These 9 Airplanes Transformed Flight Over the Last Century

On the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight, see how flying has evolved since—and the otherworldly models that may be in our future.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.

Orville Wright piloted the world’s first flight on December 17, 1903, marking the dawn of air travel. By the 1930s—the most innovative era of flight—dramatic leaps in design and technology paved the way for the modern jet age. While aviation advanced with each new model, the civilian aircraft illustrated below were transformative, pushing boundaries, elevating standards, and opening the skies to the masses: today about 600,000 people are in flight in any given minute. Driven by efforts to reduce aviation’s environmental impact, the next generation of flight may be defined by otherworldly designs.

—Kelsey Nowakowski

1914

BENOIST XIV

The open-cockpit biplane was flown by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the world’s first scheduled airline.

While the flight covered just 18 miles, the 23-minute journey saved 11 hours versus traveling between the two cities by rail. With space for only one passenger, the business wasn’t economically viable and closed after three months.

175 miles

 

RANGE

64 mph

TOP SPEED

1

PASSENGERS

COST OF ONE-WAY TICKET (EQUIVALENT TO $123 TODAY)

1926

Ford Tri-Motor

Known as the “Tin Goose,” this all-metal—and rackety—plane had a strong safety record, making air travel more popular.

As the most widely flown plane of the 1920s, due in part to the trusted Ford name, the Tri-Motor formed the backbone of early airline service. If one engine broke down, the plane could continue flying on two engines. About 200 were made between 1926 and 1933.

500 miles

 

135 mph

12

AIRLINES FLEW

THE TRI- MOTOR

1936

Douglas DC-3

Designed for comfort and profitability, the plane allowed airlines to haul passengers without relying on subsidies.

Intended for cross-country flight, an earlier model was lined with 14 sleeping berths. When those were replaced with twice as many seats, the airline turned a profit. Hundreds of the planes are still in use worldwide—more than six decades since the last one was built.

1,495 miles

 

192 mph

28

Of U.S. passengers flew in the DC-2 and DC-3 by 1939

1952

de Havilland D.H.

106 Comet

The British-made Comet was the world’s first jet airliner, but just as it began to dominate the commercial market, a fatal flaw grounded it.

Flying higher and faster than propeller- driven airliners, the jet represented a major advance. But in 1954 two crashed when the fuselages broke apart, and by the time the company provided a fix in a new model, the Comet had lost its lead to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8.

3,120 miles

 

526 mph

99

ROLLS ROYCE ENGINES POWERED THE COMET

1958

Boeing 707

With its high speed, comfort, and long range, the first American jet airliner revolutionized travel, kicking the jet age into top gear.

The 707 laid the foundation for Boeing’s dominance of the market. It became the standard for modern commercial aircraft design, including the location of passenger doors on the left side at the front and rear of the cabin. Most 707s in service today have been converted to freighters.

3,000 miles

 

600 mph

181

PRODUCED FOR CIVILIAN USE

1969

BOEING 747

As the first wide-body airliner, the jumbo jet upped seating capacity, making air travel affordable for the masses.

Monumental compared to previous airliners, the 747 dramatically lowered ticket costs. Still in production, it remained the largest airliner until the Airbus A380 was introduced in 2007. While the 747 is being phased out of commercial flight, it’s regularly used for freight.

6,000 miles

 

640 mph

490

THE 747 TAIL IS THE HEIGHT OF A SIX- STORY BUILDING

1976

CONCORDE

Traveling faster than the speed of sound, the jet was the first and one of only two supersonic transports to fly commercially.

Operated by Air France and British Airways, the Concorde was a technological masterpiece but impractical. Supersonic flight is power-intense, resulting in more fuel-burn and costly ticket prices. The sonic boom it produced meant that it could fly at top speed only over water, away from populated areas. The plane took its last flight in 2003.

4,143 miles

 

1,350 mph

100

BETWEEN LONDON AND NEW YORK, MORE THAN HALVING FLYING TIME

1988

AIRBUS A320

The A320 was the first to fly by computer programming. The system was lighter, more precise, and reliable, reducing a pilot’s workload.

