A Cross-Section Of Fixed-Wing Aviation’s Success Stories
We’re going to look at thirty of the world’s most common aircraft. Not as simple as it sounds, as there are many aircraft that could be highlighted, and arguably should.
However, the list below has chosen aircraft by the quantity built. By definition, some fine modern aircraft in everyday use will not be on the list due to the short time they’ve been in production. Let’s look at a cross-section of the aviation world and learn a little more about their stories.
Jet Airliners: Global Travel In Style And Comfort
This is the upper end of aviation where the big kids play; large aircraft, large companies, and aggressive competition. Yet, since the 1990s, the playground has shrunk to two significant players, Airbus and Boeing.
Having a duopoly on the global airliner market, they hold approximately 99% of the business between them. Airbus is a pan-European consortium, and Boeing is American. Airbus began in the 1960s and threw down the gauntlet to Boeing, which had been in operation since the 1920s.
Since then, Airbus has slowly overhauled the lead its competitor possessed with airliners in service. In 2006 there were over two Boeing aircraft in service worldwide for every Airbus. As of 2021, that number has shrunk close to one-to-one. Here’s a look at the five most common wide-bodied airliners based on build numbers, followed by five of the most common narrow-bodied airliners.
Wide-Body #5: Boeing 787
A successor to the Boeing 767, the B787 Dreamliner entered service in 2011, promising 20% less fuel burn than the B767 when flown on comparable routes.
It is the first airliner with a fuselage, wings, and significant structural components constructed mainly of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer composite material. Over 1,000 have been delivered to date, with orders of close to 500 remaining to be built and delivered.
Utilizing fly-by-wire controls and a non-standard electrical architecture, the B787 has replaced hydraulic and bleed air systems with electrically operated pumps and compressors. Boeing state that this system extracts 35% less power from the engines. This allows greater fuel efficiency and thrust.
Powered either by the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 or the General Electric GEnx-1B, each engine provides 64k to 76k pounds of thrust, depending on aircraft variant.
With stretched versions being provided, customers can choose between the 787-8, -9, and -10 variants, each carrying 242, 280, and 330 passengers, respectively. Boeing Business Jets also offers a business jet version of the B787-8 and -9. Carrying 25 passengers, 15 have been ordered to date.
Wide-Body #4: Boeing 767
Designed to take over the market previously serviced by the narrow-body DC-8 and Boeing 707, the B767 was Boeing’s first wide-bodied twin-engine jet aircraft.
It was also the first large airliner designed to require a crew of only two. Entering service in 1982, the B767-200 extended-range version achieved extended-range twin-engine operation performance standard (ETOPS) approval in 1985 to operate up to 120 minutes from a diversion airport at the one-engine inoperative cruise speed.
This opened up routes that had previously been restricted to three and four-engined aircraft. Carrying a maximum of 290 passengers, the B767-200 offered engine options of the Pratt & Whitney JT9 or 4000 series or the GE CF6-80, providing engine thrusts between 48k and 56.75k pounds.
The stretched fuselage B767-300 entered service in 1986, and the B767-300ER in 1988. These two aircraft became firm favorites and ultimately accounted for two-thirds of the 1,200 B767 sold.
There have also been freighter and airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft produced. Currently being built solely for military and freight customers, there appears to be no interest in continuous production for passenger operations.
Wide-Body #3: Airbus A330
The third most delivered wide-body aircraft behind the B777, and B747, the A330-300, first flew in 1992 as a design derived from its wide-body predecessor, the A300.
The shorter -200 followed six years later, and the -800/900 series in 2018 with a 14% better fuel economy per seat, exclusively powered by the Trent 7000 series engine. A low-cost, high-capacity aircraft, the A330 was intended to take on the B767 in the extended-range twin-engine operation performance standard (ETOPS).
The aircraft typically carries between 250 to 290 passengers, although capable of 440 depending on the cabin configuration.
Engine options on earlier variants are between the General Electric CF6-80E, Pratt & Whitney PW4000, or Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines producing 72k, 70k, and 71k thrust. Technologically advanced, the A330 uses electronic instruments, a side-stick control, and fly-by-wire, rather than the typical mechanical instruments, central control yoke, and cable control systems used on other aircraft.
Wide-Body #2: Boeing 747
Vying with the Airbus A330 for second place, the venerable and much-loved Boeing 747 is hanging on in the rankings. Boeing has built 1,561 B-747 versus the A330s 1,514 to date. The world’s first twin-aisled (or wide-bodied) aircraft, the B747, was nicknamed the ‘Jumbo Jet’ due to its impressive size.
Designed off the back of a requirement by Pan-Am for a new larger capacity aircraft that carried more passengers allowing a lower per-seat cost, the B747 first entered service in 1970.
Carrying 366 people, the aircraft was powered by four of Pratt & Whitney’s first high-bypass-ratio engines, the JT9D, each of which produced up to 51k pounds of thrust. The B747 has been through numerous variants using multiple engine manufacturers, with a short-range version developed for the Japanese market where fuel load was reduced to allow up to 550 passengers to be carried over shorter routes.
