Last of Their Kind

Airplanes without equal at the National Air and Space Museum

Library of Congress

"These aircraft bring people from all over the planet,” says Jeremy Kinney, a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics division. “The Smithsonian is the only place where visitors can see the Wright FlyerSpirit of St. Louis, and Bell X-1, rare survivors such as captured German and Japanese aircraft from World War II, and technology demonstrators like the Lockheed Martin X-35B Joint Strike Fighter. NASM’s 325 aircraft artifacts include 149 one-of-a-kind, sole surviving, and one of two remaining examples that are well known and not so well known.”

Presenting the NASM aeronautics division Top 10—and five runners-up, not pictured—chosen for their significance and their places in curators’ hearts. Notes Kinney, “Of course, the Wright Flyer [pictured above] will always be number one of our one-of-a-kind airplanes.”

See the complete list of the National Air and Space Museum's one-and-onlies.

Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz

(Dane Penland)

The world’s first operational jet bomber was not quite ready for full-scale bombing missions before the Allies invaded Normandy in 1944, but the Ar 234s later used in Luftwaffe units proved their worth as reconnaissance aircraft. Equipped with twin Walter rocket-assisted-takeoff units. Manufactured in 1944. Captured by British forces in Norway in May 1945; sent to Wright Field in Ohio for flight testing in 1946. First flight: March 1944. Transferred from the U.S. Air Force to the National Air Museum in 1949; sole survivor.

Abrams Explorer (not shown)

The Abrams Aircraft Corporation Explorer, with a glass-enclosed forward fuselage enabling superb views for both pilot and photographer, was designed for mapping and surveying. First flight: November 1937. Gift of Talbert Abrams, 1949. One built; in storage.

Boeing 367-80

(Carolyn Russo)

Nipping at the landing gear of the world’s first jet-powered airliner—the de Havilland D.H.106 Comet—the “Dash 80” was Boeing’s first big gamble. The company designed it as a refueling tanker for the Air Force with a sideline as a passenger aircraft. The Air Force ordered the KC-135 tanker version, and in 1955 Pan American was the first to order the airliner. Ultimately Boeing built just over 1,000 707s, including the smaller 720 version, and 800 KC-135s. First flight: July 15, 1954. Donated by Boeing in 1972; single prototype.

Kyushu J7W1 Shinden (not shown)
Curators note similarities between the J7W1 Magnificent Lightning, an experimental fighter developed in Japan during World War II, and the Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, a U.S. experiment. Each had a canard, a rear-mounted engine, and pusher propeller. Although the Shinden (not shown) was more advanced, both had stability problems, and neither saw production. First flight: August 3, 1945. Shipped to the U.S. with some 145 Japanese aircraft in 1945 for evaluation; transferred from the U.S. Air Force to the National Air Museum in 1949. Sole survivor; in storage, disassembled.

Boeing X-45 Joint Unmanned Combat Air System

(Eric Long)

Initially managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s Skunk Works, the X-45A technology demonstrator for the stealth-equipped swept-wing jet previewed the first unmanned aerial vehicle capable of strike missions. In 2003 the Air Force and Navy folded the X-45 and X-47 programs into the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System. First flight: 2002. Transferred by the Air Force in 2004; one of two built. The other is at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, outside Dayton, Ohio.

Breitling Orbiter 3 Gondola

(Eric Long)

In March 1999, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones piloted the Rozier-design Breitling Orbiter 3 to the first nonstop world circumnavigation by free balloon, covering 29,000 miles in under 20 days. During the Breitling Orbiter flight in 1997 and Orbiter 2 in 1998, crews learned that an altitude of 30,000 feet, where the jet stream would drive the balloon across the Pacific Ocean at 100 mph, was likely key to success. Since 1980, 16 balloons had been launched on globe-circling efforts, all of which failed. NASM credits the acquisition of the gondola to the Museum’s previous director, the late Donald Engen, citing “his superb negotiating skills and wide contacts in aviation and business.” Donated by the Breitling Watch Company in 1999; one built.