With digital flight instrument displays, the A320 set a new standard for aircraft design, sparking a heated competition with the rival Boeing 737. The A320 was also the first to use winglets (in red), which reduce drag and thus save fuel.

3,300 miles

 

515 mph

180

Number in Operation

2011

BOEING 787 DREAMLINER

The first aircraft made from mainly composite parts, the 787 is lighter and stronger than traditional aluminum alloy planes.

Efficiency and comfort set the Dreamliner apart from its predecessors. Its longer range and fuel savings are opening up more point-to-point routes, so passengers have fewer layovers. Since longer flights could lead to fatigue and headaches, pressure and humidity are kept at higher levels in the cabin.

8,464 miles

 

595 mph

242

Fuel savings

over SIMILAR- SIZE ALUMINUM DESIGNS

FUTURE

PROTOTYPES

Concepts are under development to increase efficiency and speed, and reduce emissions. In 2016 NASA renewed its emphasis on these so-called X-planes with its New Aviation Horizons project, which aims to introduce the commercial market to new technologies and to reduce sonic boom.

N3-X

Known as the hybrid wing-body, the plane’s wings seamlessly blend into its body, resulting in more lift and less drag than a cylindrical plane. Its aerodynamic design has the potential to dramatically reduce fuel consumption, noise, and emissions. Commercial use of this design is at least two decades away.

LESS FUEL PER PASSENGER PER FLIGHT

QUESST

NASA's Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) concept is designed to reduce the strength of the sonic boom—the sound of the shock wave created when a plane travels faster than the speed of sound. With the preliminary design review complete, NASA is soliciting proposals to build the piloted, single-engine plane.

MPH, TOP SPEED

(1,728 KM/H)

ZUNUM AERO

Backed by Boeing and JetBlue Airways, the startup is designing a 12-passenger, hybrid-electric jet, projected to fly by 2022. By operating smaller aircraft for regional flights, airlines could reduce costs, but experts say this technology could still be years away from the commercial market.

MILE RANGE

(1,126 KM)

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO

Sources: F. ROBERT van der Linden, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; AIRBUS; BOEING

Orville Wright piloted the world’s first flight on December 17, 1903, marking the dawn of air travel. By the 1930s—the most innovative era of flight—dramatic leaps in design and technology paved the way for the modern jet age. While aviation advanced with each new model, the civilian aircraft illustrated below were transformative, pushing boundaries, elevating standards, and opening the skies to the masses: today about 600,000 people are in flight in any given minute. Driven by efforts to reduce aviation’s environmental impact, the next generation of flight may be defined by otherworldly designs.

—Kelsey Nowakowski

1914

BENOIST XIV

The open-cockpit biplane was flown by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the world’s first scheduled airline.

COST OF ONE-WAY TICKET (EQUIVALENT TO $123 TODAY)

175 miles

 

While the flight covered just 18 miles, the 23-minute journey saved 11 hours versus traveling between the two cities by rail. With space for only one passenger, the business wasn’t economically viable and closed after three months.

RANGE

64 mph

TOP SPEED

1

PASSENGERS

The first regular international passenger service, a nearly three-hour flight on a biplane between Paris and Brussels, began in 1919.

1926

Ford Tri-Motor

Known as the “Tin Goose,” this all-metal—and rackety—plane had a strong safety record, making air travel more popular.

AIRLINES FLEW

THE TRI- MOTOR

As the most widely flown plane of the 1920s, due in part to the trusted Ford name, the Tri-Motor formed the backbone of early airline service. If one engine broke down, the plane could continue flying on two engines. About 200 were made between 1926 and 1933.

500 miles

 

135 mph

12

Charles Lindbergh, who flew the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, was instrumental in planning early U.S. cross-country passenger routes.

1936

Douglas DC-3

Designed for comfort and profitability, the plane allowed airlines to haul passengers without relying on subsidies.

1,495 miles

 

192 mph

28

Intended for cross-country flight, an earlier model was lined with 14 sleeping berths. When those were replaced with twice as many seats, the airline turned a profit. Hundreds of the planes are still in use worldwide—more than six decades since the last one was built.

Of U.S. passengers flew in the DC-2 and DC-3 by 1939

Major airlines, including Delta and United, started forming in the late 1920s, while the 1930s and 1940s saw the largest growth in airports.

1952

de Havilland D.H. 106 Comet

The British-made Comet was the world’s first jet airliner, but just as it began to dominate the commercial market, a fatal flaw grounded it.

3,120 miles

 

526 mph

99

Flying higher and faster than propeller- driven airliners, the jet represented a major advance. But in 1954 two crashed when the fuselages broke apart, and by the time the company provided a fix in a new model, the Comet had lost its lead to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8.

ROLLS ROYCE ENGINES POWERED THE COMET

The airmail and commercial transit industries got a boost after the World Wars as surplus warplanes were converted for new uses.

Boeing 707

1958

With its high speed, comfort, and long range, the first American jet airliner revolutionized travel, kicking the jet age into top gear.

3,000 miles

 

600 mph

181

The 707 laid the foundation for Boeing’s dominance of the market. It became the standard for modern commercial aircraft design, including the location of passenger doors on the left side at the front and rear of the cabin. Most 707s in service today have been converted to freighters.

PRODUCED FOR CIVILIAN USE

More than a million passengers flew across the Atlantic in 1958, finally surpassing the number of Atlantic steamship travelers.

Boeing 747

1969

With its high speed, comfort, and long range, the first American jet airliner revolutionized travel, kicking the jet age into top gear.

6,000 miles

 

640 mph

490

Monumental compared to previous airliners, the 747 dramatically lowered ticket costs. Still in production, it remained the largest airliner until the Airbus A380 was introduced in 2007. While the 747 is being phased out of commercial flight, it’s regularly used for freight.

THE 747 TAIL IS THE HEIGHT OF A SIX-STORY BUILDING

The development of quieter turbofan engines in the 1970s lowered the noise jets make in flight from a screech to a buzz.

CONCORDE

1976

Traveling faster than the speed of sound, the jet was the first and one of only two supersonic transports to fly commercially.

Operated by Air France and British Airways, the Concorde was a technological masterpiece but impractical. Supersonic flight is power-intense, resulting in more fuel-burn and costly ticket prices. The sonic boom it produced meant that it could fly at top speed only over water, away from populated areas. The plane took its last flight in 2003.

4,143 miles

 

1,350 mph

100

BETWEEN LONDON AND NEW YORK, MORE THAN HALVING FLYING TIME

Before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, carriers competed on service alone.

The U.S. government controlled fares and routes; the act transferred that power to airlines.

AIRBUS A320

1988

The A320 was the first to fly by computer programming. The system was lighter, more precise, and reliable, reducing a pilot’s workload.

6,000 miles

 

640 mph

490

With digital flight instrument displays, the A320 set a new standard for aircraft design, sparking a heated competition with the rival Boeing 737. The A320 was also the first to use winglets (in red), which reduce drag and thus save fuel.

Number in Operation

After deregulation new carriers rushed in to the market; veterans such as Pan Am and TWA that had once monopolized international traffic began to decline.

BOEING 787 DREAMLINER

2011

The first aircraft made from mainly composite parts, the 787 is lighter and stronger than traditional aluminum alloy planes.

Efficiency and comfort set the Dreamliner apart from its predecessors. Its longer range and fuel savings are opening up more point-to-point routes, so passengers have fewer layovers. Since longer flights could lead to fatigue and headaches, pressure and humidity are kept at higher levels in the cabin.

8,464 miles

 

595 mph

Fuel savings

over SIMILAR- SIZE ALUMINUM DESIGNS

242

The Boeing 777-200LR flies the longest nonstop route: 9,000 miles between Doha and Auckland, crossing 10 time zones.

PROTOTYPES

future

Concepts are under development to increase efficiency and speed, and reduce emissions. In 2016 NASA renewed its emphasis on these so-called X-planes with its New Aviation Horizons project, which aims to introduce the commercial market to new technologies and to reduce sonic boom.