The SP or ‘Special Performance version followed, which was shortened by approximately 48 feet while increasing speed and range over long-haul routes. Then the inevitable call for more extended range, heavier maximum takeoff weights, and more powerful engines saw the -200, -300, -400, and -8 series developed.
Current 747-8s can carry 467 passengers using four General Electric GEnx-2B67, each generating 66,500 pounds of thrust. An interesting explanation for the upper deck on the B747 was the belief that supersonic air travel was the way of the future; therefore, the 747 double-deck design would allow conversion to a freighter by installing a front cargo door.
Wide-Body #1: Boeing 777
Known colloquially as the triple-seven, the Boeing 777 holds two records. The first record is because of the number built, at last count approximately 1650, which tops the list of the number of wide-bodied aircraft produced. The second record is down to it being the world’s largest twin-engined jet.
Designed in the 1990s, the B-777 was created to replace aging DC-10s and L-1011s and fill the gap between the Boeing 767 and Boeing 747.
The ‘classic’ B-777 consist of the -200 (seating 305 passengers), -200ER, and -300 series (seating 368 passengers) with engine options of the Pratt & Whitney 4000 series engines(90 – 98k pounds thrust), the Rolls Royce Trent 800 series (92k pounds thrust), or the GE90 series (92 – 115,300 pounds thrust).
In the chase for greater payloads over longer distances, the second generation of the classic B-777 concept entered service in the early 2000s with a broader wing, greater fuel capacity, and larger engines.
The latest developments are the new B777-8 (seating 384 passengers) and B777-9 (seating 426 passengers) series aircraft offered with the new GE9X engine, with the B777-9 having its first flight in 2020 and deliveries planned to commence in 2022. An interesting fact regarding the B-777 is that the diameter of its General Electric engine cowl is as wide as the passenger cabin on a Boeing 737.
Narrow-Body #5: Boeing 757
In the 1970s, Boeing was looking to improve the B727-200 trijet, the bestselling domestic airliner of the 1960s. Yet, airlines were less interested in a renewed variant, instead interested in a new aircraft using high-bypass-ratio engines and modern flight deck technology with promised reduced operating costs.
Miami-based Eastern Airlines was the launch customer, taking first delivery in January 1983, followed the next month by British Airways wishing to replace their Hawker Siddley Trident 3B jets. Initially powered by the Rolls Royce RB211-535C1, each providing almost 43k pounds of thrust, the B757-200 carried 242 passengers and proved popular with customers resulting in 913 aircraft being delivered.
A production cargo variant followed in 1987 and a combi cargo version, allowing conversion between passengers and freight, in 1988. In 1999 a stretched version, the -300, was launched. With fuselage plugs inserted both forward and aft of the wings, the aircraft is the longest single-aisle twinjet and carries 295 passengers.
55 of the -300 were delivered. An interesting fact for the B757 is the active flow control system for the rudder. Taking air from the auxiliary power unit (APU), 31 air jets mounted ahead of the rudder leading-edge direct air to re-energize airflow over the rudder, preventing early airflow separation and maintaining rudder effectiveness even at high rudder deflection angles.
Narrow-Body #4: McDonnell Douglas MD-80 Series
Developed as an improved version of the DC-9, the MD-80 was initially designated the DC-9 Series 80. Stretched in length, with a 28% larger wing, a higher maximum takeoff weight, and a higher bypass ratio engine in the Pratt & Whitney JT8-D, the aircraft could carry up to 172 passengers depending on seating configuration, against the DC-9s newer models, which carried 135.
Launch customer Swissair received its first delivery of the new aircraft in 1980, called the MD-81. Modified versions quickly followed in 1982, with the MD-82 offering higher power engines for hot and high operations or greater payloads.
The MD-83 was delivered in 1984 as a longer-range version of the previous models. Then in 1985, the shorter fuselage MD-87 was born, mainly to service existing MD-80 series customers.
Finally, the MD-88 was delivered in 1987, providing new electronic flight instrument systems rather than the analog instruments of previous variants, and updated interior trim.
McDonnell Douglas did plan to continue offering variants to the original design, but interest was not forthcoming from customers, and subsequent redesigns saw the MD-90 series born. The last MD-80 series deliveries occurred in 1999, with customers choosing aircraft with lower operating costs. A total of 1,191 MD-80 variants were delivered.
Narrow-Body #3: Boeing 727
Designed in the age of the four-engined B707, Boeing wished to build an aircraft that could operate into smaller airports with shorter runways. With arguments over four engines versus two, Boeing designed and constructed its only trijet, using three Pratt & Whitney JT8-D engines, each delivering just over 15k pounds of thrust.
The B727-100 carried up to 129 passengers, and the stretched -200 up to 155. With high-lift devices on its wings coupled with a large and sophisticated flap system, the B727 could descend steeply over obstacles, land short, and takeoff from smaller runways.
Needing to sell 200 to break even and planning on building 250, the B727-100 entered operation in 1964. Sales were slow to build initially, although once the lengthened 727-200 was introduced, it gained popularity.
Provided in freight and quick-change cargo/passenger versions, the B727 was destined to be the first commercial airliner to sell over 1,000 aircraft. Boeing produced a total of 1,832 aircraft before ceasing production in 1984.
Renowned for being noisy and not fuel-efficient, the B727 was nonetheless loved by operators, pilots, and the traveling public. The aircraft was a pioneer in many ways, first to undergo extensive fatigue testing and to have an auxiliary power unit (APU) fitted, first to use triple slotted flaps and to have totally powered flight controls, and the first to exceed the magic 1,000 production mark.
Narrow-Body #2: Airbus A320 series
Airbus designed and produced the A320 family comprising some of the most popular short-haul airliners globally, and it ranks as the fastest-selling airliner between 2005 and 2007. First purchased and flown by Air France in 1988, the A320 family comprises the A318, A319, A320, A321, and the latest A319/20/21neo range.
The older variants now carry the CEO suffix, standing for conventional engine options. The smallest of the family, the A318, carries up to 107 passengers and is 103 feet long, cruising at 447 knots. The largest A321ceo can carry up to 220 passengers and measures 146 feet.
Engine options included the CFM56-5 series, and the IAE V2500-A series, although Pratt & Whitney P6000A were used briefly also. Engine thrust ranged between 22k and 33k pounds.
The enhanced A320 series came about in 2009 from efficiency improvements by introducing winglets, aerodynamic refinements, a new cabin, and some weight savings.
This gave a 3.5% fuel burn reduction on longer flights. In 2010, the re-engined options were introduced to the A319, A320, and A321 creating the neo (new engine options), which use the CFM International LEAP or Pratt & Whitney PW1000G to give an improved cruise, a claimed 15% fuel saving and a vastly reduced noise footprint.
As of March 2021, more than 7,300 neo-family aircraft had been ordered by over 110 airlines, taking the mantle of the fastest-selling commercial aircraft. 9,572 aircraft have been produced to date.
Narrow-Body #1: Boeing 737 series
Taking the mantle of the best-selling aircraft in history, Boeing began building the 737 in 1967 and continues to manufacture them to this day. Originally designed to be smaller and cheaper to operate than its 1960s cousins, the B707 and B727, the Boeing 737 has since morphed and developed to provide solutions to many operational missions.
Delivered aircraft total 10,681, with over 4,000 still to deliver. The -100 and -200 series were manufactured between 1967 and 1984, powered by the Pratt & Whitney JT8D, and carried 108 to 130 passengers. Of 1,144 produced, 991 comprised the -200 series.
In 1984 the ‘Classic’ B737 series was introduced, made up of the -300, -400, and -500 series. Powered by the CFM-56-3 turbofan, this series could carry from 110 to 168 passengers. Upgraded again in 2084, the ‘Next Generation’ 737 comprised the -600, -700, -800, and -900 series.
The latest variant was again re-engined with the newer CFM56-7, a larger wing added, and the flight deck upgrades. Passenger capacity increased to a maximum of 215.
The latest generation, the 737-7/8/9/10 MAX series, was introduced in 2017. Sporting the CFM LEAP-B1 very high bypass ratio engine, winglets, and airframe modifications, the aircraft suffered two hull-loss crashes and was subsequently grounded for a period by aviation authorities worldwide. Since re-certified and returned to service, orders for 4,440 MAX series aircraft are outstanding.
Utility Aircraft: Unsung Heroes Linking Remote Communities To The World
In aviation, as in life, attention will focus on the biggest, loudest, sleekest, and most expensive. Yet, behind the glamour of wide-bodied aircraft whispering of global travel and exotic places lies a story of commercial aviation’s unsung heroes.
Step forward the utility aircraft, the (usually) ugly sister of the commercial aircraft world; those tireless workers are seen at regional airports worldwide, bustling in and out with barely time to draw breath.
People carriers during the day, transform by night to lug mail, fish, or perishable produce to morning markets. Giving budding pilots their first step on the commercial aviation ladder, they act as air ambulances, deliver babies, drop supplies, carry out reconnaissance and provide essential services to remote communities while serving as feeder services to the main-trunk air routes.
We will look at the ten most common utility aircraft based on build numbers and uncover the facts and history surrounding them.
Antonov AN28 (Russia)
With an appearance only a mother could love, the Soviet design bureau OKB Antonov (now Antonov ASTC, Ukraine) entered the AN28 design into a competition to supply Aeroflot with their new light passenger and utility transport.
Beating Russian company Beriev with their Be-30 and Czechoslovakia LET Aircraft Industries with the LET-410, the aircraft first took flight in 1969. Capable of short takeoff and landing (STOL) operations, the AN28 was initially designed to carry passengers, cargo, and mail on regional routes.
However, it’s since seen diverse services in the geological survey, air ambulance, photography, forest patrol, paratroop training, and ice patrol. With its squat, square shape, the cruise speed of 181 knots is unsurprising, yet it carried a useful weight of either 17 passengers or slightly shy of two imperial tons.
Powered by two 960 shaft horsepower (SHP) turbo-props of Russian design with 3-bladed propellers, the takeoff and landing rolls were 1,350 and 1,033 feet, respectively.
Originally license-built by Polish company PZL-Mielec, they subsequently redesigned the aircraft, fitting the 1100 SHP Pratt & Whitney PT6A-65B with 5-blade Hartzell propellers and a new Bendix-King avionics suite, providing a demonstrated landing roll of 512 feet.
