In my office, I have a wall section filled with pinups. I culled them from calendars over the years, choosing the ones whose sleek lines and aggressive poses I wasn’t yet done admiring.
Whenever possible, I seek out live shows or displays of these beautiful forms and generally have to be told it’s closing time to get my gawking self out of there.
Below are my dozen favorites. This is not to diminish my great admiration for the lines of Tomcat, Eagle, Panther, Hornet, Mirage, Thunderbolt or Swallow, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
12. F4-U Corsair
Her distinctive gull wings and the aerodynamic design are pretty, sure enough; but there is also a rugged power that comes through loud and clear. This airplane made the Marine Air Corps the terror of the Pacific skies, but it was just as deadly delivering ordinance to the ground. The hottest-looking radial engine fighter of all time.
Most discussions of beautiful airplanes center on sleek single-engine fighters, but the clean lines of the Mosquito deserve mention. She was also the most versatile airplane of WWII. At her coming out, she was the fastest plane in the air, thanks partly to her mostly wooden frame. When she prowled the night on a reconnaissance mission, she was so fast that those Luftwaffe boys couldn’t catch her, even when they had some warning.
As a bomber, she could do her damage and be gone while the Germans were still scrambling, even by day. And when fitted with four cannons in her belly and four machine guns in her nose, she could devastate everything from German night fighters and bombers to ships and trains. She even spent some time with the famous Dambuster squadron, dropping flares to make the best bomber pilots in the world even more accurate.
10. B-58 Hustler
A picture of the B-58 Hustler just doesn’t do her justice. Sure, she looks really sleek and all, like the sister of the delta-winged fighters of the era, the F-102 and 106. But in person, she’s a traffic stopper.
With her glistening chrome and sheer size, along with those aerodynamic lines—and the knowledge that she was designed to deliver nukes to the USSR at Mach 2—it just seems a shame that advancements in Soviet SAMs made high-altitude bombing obsolete so soon into her tenure and she was put out to pasture.
9. F-104 Starfighter
When sleek was chic. From the F-100 Super Sabre, the F102 and F-106 Delta Dagger and Dart, to the F-105 fighter-bomber that took out Soviet-built North Vietnamese SAM sites, fighters of the era were sleek and fast.
But the F-104 was the fairest of them all. Who can forget the scene in The Right Stuff with Chuck Yeager pushing the edge of the atmosphere in what looked like a near rocket ship—and then plummeting to Earth in an airplane designed to go forward really really fast, but maneuver and recover from spins? Not so much.
7. Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Perhaps the most striking airplane on this list, it takes a second look for the discerning to realize the Lockheed P-38 Lightning is beautiful in her own way. A straight-on view shows she is sleeker than first thought—and also highlights the deadly concentrated firepower she leads with.
The famed twin boom design was the first for engineer extraordinaire Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and his Skunk Works team at Lockheed. He would go on to bring us the F-104, the U2, the and the SR-71 among others.
Once the Army figured out how to use her talents, she was the top scorer in the Pacific, with two of her best beaus, Dick Bong and Thomas McGuire, reaching glory as the top two aces in American history.
7. F-22 Raptor
As beautiful as a stealthy design can get, the F-22 is also currently the deadliest airplane in the sky. But she doesn’t fly under the radar at air shows. When she struts her stuff, the crowd is in awe.
She started out as the prettiest girl in the sky—and then she aged better than any of her competitors. Adding a bubble canopy and a sleeker nose were just the cosmetic enhancements. She also improved her performance—but no one ever wanted to improve on those graceful elliptical wings.
She was introduced with a killer combination of speed and maneuverability and ended the war the same way by staying in tip top shape. Her only limitation was range, but she was deadly as a fierce defender of her home.
5. F-86D Sabre
With her nose job, the F-86 Sabre went from pretty to gorgeous, one of the most beautiful and cleanest designs to ever fly in combat.
At a time, the brutally effective Russian Mig-15 was giving U.S. fliers fits over Korea, outclassing the F-80. The Sabre was the perfect upgrade and established American dominance in the skies, which we have never given up.
4. F-16 Falcon
After going for big, sturdy workhorses with fighter-bombers like the Phantom and Thunderchief, the Air Force found itself nostalgic for those smaller, prettier planes of their younger days—and they realized they still needed to be able to dogfight.
The lightweight fighter competition was won by perhaps the most elegant design for a really effective jet in U.S. history, the F-16 Falcon. Try—just try—to find an unflattering picture of her. She looks as fast on the ground as she does in the air.
But with a Vulcan cannon in the fuselage and an impressive bomb load to boot, this beauty has teeth. And frankly, if I were a fighter pilot, you’d have to fight me to trade her in for the new F-35.
3. B-1 Lancer
This big, beautiful girl is the best looking of the American variable sweep-wing planes, including the F-14 Tomcat. She has the bomb load of a B-52, the speed of a B-58, and the low-level capabilities of a fighter.
Jimmy Carter spurned her at his own peril, and she scared the daylights out of Soviet war planners. She is a born matchmaker, flying halfway around the world to introduce countless jihadi martyrs to their promised virgins.
2. P-51 Mustang
Not just the prettiest propeller plane of all time, the Mustang was the greatest. She made long range bombing of the European continent in daylight without prohibitive losses possible, and few pilots would rather fly anything else in a dogfight.
1. SR-71 Blackbird
There is nothing like being in the presence of the SR-71 Blackbird. When you see her in pictures you say “Wow.” When you see her in person, you stand in awe and have to consciously bring your jaw back up and recover your breath.
This 53-year old beauty still holds the world speed record, and she did it without breaking a sweat. Her top speed is still classified, and pilots—and ground controllers—hint that the reported Mach 3.5 (2700 mph) didn’t exactly tax her limits. Of all of the famed designs of Johnson and the Skunk Works, including the subsequent F-22, this was their ultimate achievement.
She went where she wanted, whenever she wanted and left Soviet pursuers panting helplessly in her wake. And she still has a lot of suitors who would like to bring her back and see her in action for at least a little while longer. She still has no peer in the air.