N3-X

Known as the hybrid wing-body, the plane’s wings seamlessly blend into its body, resulting in more lift and less drag than a cylindrical plane. Its aerodynamic design has the potential to dramatically reduce fuel consumption, noise, and emissions. Commercial use of this design is at least two decades away.

LESS FUEL PER PASSENGER

PER FLIGHT

QUESST

NASA's Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) concept is designed to reduce the strength of the sonic boom—the sound of the shock wave created when a plane travels faster than the speed of sound. With the preliminary design review complete, NASA is soliciting proposals to build the piloted, single-engine plane.

MPH, TOP SPEED

(1,728 KM/H)

ZUNUM AERO

Backed by Boeing and JetBlue Airways, the startup is designing a 12-passenger, hybrid-electric jet, projected to fly by 2022. By operating smaller aircraft for regional flights, airlines could reduce costs, but experts say this technology could still be years away from the commercial market.

MILE RANGE

(1,126 KM)

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO

Sources: F. ROBERT van der Linden, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; AIRBUS; BOEING

Orville Wright piloted the world’s first flight on December 17, 1903, marking the dawn of air travel. By the 1930s—the most innovative era of flight—dramatic leaps in design and technology paved the way for the modern jet age. While aviation advanced with each new model, the civilian aircraft illustrated below were transformative, pushing boundaries, elevating standards, and opening the skies to the masses: today about 600,000 people are in flight in any given minute. Driven by efforts to reduce aviation’s environmental impact, the next generation of flight may be defined by otherworldly designs.

—Kelsey Nowakowski

1914

BENOIST XIV

The open-cockpit biplane was flown by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the world’s first scheduled airline.

While the flight covered just 18

miles, the 23-minute journey saved 11 hours versus traveling between the two cities by rail. With space for only one passenger, the business wasn’t economically viable and closed after three months.

The first regular international passenger service, a nearly three-hour flight on a biplane between Paris and Brussels, began in 1919.

COST OF

ONE-WAY TICKET

(EQUIVALENT

TO $123 TODAY)

175 miles

 

RANGE

64 mph

TOP SPEED

1

PASSENGERS

Ford Tri-Motor

1926

Known as the “Tin Goose,” this all-metal—and rackety—plane had a strong safety record, making air travel more popular.

Charles Lindbergh, who flew the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, was instrumental in planning early U.S. cross-country passenger routes.

AIRLINES FLEW

THE TRI- MOTOR

As the most widely flown plane of the 1920s, due in part to the trusted Ford name, the Tri-Motor formed the backbone of early airline service. If one engine broke down, the plane could continue flying on two engines. About 200 were made between 1926 and 1933.

500 miles

 

135 mph

12

1936

Douglas DC-3

Designed for comfort and profitability, the plane allowed airlines to haul passengers without relying on subsidies.

Intended for cross-country flight, an earlier model was lined with 14 sleeping berths. When those were replaced with twice as many seats, the airline turned a profit. Hundreds of the planes are still in use worldwide—more than six decades since the last one was built.

Major airlines, including Delta and United, started forming in the late 1920s, while the 1930s and 1940s saw the largest growth in airports.

1,495 miles

 

192 mph

Of U.S. passengers flew in the DC-2 and DC-3 by 1939

28

1952

de Havilland D.H. 106 Comet

The British-made Comet was the world’s first jet airliner, but just as it began to dominate the commercial market, a fatal flaw grounded it.

3,120 miles

 

526 mph

99

Flying higher and faster than propeller- driven airliners, the jet represented a major advance. But in 1954 two crashed when the fuselages broke apart, and by the time the company provided a fix in a new model, the Comet had lost its lead to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8.

The airmail and commercial transit industries got a boost after the World Wars as surplus warplanes were converted for new uses.

ROLLS ROYCE ENGINES POWERED THE COMET

Boeing 707

1958

With its high speed, comfort, and long range, the first American jet airliner revolutionized travel, kicking the jet age into top gear.

3,000 miles

 

600 mph

181

More than a million passengers flew across the Atlantic in 1958, finally surpassing the number of Atlantic steamship travelers.