Rebadged as the Polish PZL M28 Sytruck, it is still in limited production. Unconventional in design, the aircraft has two interesting aerodynamic features.
It is designed with a very low stall thanks to aerodynamically deployed leading-edge slats, and should an engine fail, a spoiler forward of the opposite aileron raises automatically, restricting wing drop to 12 degrees in five seconds, rather than the 30 degrees otherwise. Approximately 230 aircraft of both designs have been built.
Dornier 228 (Germany)
A true success story with over 4 million hours flown to date, the Dornier 228 was developed in the 1970s on the back of a new supercritical advanced aerofoil wing design that emerged from a program funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
The program’s intent was to increase the performance and efficiency of aircraft at speeds up to 250 knots. Able to operate efficiently at slow airspeeds, the wing enables capable STOL abilities while still providing a good cruise of 230 knots, depending on the variant.
Designed to operate from unprepared airfields at high altitudes, the aircraft carries up to 19 passengers and at sea level requires only 2,600 feet to take off and a landing roll less than 1,500 feet.
Using the robust and reliable Garrat TPE331 (now Honeywell) turboprop and a choice of four-bladed Hartzell or five-bladed MT composite propellers, the aircraft has a retractable undercarriage and is powerful and fuel-efficient with low maintenance costs and dispatch reliability sitting around 98 to 99%.
Designed as a commuter aircraft, the Do228 is now used extensively in maritime surveillance, smokejumping platforms, air ambulance, cargo, and paratrooper roles while aiming at the ‘ISTAR’ market for intelligence, surveillance, targeting, acquisition, and reconnaissance. 245 aircraft were manufactured in Germany before Hindustan Aeronautics in Uttar Pradesh, India, bought a production license in 1983 and manufactured a further 125 aircraft.
Interestingly, in conjunction with MTU aero engines, the German Aerospace Centre is developing a Do228 with an electric powertrain powered by a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. Ground testing begins in late 2021, with a maiden flight slated for 2026.
BAe Jetstream 3 Series (United Kingdom)
A sleek, attractive aircraft, the British Aerospace Jetstream 31 derives from the earlier Handley Page lineage of Jetstream 1, 200, and 3M aircraft.
Driven to bankruptcy by delayed deliveries and canceled orders, wing manufacturer Scottish Aviation took over manufacture in the early 1970s before being nationalized in 1978 into British Aerospace, finally known as BAe Systems.
With BAe deciding the aircraft was ripe for further development and aiming squarely at the American commuter market, new Garrat TPE331’s at 1,020 SHP were fitted, as was a 2+1 seating configuration giving 19 seats. With an enhanced range and weight capacity, the aircraft compared favorably with competitors, the Beech 1900 and the Swearingen Metro.
A further enhanced design saw more powerful engines again, increased headroom, and lower cabin noise and vibration levels. Dubbed the Jetstream 32, it first flew in 1988 and remained in production until 1993. While designed and used primarily as a short-shuttle commuter or executive aircraft, the Jetstream sees service in air ambulance roles and military operations, with modifications offering enhanced short-field capability and hot and high operations performance.
Cruising at 230 knots and lifting 2.5 tons, cargo conversions are becoming more popular as the aircraft has aged, with STC’s approved to fit a large cargo door, depressurize the cargo area, and fit a pressure bulkhead behind the flight deck.
One has been used in the UK as an uninhabited air vehicle, using onboard systems to fly in crowded UK IFR airspace while a ground-based pilot monitors progress.
With a safety crew onboard to take off and land the aircraft before handing it over to the computers and control systems, the aircraft uses a sense and avoid system to prevent collisions with other aircraft while sensing poor weather and altering course appropriately.
With over 400 aircraft built and close to 100 still in airline use, the BAe Jetstream remains a popular aircraft for pilots and commuters alike.
Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante (Brazil)
I well remember the Bandereirante. As a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer (A&P mechanic in the US) in the 1980s, I found the airframe solidly built and coupled with the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-34, it was a competent performer.
The solid construction was underlined when one aircraft turned up at my hangar, having flown through a nasty storm and taken some lightning strikes.
Such an event requires a complete external and internal damage inspection to ensure control cables haven’t fused and the fuselage hasn’t been penetrated. While we did find some pinholes from the strikes, the apparent damage was to the right aileron, half of which was missing.
Despite this, the crew reported no significant handling issues, a testament to the aircraft, in my opinion.
The Brazilian Ministry of Aeronautics initiated the design in 1965 to pursue an aircraft for general purpose use that achieved low operational costs and high reliability.
They achieved this and, in 1973, produced a popular aircraft that engineers, pilots, and the traveling public liked. It was small, robust, easy to maintain, and carried 18 passengers reasonably quickly at a 220-knot cruise.
Used for passenger, cargo, maritime patrol, and geophysical survey, over 500 aircraft rolled off the production line until production ceased in 1990. Almost 50 years later, the aircraft is still operating worldwide with airlines, military, air taxi operators, and governments.
CASA C-212 Aviocar (Spain)
With a reputation for outstanding reliability backed by more than three million flight hours, the C-212 must be one of the more successful aircraft in the utility category.
