At some point in the mid- to late-1950s, Smithsonian curator Paul Garber was asked to develop a list of the 10 most important aircraft of all time. Insisting he could never take on so monumental a task on his own, Garber recruited additional experts to help develop the list—Grover Loening, Gen. James Doolittle, Dr. John Victory, and Dr. Jerome Hunsaker. (Charles Lindbergh was also asked for his input, but he couldn’t attend the meeting, which was held at the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C.) After much deliberation, the panel decided they couldn’t narrow their list to only 10 aircraft, so the intended 10 became 13. Garber would lecture on these “Famous 13” numerous times over the subsequent decades. While many adaptations and advancements in aeronautics and astronautics have occurred since this list was originally compiled, it nonetheless provides a unique view into which technologies and feats impressed Garber—a man whose life spanned from just before the dawn of powered flight through the moon landing and beyond.
Without further ado, here are Paul E. Garber’s “Thirteen Famous Aircraft.” [Why it made the list? criteria has been taken from Garber’s notes on the subject.]
1. Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer
Why it made the list? First powered, controlled flights in a heavier-than-air craft; December 17, 1903
See the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer at the Museum’s D.C. location.
2. Blériot XI, 1909 Blériot's Cross-Channel Aircraft
Why it made the list? First flight by an airplane across the English Channel, nation-to-nation; July 25, 1909
A Blériot XI is in the National Air and Space Museum collection.
3. Curtiss Hydro
Why it made the list? First American aircraft to take off from water, fly, and alight on the water without damage; January 26, 1911
4. Junkers F-13
Why it made the list? Advanced all-metal construction, incorporating the basic requirements for a passenger-and-cargo-carrying airplane; 1920
5. Verville Racer
Why it made the list? Then-advanced features common for military and racing aircraft; won the 1924 Pulitzer Race at 216.72 mph
6. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis
Why it made the list? First nonstop solo transatlantic flight, New York to Paris; May 20-21, 1927
See the Spirit of St. Louis at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.
7. Piper J-3 “Cub
Why it made the list? Popular sport plane; “brought aviation down to earth”
See a Piper J-3 Cub on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia
8. Douglas DC-3
Why it made the list? Established new standards of economy for passenger flight; adopted by airlines throughout the world
A Douglas DC-3 is in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum but is currently off display.
9. Sikorsky XR-4 Helicopter
Why it made the list? First helicopter to make a cross-country flight and demonstrate the characteristics of a practical helicopter; first general-service helicopter; 1942
See the Sikorsky XR-4 at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
10. Bell X-1
Why it made the list? First supersonic flight; October 14, 1947
Bell X-1 is on display in the Museum’s Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.
11. De Havilland “Comet”
Why it made the list? World’s first jet-engined transport; after two tragic accidents, introduced new standards of design, manufacture, and safety of transport operations
12. Boeing 707
Why it made the list? American jet airliner, advanced design; 1954
A Boeing 707 prototype, the 367-80, is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
13. North American X-15
Why it made the list? World’s most advanced experimental airplane; important research in both air and space; 1959
See an X-15 at the National Air and Space Museum location on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Want to learn more? In 1991, Paul E. Garber (1899-1992) placed his personal papers and collected documents on deposit with the National Air and Space Museum Archives. Over the past several years, this collection was re-processed to include an additional 50 cubic feet of material repatriated more than two decades after Garber’s death. The newly updated finding aid is now published and available via the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA).