The Best Vintage Airplanes of 2021

This year’s winners at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational.

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Charles Somers’ Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI and Dean Thomas’s Twin Beech 18, along with other aircraft, on display at Stead airport in Reno, Nevada.

For almost all of the last 22 years, the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, has featured an event somewhat more sedate than the competitions on the race course but just as appealing to fans of aviation history. The National Aviation Heritage Invitational (NAHI) vintage aircraft competition, which was held last September on the ramp at the races, has showcased more than 500 aircraft since its 1999 founding. All during race week, fans can stroll around the 20 or so airplanes that show up each year and chat with their owners. Although only six trophies are awarded, every contestant has an interesting tale to tell, and the airplanes competing are often historic and sometimes one of a kind.

“This year we had some of the finest restored vintage aircraft in the country competing for the coveted Grand Champion Neil A. Armstrong Aviation Heritage Trophy,” said Ken Perich, Executive Director of NAHI. The Armstrong Trophy is prominently displayed throughout the year at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center outside Washington, D.C.

Each aircraft is judged to standards set forth by of the Preservation & Restoration Unit of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Trophies are presented by such National Aviation Hall of Fame luminaries as Dick Rutan, Sean D. Tucker, and Robert “Hoot” Gibson. (The late Neil Armstrong himself was a frequent presenter at the event.) In addition to the Grand Champion award, trophies are presented in the Antique, Classic, Contemporary, and Military categories. This year, the Armstrong Trophy was awarded to Charles Somers’ 1945 Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI.

Fans are encouraged to participate in the event by casting ballots for their favorite aircraft. The People’s Choice Award Trophy has been sponsored and presented by Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine since NAHI began. Somers’ Spitfire was a fan favorite and also won the 2021 People’s Choice Award for Airplane of the Year.

NAHI was founded by Rolls-Royce, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Aviation Hall of Fame and the Reno Air Racing Association. Pictured below are some of the aircraft that participated in the 2021 competition.

Caroline Sheen is the Photography and Illustrations Editor at Air & Space.

Fairey Firefly AS.6 owned by Eddie Kurdziel of Del Mar, California.
This 1947 Beech 17S Staggerwing owned by Robert Simon of Del Mar, California won the Antique Trophy.
1930 Stinson SM7B owned by Earl Allen of Cottonwood, California.
1958 T-28C owned by Mark Drew of N. Hills, California.
1968 Rockwell OV-10D owned by Mike Manclark of Chino, California.
This P-51D Mustang owned by Gene Mallette of Helena, Montana won the Military Trophy.
1967 Debonair 35-C33 owned by Rashell Rosenkranz of Auburn, Washington.
A plan view of the OV-10D flying over Stead airport.
1946 SNJ-4 owned by Ben Marsh of Vacaville, California.
This 1945 Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI, owned by Charles Somers, won the Grand Champion Neil A. Armstrong Aviation Heritage Trophy as well as the People’s Choice award.
This 1946 Globe GC-1B-Swift owned by Karl Johanson of San Diego won the Classic Trophy.

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