Capable of carrying up to 26 passengers or lifting 2.8 tons and designed to operate in the most exacting environments, the aircraft works out of unprepared airfields in hot and high climates while exhibiting outstanding STOL performance.
With almost 600 aircraft built, the C-212 continues to see the operation in Antarctica, jungles, and deserts worldwide. Designed and built in Spain, the last Spanish-produced aircraft was delivered in 2013, with subsequent builds being carried out under license in Indonesia by Indonesian Aerospace.
With simple systems, a high wing, box-shaped fuselage, fixed undercarriage, and unpressurized fuselage, the aircraft was suitable only for flights below 10,000 feet and on short regional airline routes. Used on Antarctic surveys, maritime patrol, mineral exploration, paratroop, air ambulance, and cargo operations, the aircraft still sees service with airlines on short-haul routes.
Beechcraft 1900 (United States of America)
With almost 700 aircraft built and half of those still in operation, the Beech 1900 must be one of the most popular 19-seat twin-engine airliners in the utility category.
Designed off the back of the Super King Air, Beechcraft needed an aircraft capable of going toe-to-toe with the Swearingen Metro and the BAe Jetstream. Powered by the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-65B and 67D, depending on the variant, they produce 1,100 and 1,279 SHP, respectively.
The pressurized cabin allows operations to 25,000 feet, and the aircraft cruises at 285 knots. Capable of single-pilot operation when not on airline use, the aircraft has a respectable short field operation and can cope with grass airfields and rough runways. A supercargo variant is available following supplemental type certificates (STC) being issued, with the aircraft carrying 900 cubic feet of freight. 306 Beechcraft 1900 variants were still flying as of 2018.
De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter (Canada)
A few aircraft still make my pulse quicken, and the Twin Otter is near the top of those, along with another of the De Havilland lineage, the DHC-2 Beaver
. I came across my first DHC-6-300 in the Pacific Islands in the late 1980s, spending nights in a hurricane-damaged hangar carrying out the routine and defect maintenance necessary to prepare the aircraft for the next day of island flying.
Despite being a twin-engine-rated private pilot, it is my eternal regret that I never managed to fly the left seat in the Twin Otter. Production of the 100 series began in the mid-1960s and continues today with the -400 Viking.
With over 800 aircraft variants produced and almost half of those still flying, the Twin Otter is a true Canadian success story and powered, appropriately enough, by another; the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-27/34. Available on floats, skis, or fixed tricycle undercarriage, the Twin Otter is the archetypal bush plane.
The DHC-6 operates as a commuter airliner, a freight carrier, medevac air ambulance, parachute platform, oil & gas support, and special military missions with outstanding STOL capabilities. Carrying just over 2 tons on short routes, cruising at 180 knots, and with a stall speed of just 56 knots, the Twin Otter is hugely popular with operators and works in just about every theatre of the globe.
LET L-410 Turbolet (Czechoslovakia)
Another utility aircraft capable of operation from short, unpaved runways in hot and high conditions, the L-410 first began in the 1960s as Czechoslovak manufacturer Let Kunovice aimed to supply Russian Aeroflot with a turboprop replacement for their aging AN2 aircraft.
Beginning life as the L-400 and developing into the L-410, it first flew in 1969. Due to problems with the Czech-designed engines, the L-410 first flew with PT6A-27 until the engine issues were resolved and the aircraft re-engined with the Czech Walter M601.
Consisting of an unpressurized, high-wing configuration, the aircraft is certified for instrument flight rules (IFR) ops and flight into known icing. Carrying from 15 to 19 passengers, the cruise speed is 219 knots. With more than 1,200 aircraft built, the L-410 operates in over 60 countries worldwide.
The latest version, the L-410NG, entered production in 2018 and is equipped with quieter GE H80 engines. Intended for commercial, military, and cargo operations, over 350 versions of the L-410 currently flying.
Britten-Norman Islander (United Kingdom)
While it may seem unkind to dub the BN2A a “flying Landrover,” both the aircraft and the vehicle are rugged British institutions, each successful in their own right and venerated by many.
The solid old BN2A has a special place in my heart as it was one of the first aircraft I cut my teeth on when I left the Airforce and entered civil aviation. I re-encountered it during my stint in the Pacific islands in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
Noisy, unsophisticated, and straightforward in design with its barn door wing of constant chord, the BN2 series must be one of the world’s most successful and iconic aircraft; with approximately 1,300 built and 800 operating worldwide, the aircraft is still in production.
Now 56 years old, it is again being reinvented, with plans for installing electric and electric-hybrid powertrains and use in autonomous flight testing. While turbine-powered variants of the BN2 are available, the usual mission for the aircraft is cycling heavy, involving short high-frequency trips.
This rapidly wears out a turbine, so most operators opt for the rugged Lycoming O, and IO-540 powered six-cylinder piston engines providing 260 and 300 horsepower, respectively. Cruising up to 140 knots for the B variant and carrying three-quarters of a ton, the BN2 is a true workhorse; just be sure to pack your earplugs.
Cessna 208 Caravan (United States of America)
Designed and built by Cessna to replace the aging fleet of cargo-hauling aircraft such as Beavers and Twin Otters, the Caravan has been an outstanding success in the utility aircraft world. Introduced in 1984, the aircraft is still in production, with over 2,600 being built.
