Garber's Thirteen Famous Aircraft

Posted on Wed, June 26, 2019
  • by: Amanda Buel, Archivist

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

Two men in front of aircraft

Operation Homecoming. William C. Jordan, left, Vice President of Wright Aeronautical Corp., greets Garber as the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer stops at the Wright Plant in Woodridge, New Jersey, en route to Washington; November 20, 1948.

Man holding model airplane

Garber holds a scale model of the Wright 1903 Flyer; April 4, 1991.

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

Men gathered around aircraft

Blériot XI on the ground with Louis Blériot in cockpit. Several unidentified men are gathered around the aircraft; circa mid-1909.  [This is probably the aircraft in which Blériot flew across the English Channel on July 25, 1909, but is not necessarily seen here in conjunction with that event.]

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

Aircraft on the ground

Curtiss Hydro circa 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

Aircraft on ground

Junkers F-13 (G-EBZV) circa 1929.


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

Verville Racer

Verville-Sperry R-3 (s/n AS 22-326, P 269 and race number 49) circa early 1920s.


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

Man holding model of plane underneath hanging aircraft

Garber holds up a scale model of a plane beneath the nose of the Ryan NYP Spirit of St Louis hanging on display in the Smithsonian Institution Arts & Industries Building, Washington, D.C. circa 1928-1929. Garber was instrumental in acquiring Lindbergh’s plane for the Smithsonian.

Man standing in front of aircraft

Paul Edward Garber, Historian Emeritus, poses for a photograph next to the Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis" as displayed in the Museum's National Mall Building, 1992.

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”

Yellow aircraft hanging

Piper J-3 Cub hanging in storage in Building 22 of the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Facility in September 2000.

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

Douglas DC-3 (A19530075000)

Douglas DC-3 hanging in the National Air and Space Museum’s Washington, D.C., location in  December 2017.

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

Helicopter on display in building

US Army Sikorsky XR-4 helicopter with right side fuselage uncovered on display in the Smithsonian’s Aircraft Building in 1961.

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

Scrapbook page with 10 photographs on it

Garber took these ten photographs took to document the presentation of the Bell X-1 to the National Air Museum at Boston Airport on August 26, 1950.

Two men in front of aircraft

Joseph J. Marchese (left), Project Engineer, Design Department, Bell Aircraft Corporation poses with Garber under the nose section of Bell X-1 in the Smithsonian’s Aircraft Building on October 5, 1950.

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

Aircraft and three men posed

Top: De Havilland D.H.106 Comet (background) at Hatfield Airfield, England; in foreground is the third prototype de Havilland D.H.108, which was used to calculate wing resistance, stress, and strain for the Comet.

Bottom: (left to right) Grp. Capt. John Cunningham, test pilot; Sir Frank Whittle; and Major Frank Halford, designer of the Comet's engines, pictured here in August 1949.


12. Boeing 707

Why it made the list? American jet airliner, advanced design; 1954

Boeing 367-80 "Dash 80" at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Boeing Model 367-80 (707 Prototype) on display in 2005.

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

Aircraft lands

North American X-15 research airplane (X-15 #1, X-15A, 56-6670) as it flares for landing on the lake bed at the NASA Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, California. Note that this is early in the test program, and the aircraft has the paired XLR-11 engine and a test instrumentation nose boom.

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).

For additional records relating to Garber’s Smithsonian career, please visit the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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