The 707 laid the foundation for Boeing’s dominance of the market. It became the standard for modern commercial aircraft design, including the location of passenger doors on the left side at the front and rear of the cabin. Most 707s in service today have been converted to freighters.

PRODUCED FOR CIVILIAN USE

1969

BOEING 747

As the first wide-body airliner, the jumbo jet upped seating capacity, making air travel affordable for the masses.

Monumental compared to previous airliners, the 747 dramatically lowered ticket costs. Still in production, it remained the largest airliner until the Airbus A380 was introduced in 2007. While the 747 is being phased out of commercial flight, it’s regularly used for freight.

6,000 miles

 

The development of quieter turbofan engines in the 1970s lowered the noise jets make in flight from a screech to a buzz.

640 mph

490

THE 747 TAIL IS THE HEIGHT OF A SIX-STORY BUILDING

CONCORDE

1976

Traveling faster than the speed of sound, the jet was the first and one of only two supersonic transports to fly commercially.

Before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, carriers competed on service alone. The U.S. government controlled fares and routes; the act transferred that power to airlines.

BETWEEN LONDON AND NEW YORK, MORE THAN HALVING FLYING TIME

Operated by Air France and British Airways, the Concorde was a technological masterpiece but impractical. Supersonic flight is power-intense, resulting in more fuel-burn and costly ticket prices. The sonic boom it produced meant that it could fly at top speed only over water, away from populated areas. The plane took its last flight in 2003.

4,143 miles

 

1,350 mph

100

1988

AIRBUS A320

The A320 was the first to fly by computer programming. The system was lighter, more precise, and reliable, reducing a pilot’s workload.

After deregulation new carriers rushed in to the market; veterans such as Pan Am and TWA that had once monopolized international traffic began to decline.

Number in Operation

3,300 miles

 

515 mph

180

With digital flight instrument displays, the A320 set a new standard for aircraft design, sparking a heated competition with the rival Boeing 737. The A320 was also the first to use winglets (in red), which reduce drag and thus save fuel.

BOEING 787 DREAMLINER

2011

The first aircraft made from mainly composite parts, the 787 is lighter and stronger than traditional aluminum alloy planes.

8,464 miles

 

The Boeing 777-200LR flies the longest nonstop route: 9,000 miles between Doha and Auckland, crossing 10 time zones.

595 mph

242

Efficiency and comfort set the Dreamliner apart from its predecessors. Its longer range and fuel savings are opening up more point-to-point routes, so passengers have fewer layovers. Since longer flights could lead to fatigue and headaches, pressure and humidity are kept at higher levels in the cabin.

Fuel savings

over SIMILAR- SIZE ALUMINUM

DESIGNS

PROTOTYPES

FUTURE

Concepts are under development to increase efficiency and speed, and reduce emissions. In 2016 NASA renewed its emphasis on these so-called X-planes with its New Aviation Horizons project, which aims to introduce the commercial market to new technologies and to reduce sonic boom.

N3-X

Known as the hybrid wing-body, the plane’s wings seamlessly blend into its body, resulting in more lift and less drag than a cylindrical plane. Its aerodynamic design has the potential to dramatically reduce fuel consumption, noise, and emissions. Commercial use of this design is at least two decades away.

LESS FUEL PER PASSENGER PER FLIGHT

QUESST

NASA's Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) concept is designed to reduce the strength of the sonic boom—the sound of the shock wave created when a plane travels faster than the speed of sound. With the preliminary design review complete, NASA is soliciting proposals to build the piloted, single-engine plane.

MPH, TOP SPEED

(1,728 KM/H)

ZUNUM AERO

Backed by Boeing and JetBlue Airways, the startup is designing a 12-passenger, hybrid-electric jet, projected to fly by 2022. By operating smaller aircraft for regional flights, airlines could reduce costs, but experts say this technology could still be years away from the commercial market.

MILE RANGE (1,126 KM)

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO

Sources: F. ROBERT van der Linden, Smithsonian Air and Space MuseuM; AIRBUS; BOEING

For more on the future of flight, see how aviation is greening its operations, which cities are among the world's most popular flights, and 10 airports you'll actually love.