Carrying up to 14 passengers or 1.5 tons of cargo and cruising at 186 knots, the 208 is powered by a single PT6A-114 providing 675 SHP. The aircraft is designed to be field maintained, reasonably low cost to operate, and rugged of simple construction, unpressurized with a fixed undercarriage and a massive cargo door.
An incredibly versatile aircraft, the Caravan can be fitted with floats, a belly pod, a skydiving door, or hardpoints under the wing for military use. Roles include commuter airlines, recreation, flight training, cargo, mixed cargo and passenger, humanitarian missions, air ambulance, geophysical survey, and police/military use.
The next time you pass by an airfield, tear your eyes away from the big passenger aircraft and the fancy aerobatic toys and pay a thought to the hard-working, rugged unprepossessing utility aircraft.
They’ll be the ones beetling in and out in the background, disgorging freight, passengers, industrial equipment, and parachutists. Looking slightly tired and battered but continuing to serve remote communities and greasing the wheels of industry. In my opinion, the exciting, interesting unsung heroes of the commercial aviation world.
Military Fighters: Guaranteed To Turn Heads
Menacing, noisy, and startling fast, the military fighting aircraft is an excruciatingly expensive, high-technology flying weapons delivery system.
Not being commonly seen up close, they steal the limelight at every airshow. We’ll take a look at five of the most common fighters based on build quantities, with the caveat that accurate build numbers can be elusive. While not the most modern 5th-generation fighters, these are tested in battle and produced in significant numbers.
Fighter #5: Douglas A4 Series Skyhawk
Ah, nostalgia. Somewhere in a shoebox, I have a picture of myself in the early 1980s as a young man sitting on the wing of an A4-K Skyhawk on which my airforce colleagues and I had just completed a major overhaul. Built-in the mid-1950s, over 2,960 A4 were produced until production ceased in 1979.
A predominantly single-seat, sub-sonic aircraft carrier-capable light attack aircraft, the Skyhawk was relatively lightweight and incredibly tough and maneuverable.
It had a short-span delta wing that did not require folding on a carrier, given its size. First used in combat by the US during the war in Vietnam, the aircraft has also seen action with Israel, Argentina, and Kuwait. Initially powered by the Wright J65 turbo-engine, it was later re-engined with the Pratt & Whitney J52 generating 8.5k pounds of thrust.
With a top speed of 585 knots and a range of 1,008 nautical miles, the A4 pioneered the concept of air-to-air ‘buddy’ refueling. This allowed one aircraft to refuel from another similar aircraft, obviating the need for a refueling tanker.
Fighter #4: General Dynamics F-16 Flying Falcon
Coming in next in the list with over 4,600 built, the F-16 was first produced in 1973. Designed as a daytime fighter to maintain air superiority for the US Airforce, the F-16 developed into a successful all-weather multi-role aircraft. At one point, it was the most numerous fixed-wing aircraft in military service.
The early F-16A/B series was powered by the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-2 series engine producing 14.6k pounds thrust dry, or 23.8k pounds with afterburner. In 1987, the C/D series also utilized the more powerful General Electric F110-GE-100, producing 16.6k pounds of thrust dry and 29k with afterburner.
Striking attributes of the F-16 are the use of a side-stick control, a bubble canopy for greater visibility, and the first use of fly-by-wire technology using negative stability to create a more nimble aircraft. Still being produced, the F-16 has been purchased by the air forces of 25 other countries.
Fighter #3: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23
Known in the West by its NATO name, Flogger, the MiG-23 is a Russian-designed variable geometry wing fighter that entered production in 1969. With over 5,045 aircraft built, it is the most produced variable-sweep wing aircraft in history.
The aircraft ceased production in 1985, although it still sees limited service with a small number of customers. Designed to replace the MiG-21, the MiG-23 addressed its predecessor’s shortcomings with an increased weapons load, increased range, and a much-improved radar capability.
While the aircraft proved to not be a good dog-fighter, it was blazingly fast to accelerate and could out-accelerate any other fighters. Powered by the Khatchaturov R-35-300 turbojet, it produced 18.8k pounds of thrust dry and 28.6k pounds with an afterburner. As an interceptor aircraft designed to hit and run an opponent, the MiG-23 proved to be a considerable threat to enemy aircraft and saw much action worldwide.
Fighter #2: McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
An incredibly versatile and blazingly fast tandem-seat fighter-bomber, the F-4 Phantom flew first in 1958 and began racking up world records in speed, altitude, and time-to-climb.
With airspeed topping out at just over twice the speed of sound, the F-4 set a world record in 1961, managing just over 1,393 knots on a 20-mile circuit. It also secured a world altitude record in 1959, achieving 98,556 feet. Bought to design life in 1952 from the US Navy’s need for a new attack fighter, by 1955, that requirement had changed to an all-weather fleet defense interceptor.
Defense secretary, Robert McNamara, was pushing to have one fighter for all military branches, so the US Airforce became involved in modifying the design to meet their air-to-air and air-to-ground fighter-bomber requirements.
