of the most historical aircraft of all time as it dropped the first nuclear weapon, “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6th, 1945. This, of course, pushed the Japanese to surrender unconditionally aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay 9 days later. Today, the “Enola Gay” is located in the Smithsonian’s Air And Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia (along with TONS of other important air and space aircraft).
2. Wright Flyer, The “Kitty Hawk”
If you’ve made it this far in the list, there’s no way that you can’t have heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The “Kitty Hawk” was the first airplane ever. More formally, the Smithsonian describes it as “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.” Today, parts of the original flyer can be found in different locations, but the aircraft is located in the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
1. Apollo 11 Command Module, “Columbia”
Probably the most important flying craft on the list, this capsule represents the end of the space race, and the farthest reaches that an American craft has brought man, to this day–the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed out of this capsule on July 20th, 1969 and became the first two men to ever walk on the lunar surface. Today, the spacecraft is in the “Milestones of Flight” gallery in the National Air and Space Museum (on the National Mall) in Washington, DC. I put the Apollo 11 capsule above the Wright Flyer because I’d argue that both craft made their marks on history and technology, but Apollo 11 (and the Apollo program) represented mankind’s ability to innovate for the sake of exploring our universe in a peaceful manner. The same resources that the United States spent on the Apollo program could have also been used to develop our weapons technology more and more–but the noble cause of exploration deserves a special nod.
Also, fun fact about #1 and #2 on the list above: A small square of the fabric from the Wright Brothers’ flyer was carried with Neil Armstrong aboard Apollo 11 to the moon. The small square of fabric is on display today at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS.
- Boeing B-29 “Bockscar” – The aircraft that dropped the second nuclear weapon (and as of this writing, the last nuclear weapon) used. Located at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, OH. This is probably my personal favorite exhibit in the world, as my grandfather’s life was most likely spared by this aircraft (as he was one of the first to occupy Nagasaki, Japan.)
- Bell X-1-1 #46-062 – “Glamorous Glennis” – The plane in which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier (i.e. – flew over Mach 1) on 10/14/1947. On display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
- Mercury-Redstone 3 – “Freedom 7” – The Mercury capsule in which Alan Shepard became the first American in Space. On display at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.
- Mercury-Atlas 6 – “Friendship 7” – The Mercury Capsule in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. On display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.