On a popular episode of the The Simpsons, the main antagonist C. Montgomery Burns once described his ultimate airborne creation: “We’ll call it the Spruce Moose! And it will carry two hundred passengers from New York’s Idlewild Airport to the Belgian Congo in 17 minutes!” While in that particular clip Mr. Burns was taking a little jab at one of the largest airplanes ever built, the Spruce Goose, he was also hinting at our long obsession with airplanes and flight. Ever since Orville and Wilbur took their Wright Flyer for a spin over the Kitty Hawk dunes in 1903, the airplane has seen development the likes of which haven’t been matched by any other modern technical achievement.
From that rickety yet ingenious piece of wood and fabric that kicked off the Aerial Age to the maiden flight of the Airbus A380, not to mention that little trip to the Moon in between via the gigantic Saturn V rocket, the history of flight is well documented around the globe. Here’s a brief list of some of the most famous craft to take the skies and where you can find them.
Aviation pioneer and inventor Howard Hughes was a towering figure during the 1930s and 1940s, building a number of innovative aircraft that pushed the boundaries of flight. When the U.S. Government was in search of a plane to transport men and matériel to Europe during World War II, they had Hughes work with Liberty ship designer Henry Kaiser to develop the largest flying boat ever invented, the H-4 Hercules. Because of the shortage of aluminum and other aircraft metals, Hughes designed the plane using mostly fabric and wood.
Kaiser eventually left the project after being frustrated by numerous delays and by Hughes’ perfectionism. The plane was constructed, though well after the end of the war. The media dubbed the plane the “Spruce Goose” in reference to it’s all-wood design, a moniker that Hughes despised. Most people thought it wouldn’t even be able to fly, but on November 2, 1947, the flying boat took a brief 1 mile flight near Long Beach, reaching a maximum altitude of 70 feet.
For a long time, the Spruce Goose was thought to have been dismantled, but in reality it was maintained in flying condition by a team of 300 workers under direct orders from Hughes until his death in 1976. You can now see the plane, and take in the magnificence of it’s wingspan in all it’s glory, at the Evergreen Aviation Museum about an hour south of Portland, Oregon.
Convair B-36 “Peacemaker”
The use of bombers in Europe and the Pacific during World War II prompted the U.S. Air Force to develop a massive plane that wouldn’t have to rely on an air base in a far-off country for support. The B-36 is the largest, mass-produced, piston-engine — that’s propeller-driven to us lay-folk — aircraft ever built, and carries an ironic nickname that it managed to live up to throughout its operational history.
Images: US Air Force/Wikipedia, Zain Iqbal
With the largest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever created, the B-36 was a monster of a plane designed to drop a ton of bombs on a target and carry nuclear weaponry. However, development problems stalled the program and by the time the first B-36s rolled off the assembly line in 1948, it was quickly rendered obsolete, simply because the Jet Age had arrived. The B-36 did see limited service in the Korean War, but it never managed to drop a single bomb or fire a single shot from its guns in anger.
Out of the 384 planes produced, only 4 (and a half) survive today, and only in museum condition. The half sits on a private farm in Newbury, Ohio, while the rest at at air museums around the country, including the Strategic Air and Space Museum just outside Omaha, Nebraska, where you can view a ton of other intriguing relics from the Cold War.
Mil V-12 “Homer”
You’ve got to give the Soviets credit on one thing: when they engineered something, they engineered it to be the biggest and the first. They put the first satellite in space in 1957, and the first man in space in 1961 (not to mention the first woman in space in 1963 – almost 20 years before the Americans.) They set off the largest nuclear device ever in 1961, the Tsar Bomba, on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. They also built the largest submarines, the largest flying boats, and the largest helicopter in the world, the Mil V-12 “Homer.”
The helicopter was originally designed to quickly carry large pieces of ballistic missiles around the Soviet Union for deployment purposes. Delays in designing the prototype led to its eventually obsolescence as priorities shifted for the Soviet Air Force. Only two Mil V-12s were ever built, but when they flew they broke a number of records for helicopter flight.
Both helicopters are on display outside Moscow, along with a ton of other interesting hardware from the Soviet Union. Your best chances to see one is at the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, which is one of the largest aircraft museums in the world with over 170 planes, helicopters and other flying vehicles on display.
Antonov AN-225 “Mriya”
The largest fixed-wing aircraft in the world was designed by the Soviets (naturally) to carry their version of a space shuttle, the Buran. They only built one, but unlike other large projects that quickly became museum relics, the AN-225 is still in service today as a cargo plane for Antonov Airlines in Ukraine.