The F-4 saw action in the war in Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, the Iran-Iraq War, and the war between the United Kingdom & Argentine.
Powered by two General Electric J79-GE-17A, each engine produced 11.9k pounds of thrust dry and 17.8k pounds of thrust with an afterburner. With 5,195 built, the F-4 has been used by many countries worldwide, with a number still in active service today.
Fighter #1: Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21
With over 11,490 aircraft built, the MiG-21 is a true success story. Almost 70 years after its first flight, it is currently still in use by 19 airforces and used previously by over 40; there are also over 70 aircraft still flying privately. Known by its NATO name Fishbed, the MiG-21 first flew in 1955.
The design successfully combined the properties of an interceptor and a fighter into a lightweight and fast package. Capable of speeds at twice the speed of sound, the aircraft used a delta wing configuration and was powered by the Tumansky R-25-300 turbojet, producing over 9k pounds of thrust dry and 15.6k with an afterburner.
The aircraft’s simple controls, engine, avionics, and weapons systems made it cheap to manufacture and maintain, partly explaining its great production success.
Holding several production records, the MiG-21 is the most produced supersonic aircraft in aviation history, the longest production run of any aircraft (1959 to 1985), and the most produced combat aircraft since the Korean war.
Basic Trainers: Where We All Started
I first learned to fly a powered aircraft when I was 17 years old, and it was the ubiquitous Cessna 150. Today, countless pilots flying heavy metal or military jets began on a small airfield in an old and battered primary trainer or a J-3 Piper Cub.
While technology has improved, if you drop into your local airfield, you’ll still see the rows of little workhorses readying themselves for another day of abuse at the hands of a learner. We’ll take a look at and salute three of the most common light trainers used worldwide to prepare the next generation of pilots.
Trainer #3: Cessna 150/152
With 31,471 aircraft produced in the Cessna 150 and 152 range, the C150 is the fifth most produced civilian plane ever at 23,839 built. Cessna began the design of the C150 as a successor to the previous C140, whose production ceased in 1951.
Modernizing the old C140 design saw the addition of a tricycle undercarriage compared to the older taildragger design, squared-off wingtips, and newer fowler flaps. The engine power was increased using the 100 HP Continental O-200-A, an improvement on the C140s 85 HP.
In 1977, the aircraft morphed into the C152 to compete with Beechcraft’s Skipper and Piper’s Tomahawk trainers. The significant change was a new Lycoming O-235 series engine, producing 100 HP and providing a longer time-between-overhaul (TBO) of 2,400 hours.
The performance changes allowed a 107-knot cruise to the C150s 82, with only a tiny increase in stall speed from 42 knots to 49.
A perfect trainer, its handling properties are predictable, control forces are light, and the aircraft performs well at slow airspeeds. If it’s not too hot and you’re not too heavy, the aircraft performs well on short runways. For increased comfort, make sure you have an excellent noise-canceling headset or earplugs.
Trainer #2: Piper PA28 Cherokee Series
It does seem a little unfair that Piper gets the second slot due to their family of trainers rather than one particular type. Particularly as it edges out my enduring favorite, the Piper J-3. However, Piper has produced 32,778 of its training lineage, and they are undoubtedly ubiquitous worldwide.
Starting with the low-wing, fixed undercarriage, four-seat 150 and 160 Cherokees in 1961, Piper designed the aircraft to compete with the Cessna 172 while providing a less complex aircraft than their Pa24 Comanche.
For many of the Pa28 lines, the number such as 150 refers to the engine horsepower. Other models followed rapidly; in 1962, the 180 was added, then a two-seat version of the 150, named the 140. A retractable version of the 180 called the Arrow followed in 1967.
A stretched Arrow in 1972, a turbocharged version in 1977, and a T-tail version in 1979. Along the way, refinements were made to the fuselage and wings of the models, including aerodynamic improvements.
Names were also changed. Today, the fleet still in production consists of the 160 HP Warrior, 200 HP Arrow, 155 HP Archer TX and LX, and the 180 HP Pilot 100 and i100. Yet, many of the old types continue in used as personal transport and competent trainers.
Trainer #1: Cessna 172
Earning the top spot, the Cessna 172 has been produced in larger numbers than any other aircraft, with over 44,000 built and still being produced. First flown in 1955, the 172 is a single-engine, high-wing, tricycle undercarriage, all-metal four-seat aircraft designed to replace the older 1948 170 series taildraggers
An overwhelming success, when the aircraft was first launched in 1956, over 1,400 were ordered. Powered by the Continental O-300 of 145 horsepower until 1967, the engine was changed to the Lycoming O-320 series of 150 HP.
Over the years, variants have been produced with Lycomings ranging from 160 to 180 HP, a limited variant with a diesel engine, and the Hawk SP with an injected 195 HP engine and a constant-speed propeller.
The aircraft has also undergone regular refinements and facelifts to maintain a contemporary look, and today options include a partial glass cockpit with the Garmin 1000 Flight Display. The current 172R cruises at 122 knots with a range of 696 nautical miles.
Amateur-Built Aircraft: The DIY End Of The Aviation Spectrum
Also known as home-built or kit planes, these aircraft are built by enthusiasts from plans or kits and may be licensed under special regulations in many countries.
