The most beautiful flying machines were designed in an era that stretched from just before the Great War right into the middle of the last century, the age of Art Deco. Art Deco, with its bold and optimistic embrace of modernity was partly inspired by aeronautical design. The sleekest form of Art Deco, was Streamline Moderne, which luxuriated in the flowing uncluttered lines of aerodynamics. Did the influence go both ways? When faced with two equal design solutions, most aerodynamicists will go for the most beautiful (evidence for this can be found in correspondence between Messerschmitt and Blohm & Voss designers in Dan Sharp’s fascinating book on the Bv 155) and they will naturally carry some of the tastes of their time. The relationship between art and the art of machines was never more elegantly tangled than in this temps de l’amour (though of course this was also a time of great hate and cruelty). But in this time we find an integrity between visual art and the subject thereof that was scarce before and perhaps impossible in our fragmented, post-modern daze. Aircraft with ever higher metrics of performance took on a singular gift of the purest aesthetic form. Their shapes exuded a power so seductive it came to be applied to pencil sharpeners, houses, desk fans, office buildings, cameras and canister vacuums and many other things that didn’t actually require streamlining. Release yourself from the urgencies of the fragmented digital time with this uplifting celebration of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne aeroplanes. As an added, calming, bonus most of these retro beauties were made solely for peaceful purposes.
12. Bechereau Deperdussin Monocoques
Louis Bechereau’s racing masterpiece: this is the most important aircraft barely anybody ever talks about today, designed by arguably the most important aircraft designer of the Great War (who hardly anybody talks about today). A flying machine to prove that heartbreaking bloodbaths are not necessarily a requirement for advancing our sense of style or our design and engineering skills. So aerodynamically clean that the final monocoque, the 1913 Racer, was the first aircraft to handle 100-130 miles per hour speeds the way you and I might eat a sandwich.
Comparable pretty thing: Gee Bee R-1
Fairey Fox Mk. VI
Here, to give us an example of what was becoming possible by the early thirties, is the last model of the Fairey Fox. Late production Foxes embody the swift evolution into streamlining that took place as the 1930s, and Art Deco, progressed. The junk-all-over-the place approach to wing design clashes with elegant wheel spats and a partially enclosed cockpit that encouraged ever higher speeds available from increasingly powerful engines.
Comparable pretty thing: Laird Super Solution
- Embraer Lineage 1000E
Should Brazil have always been getting more credit for its aeronautical prowess in the English-speaking world? Yes.
Do the speed stripes on the fuselage of this fifty million dollar regional jet turned elite personal transport make it look like a stale pinstripe blazer in a thrift shop? Yes.
By now you have discerned this is not an Art Deco aircraft. It appears to exist solely as a trigger to Marxist fan-boys bent on redistributing global wealth in the wake of the Covid-19 emergency and the inevitable economic crash partly triggered by said virus. And just look at the interior. Other than a cabin boy with rickets, or Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde Caudillo of Spain on the passenger manifest, how better to evoke the massive societal disparity of the 1920s and 1930s in our own gilded age? Pleasingly it also has a Zeppelin over the fireplace. Or bar or jukebox or whatever that is.
Comparable pretty thing: LZ 129 Hindenburg
9. Dewoitine D.333/338
No discussion of style is complete without reference to at least one obscure French airliner from the thirties. The supremely elegant Dewoitine D.333/338 fulfils that requirement here and representations thereof would no doubt make highly collectable paper weights, automotive hood ornaments and ashtray models for a clever 3D printing entrepreneur. Trimotors just make sense anyway: a third powerplant gives the designer fifty percent more power with relatively modest structural investment over a twin engine design. But as a design solution the trimotor did not survive the Second World War (with one or two unlikely exceptions: Northrop Raider I’m looking at you). World War II really could perhaps be remembered, at least now and then, as an event in which industrial design was abused and suppressed as much as anything else.
Comparable pretty thing: Ford AT-14
8. Lockheed L-049 Constellation
Meet charming French-American product designer Raymond Loewy whose career intimately paralleled and sometimes defined the era under discussion. Loewy designed steam engines that looked like sharks, cars that looked like fighter planes, Lucky Strike cigarette packets, and was eventually hired by JFK to add some much needed style to Air Force One. Back in 1940 none other than Howard Hughes commissioned Loewy to redesign the Constellation’s cabin and a large model of the Constellation graced his Madison Avenue office during its heyday.
Understated repetition is an aspect of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne and with its triple fins the Lockheed airliner is a masterpiece inside and out. The Constellation bridged the Jazzy world of fast locomotives and economic depression with the mid century’s consumer paradise, an era topped off with packaged holidays drenched in cocktails to a Sinatra soundtrack and ever swankier air terminals.