The An-225 currently holds the record for the heaviest aircraft in the world, weighing in at 628,000 lbs. It can carry a whopping 550,000 lbs in its cargo hold and is the only aircraft in the world that can carry objects like locomotives or generators that weigh over 150 tons. Need a plane that can effectively transport large amounts of humanitarian goods across the world? No problem. The An-225 has been used in relief efforts in war-torn Iraq and in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
If you’re interested in seeing the An-225 in person, you can just pay a hefty sum for it to transport your cargo from one place to another [Ed. note: I'll remember that the next time I need to mail my tank engine]. You may get lucky and catch it at an airshow, or even at your local airport if it happens to be delivering stuff in your ‘hood. If you’re truly ambitious, you can see if the An-225 is undergoing maintenance just outside Kiev at its home airport, Hostomel.
After the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, the U.S. Government scrambled to catch up in the Space Race, but were seemingly thwarted at every attempt to one-up their Cold War nemesis. Enter the Apollo Program and America’s ambitious desire to land on the moon. Before that period, the Americans had launched a few people into a steady orbit around Earth. Having them escape the Earth’s gravity and send them hurtling to the Moon? That was going to take some power.
That firepower manifested itself as the Saturn V rocket; the brainchild of Wernher von Braun, a German scientist who helped the Nazis develop their rocket program during World War II. After Von Braun was captured by the Americans under a top-secret program called Operation Paperclip, he helped NASA develop rockets for manned spaceflight. Saturn V is the largest, most powerful rocket ever built, used from 1967 to 1973.
In the late 90s a popular myth floated around that the blueprints to the Saturn V rockets were lost, or even purposely destroyed so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Soviets or a terrorist organization. NASA debunked these rumors by stating the blueprints are actually on microfilm at the Marshall Space Flight Center, but that it would take a large amount of engineering as well as some “mid-60s vintage hardware” to get one flying again. If you want to see a replica rocket in person, there are four that remain on display throughout the United States; one at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, one at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and two at U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
You don’t have to visit a museum to take a look at one of these jets. All you have to do is fly on Air France, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qantas, or Singapore Airlines (as of now) and you’ll be cruising on the largest commercial passenger jumbo jet in the skies. The Airbus A380 is a wide-body, double-decker super-jumbo that was designed to compete with the Boeing 747— a plane that dominated the market throughout the 80s and 90s. After almost 20 years of research and development, the first Airbus A380 made its inaugural flight from Singapore to Sydney.
The A380 has revolutionized the way jets are designed, from both a technical and design perspective. The plane is able to carry more passengers over a longer distance, while burning up to 20% less fuel than a 747. In theory, one of the planes configured with all-economy class seating could seat well over 800 people. But then again, airlines would be missing out on some pretty sweet features such as lie-flat beds in business class and enclosed suites in first (just remember, no sex, please). We’re not sure about Lufthansa’s policy about being amorous at 35,000 feet, but their design looks pretty appealing so far.
Space Shuttle Enterprise
Before the the United States has even launched a satellite into space, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA) conceptualized the idea of sending a reusable vehicle into orbit and having it return safely to earth. In the wake of the successful Apollo Program, NASA began to design and construct the Space Transportation System made up of the external propellant tank for fuel, two solid rocket boosters, and the most familiar element, the Space Shuttle.
The first shuttle constructed was the Enterprise, named after the voyaging space craft in the popular Star Trek series. While the Enterprise never achieved space flight (the first shuttle to do that was the Columbia) it played an important role in the development of future vehicles, which NASA calls the most complex machine created due to it’s 2.5 million separate parts. The popular National Air and Space Museum features the Space Shuttle Enterprise as its centerpiece in the Udvar-Hazy annex near Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.
SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo
Up until the 1990s, any type of manned space travel was government-funded and dominated by the Americans and the Soviets. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians needed a way to fund and maintain Mir — a space station that orbited about 210 miles above the Earth — and the rest of their space program. While the idea of space tourism had always existed in theory, people like Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama and Dennis Tito helped make it a reality. Soon after Dennis Tito made his historic flight, a privately-funded spaceflight research company won a prize called the Ansari X — a scientific award to group who engineered the first privately funded spaceship — with SpaceShipOne.
While SpaceShipOne proudly hangs near the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the journey isn’t over yet for these new pioneers of spaceflight. Scaled Composites (the original minds behind SpaceShipOne) and Virgin Group have been investing in SpaceShipTwo, a model of aircraft for suborbital spaceflight set to launch under the Virgin Galactic brand. Testing is already running on schedule, with passengers paying a cool $200,000 per ticket for flights launching in 2011.
The Boneyard isn’t a type of craft, but instead it’s a place where aircraft go to die – at least, it’s where the US Air Force mothballs all of their obsolete or superfluous aircraft. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tuscon, AZ is home to over 4,400 aircraft, which, if all were operational, would make it the 2nd largest air force in the world. The high altitude and desert climate help preserve the structure of the planes, which are now mostly sold for parts and scrap metal.
Wandering around the Boneyard is strictly prohibited for a variety of reasons; the least of which is because it probably isn’t safe, not to mention that itty-bitty “national security” detail. The fine folks at nearby Pima Air and Space Museum offer bus tours of their collection and the Boneyard.
Got any other interesting tips on where to find cool aircraft? Comment and let us know!