The Incomparable Style Of Vintage Airliners
Forgetting for a few minutes that modern aircraft are more reliable, more comfortable, faster, and more fuel-efficient than earlier designs, we’re highlighting some of the spectacular passenger airliners that are simply not around anymore.
Sure, you can see them at air shows, vintage photos, and the odd documentary, but unlike classic cars, owning a vintage aircraft is far out of the reach of most. And if it’s not used on commercial routes, well, there’s little chance to fly back in time as a passenger on one of these beautiful aircraft.
There’s little we can add about the DC-3 that hasn’t already been said. From its first flight in 1936, the DC-3 is still being flown regularly. That’s right—the saying, “The only replacement for the DC-3 is another DC-3” holds true even today.
Not on major commercial routes, of course (you won’t likely see Virgin Airlines adding one to its fleet) but among smaller businesses and operators, nearly 1,000 are believed to still be in limited service today. Finding and taking a short hop on a DC-3 is still possible, and we recommend you do it—the aircraft is still as strong, striking, and sexy as it was back in the ’30s.
Rarely seen in North America, the IL-18 was the workhorse that kept the Soviet Union—and a number of countries’ commercial airlines—humming along from 1957 until…well, it’s still in service! You’ll have to book a flight on North Korea’s Air Koryo (or a few other airlines you probably haven’t heard of), but it’s incredible that the plan is still flying today.
Known for its very strong construction, early teething troubles led to a series of improvements that saw the model remain in production until 1978. In that time, more than 600 were made, and delivered initially to Soviet air carriers.
The “Jet Age” gets mentioned here from time to time, and apart from the fanciful names and slogans attached to decidedly not-jet trademarks through the ’50s and ’60s (on vacuum cleaners, luxury cars, radios, and the like), the big daddy of the era is probably the Boeing 707. Originally called the Dash 80, the aircraft was named
Legendary for its barrel roll at the hands of test pilot Tex Johnson to wow potential customers, the 707 quickly formed the backbone of the type of air travel we expect today: clean, quiet, fast, reliable, and comfortable. It’s been flown all over the world, and more than 1,000 entered commercial service—with a further 800 built to military specifications.
Most have been replaced by more modern jet aircraft, but from its first Pan American World Airways flight in 1958, the 707 was the de facto aircraft seen in many airports until the early ’90s. Even Frank Sinatra bought one—now, that aircraft is owned by John Travolta!
The Concorde needs no introduction. The fastest passenger aircraft ever—no, don’t try to bring up the Tupolev Tu-144—the Concorde was a collaboration between the best aerospace engineers in Britain and France. Speed was a big thing when a supersonic aircraft was first posited in the ’50s, but it wasn’t feasible until its launch in 1976. Borrowing heavily from designs seen in Britain, the U.S., and Canada, its eventual performance was out-of-this-world.
New York to Paris? Less than 3.5 hours. For those with the money (and little time to spend), it was the only way to travel. A big crash just after take-off in 2000 (caused by a piece that fell off of a DC-10) and lower instances of air travel overall in the wake of September, 2001 helped to seal the fate of the Concorde. It was taken out of service on June 27, 2003.
If there’s a competition for the “sexiest airliner in the world”—and there should be—we have a feeling it’d be between the Concorde and the Constellation. The two aircraft are as different as chalk and cheese, however, both sought to revolutionize air travel…but only the Constellation managed to pull it off.
First designed as an airliner, but due to the Second World War, the Constellation was introduced as a military aircraft in 1943. Lockheed was working at the behest of the Howard Hughes-owned TWA, who sought a revolutionary aircraft that would give them a leg up on the competition. It looks like Hughes fingerprints are all over the design, and he is credited somewhat for its design.
Long, cigar-shaped, and often seen in polished aluminum, it could outrun the Japanese fighter aircraft of the era and once into commercial service in 1945, it quickly won passengers over as the first pressurized aircraft—a feature that greatly improved efficiency and comfort. Updated over the years, it left commercial service as late as 1990—the expensive-to-maintain Constellation is sadly a rare bird these days.