Subject to inspection during the build process, and in some countries, having restrictions on when or where they may fly, the amateur-built aircraft provides pilots the satisfaction of building and flying their own customized flying machine.
Starting out as quite simple machines back in the day, the latest amateur-built aircraft are fast and technologically advanced in materials and equipment. I’ll highlight two popular models as an example of what is available.
Amateur-Built #2: Kitfox Series
Confession time, I love taildraggers, ever since converting to a Citabria in the early 1990s. If I could choose a taildragger to build, this would have to be near the top.
A two-seater, high-wing taildragger of fabric and tube design, the first Kitfox 1 shipped in 1984 with a 65 HP Rotax engine cruising at 65 knots and stalling at 31. Since then, the variants have come thick and fast, with a notable clean-sheet redesign in 1994.
Now sitting at model 7, the latest Kitfox may be powered by engines ranging from 80 to 180 HP and offers speeds to 105 knots. The allure of the aircraft was the fact it could be built in a garage, the wings would fold, and the aircraft towed behind a car to the airfield for a day flying. With over 5,000 kits sold, the Kitfox is a shining example of the magic of amateur-built aircraft.
Amateur-Built #1: The Rans RV Series
In November 2019, it was announced that 10,600 RV kits had been completed and flown, with many more thousand under completion. When you understand that Richard VanGrunsven only started his Vans Aircraft Company in 1973, that is an extraordinary feat.
When Dick built his single-seat RV-1 in 1965, how could he know the phenomenon he was about to unleash. Now at designation RV-14, the series provides kits for 4 single-seat aircraft, 7 two-seat aircraft, and 1 four-seat aircraft, with the other series numbers either sailplanes, prototypes, or not used.
A mix of taildragger and tricycle undercarriage options, the RV design is characterized by a sleek, attractive, minimalist exterior providing outstanding performance and good short-field operation.
The latest example, the RV-14, is a fully aerobatic two-seat aircraft with a maximum speed of 176 knots that cruises at 168 knots and stalls at 46 knots.
Powered by the Lycoming IO-390 delivering 210 HP, the RV-14 is stressed to +6/-3 G in aerobatics. With an estimated build time for the RV-14 of 1,200 hours, and with some aircraft estimated to take 800, given the looks and performance, is it any wonder the RV has become as successful as it has?
Question: To what does the term “Knot” refer?
Answer: A knot is a unit of speed derived from nautical use. Today a knot refers to 1 nautical mile per hour, 1.85 kilometers per hour, or 1.15 statute miles per hour.
Question: What is a ‘taildragger’ aircraft?
Answer: Also known as ‘conventional’ landing gear, the term refers to the arrangement of the undercarriage components. In a taildragger aircraft, two main wheels are positioned forward of the aircraft’s centre of gravity, with one small wheel or skid at the tail. Another option, a tricycle undercarriage, has a nosewheel at the front of the aircraft and two main wheels positioned aft of the centre of gravity slightly.
Question: When you speak of ‘thrust’ with a jet engine, what do you mean?
Answer: A jet engine takes in air at the front, compresses it in a turbine and mixes it with fuel before igniting it. The highly accelerated air is exhausted to the rear of the engine. The acceleration pushes the engine forward, transmitting the forward motion to the aircraft structure through a series of engine mounts. That thrust is measured in pounds lbs (or Kilogram Force (kgf) or Newtons (N).
Question: What is an afterburner, and what do you mean by ‘wet’ or ‘dry’?
Answer: An afterburner is an additional component typically found on military jet engines. It is a device that introduces additional fuel into the jets exhaust stream just to the rear of the last turbine, significantly increasing thrust but using large amounts of fuel to do so; therefore, it’s not very fuel-efficient. Usually used for takeoffs, combat, and to achieve supersonic flight. Dry means no afterburner use; wet means fuel is added to the exhaust stream to get the additional thrust.
Question: What do the terms ‘ narrowbody’ and ‘widebody’ refer to when speaking of commercial jets?
Answer: The terms refer to the width of the fuselage tube, which dictates the numbers of seats and aisles. Narrowbody aircraft have one aisle, dividing two sets of one, two or three seats. Widebody aircraft usually have two aisles with three individual groups of seats.
Question: To what does the term ETOPS refer?
Answer: The acronym means Extended-range Twin-engined Operations Performance Standards. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) used the term for any twin-engined aircraft operating over one hour from its diversion airport, assuming one engine inoperative. Aircraft may be approved to fly more than that one hour based on stringent technical and operational criteria. Modern aircraft may now be approved for ETOPS operations up to 330 minutes from their chosen diversion airport. The rule allows passenger operations using twin-engined aircraft on routes where aviation rules previously required four-engined aircraft.
So there we have the round-up of the 30 most common aircraft. I’m sure others could have made the list, and there are some I’d like to have seen mentioned, yet the odds are that when next you drive past or visit an airport, a lot of the aircraft we’ve discussed here will be visible to you. Now you know a little of their history.
Learjet Series: Learjet Plane Types and Models
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- Cesnna 150 Guide
- Cessna 152 Guide
- Cessna 170 Guide
- Cessna 206 Guide
- Cessna 340 Guide
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