Humans have been fascinated with flight for a long, long time. The ancient Chinese built the first kites, mimicking the shapes of birds, as far back as 475 BCE. Around 300 BCE, the ancient Greek mathematician Archytas built a steam-propelled flying pigeon. And then there was Bladud, king of the Britons, who, according to legend, was so obsessed with the idea of flight that around 850 BCE he donned a pair of homemade wings, jumped off a building, and promptly fell to his death.
It's safe to say that humans have progressed since the days of Bladud. Flight is now a fundamental part of human society, from the way we travel to the way we wage wars. Since the Wright brothers took the first and most famous powered flight in 1903, aviation has developed at breakneck speed, taking us across the sound barrier and even beyond our own atmosphere.
Here are five famous planes that have shaped the history of aviation and, in so doing, the history of human progress itself.
The Wright Flyer
At Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer completed the world's first successful flight of a powered, heavier-than-air flying machine. Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had achieved sustained and controlled aviation, with the best flight of the day covering 838.5 feet in 59 seconds. The Wright Flyer — a biplane with a wingspan of 40 feet and one 12-horsepower four-cylinder engine driving two pusher propellers — should have instantly become the most famous flying machine in history, but it didn’t. The Wright brothers had achieved something so incredible that much of the public — including scientists — remained skeptical. It took time to convince them that the course of human flight had, indeed, been changed forever.
The Supermarine Spitfire is the most famous British fighter aircraft in history, and it was an iconic symbol of freedom during — and after — World War II. It was a vital Allied aircraft in 1940, helping to defeat wave after wave of German air attacks during the pivotal Battle of Britain. It was also the only fighter plane capable of taking on the deadly Messerschmitt Bf-109E on equal terms. Even today, the sight and sound of a Spitfire in the skies above Britain is enough to send shivers down the spines of anyone watching from below. Special mention must also go to the Hawker Hurricane, which sometimes sits in the shadow of the more famous aircraft. The Hurricane, built 20 years earlier than the Spitfire, shot down more than half of all the enemy airplanes destroyed in the Battle of Britain.