Comparable pretty thing: Boeing 314 Clipper
7. Douglas DC-3
Confidence is a hallmark of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. To have gone from the Wright and Voisin biplanes, which look like they were made out of devices normally used to immobilise the limbs of a badly injured skier, to the flowing and highly integrated designs of the 1930s in barely a generation is nothing short of miraculous. The DC-3 is the singular icon of exactly that confidence. Modern air travel was built on this aircraft which had enough range, speed, reliability, altitude performance and carrying capacity enough to keep it in paying service into the 1980s. The DC-3 is acknowledged to have been carrying about ninety percent of the world’s air travellers in the colours of some fifty airlines by the outbreak of World War II. Dorwin Walter Teague, a contemporary of Loewy’s, said he did not ”…know where in modern design to look for an example of rhythm of line composed more perfectly than these transport aircraft.” Neither do we.
Comparable pretty thing: Bloch MB.220
6. Boeing Model 299
Peace is better looking. Case in point: late editions of the B-17 versus the plane they were derived from, the Model 299. The former is like taking a handsome, well off, emotionally available man and sending him down the pub on ladies night with a welding mask on. That butchy tail, an orthodontic chin turret and other guns poking out every which way ruined the B-17’s looks. What were they even thinking?
Comparable pretty thing: Short S.23 Empire
5. Beech Model 17 Staggerwing
For those wielding high levels of state and corporate power the private aeroplane came to replace the motor yacht as the apex symbol of one’s ego. Descending god-like from the clouds to political rallies, gushing oil wells, and newly-purchased cattle ranches the size of small countries became second nature to the super elite of the 1930s. Aircraft quickly became integrated into the recreational pursuits of elite privilege, too. Getting away from it all is perhaps the nicest thing about having it all. Quick and expensive, with that uncommon wing arrangement, the instantly recognizable Staggerwing had retractable undercarriage, a cutting edge feature assisting cleanliness of line. The cabin sat five in mohair and leather armchairs. Delightfully agile little planes, many remain on the civil register and may often be seen at airshows.
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Comparable pretty thing: de Havilland D.H.90 Dragonfly
4. LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin
Given how trying these last three months have been, we’ve deliberately chosen aircraft for this top list that led mostly peaceful lives. Sure, the Graf Zeppelin got involved in some propaganda stuff and a little espionage but who hasn’t done some things they weren’t proud of to the pay the bills? Mostly, the Graf Zeppelin was an excellent role model during difficult times. For starters, she was partly funded as a philanthropic undertaking by the publisher Hearst. Much of the revenue for her upkeep was also generated by the sale of postage stamps and philatelic collectibles. A rather more palatable take on the publicly-funded aircraft than the later bombers of the Luftwaffe, it is ironic that the Graf was eventually scrapped on the orders of Hermann Goering (who despised airships) and her aluminium recycled into combat aircraft. A lucky machine in service, the gentle silver giant escaped several near misses with disaster to become the first ever aircraft to travel more than one million miles. It’s hard to imagine an aircraft that would better blend into a contemporary, exotic-themed, travel poster either.
Comparable pretty thing: R101
3. Airliner Number 4
Always open-hearted toward unbuilt aircraft we present Airliner Number 4. Proof that elegance can be attached to grandiose technological overreach and narcissistic scheming, Airliner Number 4 remains hypnotising. 450 passengers! A nursery! A department store! Hangar space for lesser aeroplanes! Renderings in charcoal pencil, done without a computer in sight, portray a flying ocean liner intended to have twenty engines and a wingspan over five hundred feet. It was the product of another great American figure of industrial design Norman Bel Geddes. Some of the engineering work done for his six deck wonder machine was apparently subsumed into the (comparatively modest) Hughes H-4 Hercules, the ‘Spruce Goose’. Although both never actually achieved anything, at least neither ever dropped a bomb on anyone.
Comparable pretty thing: SARO Princess
2. Heinkel He 70 Blitz
Pure Art Deco. Look at this smooth, sweet, Spitfire-like songbird. The He 70 was beautiful, with a barely a straight line anywhere on its rakish airframe, a clean nose, and elegant elliptical wings (wings that are alleged by some to have inspired those the rather more famous and warlike Spitfire). The Heinkel He 70 was intended for Deutsche Lufthansa as an express air mail and passenger carrier. Quickly found unsuitable for military adventuring, some kind of modern electric-engined version to this peaceful, socially constructive aircraft concept would surely be a massive boon in 21st century skies.
Comparable pretty thing: Lockheed Model 9 Orion
1. de Havilland D.H.91 Albatross
Beautiful: like some kind of 1980s supermodel come alive in skies past (and frequently just as high), a mere seven of these slender, delicate long range airliners came into the world. Intended to supplement the era’s long distance flying boat routes the balsa/plywood structural construction later made famous by the devastating D.H.98 Mosquito was employed for the Albatross. The slide into industrialised total warfare pushed the Albatross off the stage. A shame. In a peaceful world where aviation served commerce and not hatred it would have been the other way around.
Comparable pretty thing: Potez 662
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Fairchild AU-23A Armed Pilatus Turbo-Porter 72-3 Janes – Sufficient put into service to not be relevant.
*Pave Coin Beech A36 Bonanza Janes 72-3. Other aircraft included the Piper PE1 Enforcer (turbine Mustang) – Janes 81-2, AU-23 and 24 (above), Cessna O-1, U-17 and O-2 and Cessna A-37.
SAAB-MFI-17 (only 300kg external load capability) 72-3 Janes