Caudron G.4

(Dane A. Penland)

“Perhaps the world’s first strategic bomber,” the NASM records note, the French Caudron G.4 is “a singularly unattractive plane with seemingly endless 56-foot-span wings sandwiching a small nacelle…. A forest of struts connected the wings and engines….” One control stick warped the wings; the other controlled the elevator. One of Manfred von Richthofen’s first kills was a G.4. Arrived at the Smithsonian in 1918, minus propellers and engines, as part of an exhibit on war materiel. The Museum’s first curator, Paul Garber, later bought two engines for $25 each. The G.4 was the second aircraft to join the national collection, after the Langley Aerodrome, which flew only after modifications by Glenn Curtiss. First flight of prototype: March 1915; sole survivor.

Franklin Texaco Eaglet (not shown)
On March 30, 1930, speed/distance record-setter and air racer Frank Hawks left San Diego in a Waco-towed Franklin glider, bound for New York City. Hawks’ mission, sponsored by the Texas Company, better known as Texaco: promote aviation, particularly glider clubs, which could serve those unable to afford instruction in powered aircraft. Texaco saw in glider pilots a generation of future customers who would inevitably graduate to conventional airplanes. Of the eight days the “Air-train” was aloft, the glider, with a 45-foot-wingspan and glide ratio of 15:1, logged seven hours of free flight, giving demonstrations for the crowds at landing sites. Donated by Texaco in 1930; one of a kind. NASM’s Paul Garber persuaded Hawks to donate the Eaglet’s trailer, which the Washington Soaring Club promptly put to good use. In storage, intact.

Curtiss R3C-2

(Eric Long)

Even encumbered with floats, the Curtiss R3C-2 was a speed demon. With Jimmy Doolittle at the controls, the seaplane version of the R3C-1 land racer won the Schneider Cup Race, held in Baltimore in October 1925, with an average speed of 232.57 mph. The next day, Doolittle set a straight-course record of 245.7 mph. The R3C-1 had won the Pulitzer Trophy Race just two weeks earlier, at nearly 249 mph. Transferred from the War Department in 1927. Restored by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force while on loan. Sole survivor.

Douglas World Cruiser Chicago

(Eric Long)

In 1924, the U.S. Army Air Service ordered one prototype and five two-place biplanes from Douglas Aircraft, four of which left Seattle on April 6 on a round-the-world flight. Lost in fog, the Seattle crashed in Alaska; its crew survived with minor injuries. The Boston lost oil pressure and ditched in the north Atlantic; the prototype aircraft joined the flight as the Boston II. The flight of three returned to Seattle on September 28, the Chicago and the New Orleans having flown 27,553 miles in 175 days. Transferred from the War Department in December 1925. Restored: 1975. One of two survivors; the New Orleans was at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force from 1957 to 2005, then returned to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. The wreckage of the Seattle is at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage.

Wright 1909 Military Flyer

(Eric Long)

First demonstration flight: September 3, 1908; crashed September 17. A replacement aircraft completed Army tests the following June. The U.S. Signal Corps was the first customer for the descendant of the 1903 Wright Flyer. The crash killed Army observer Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge—the first airplane fatality—and badly injured Orville Wright. Because the first Military Flyer was destroyed in the crash, it was not repaired to airworthiness before it was transferred from the War Department in September 1911. Of the three Wright aircraft in the NASM collection (1903 Flyer, 1909 Military Flyer, 1911 EX Vin Fiz), it has the most original parts. First prototype.

P-V Engineering Forum XHRP-X (not shown)
Frank Piasecki’s XHRP-X was the first successful tandem helicopter. Built for the Coast Guard, the XHRP could carry eight passengers and two crew members, an unprecedented load for a rotary-wing craft. The asymmetric fuselage, with the aft rotor higher than the forward, ensured that the two rotors did not touch. Inevitably, the design and each descendant, like the Air Force H-21, became known as the Flying Banana. First flight: March 7, 1945. Transferred from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Weapons in 1960. First prototype; in storage.

Loudenslager Laser 200

(Dane A. Penland)

Aerobatic and airshow pilot Leo Loudenslager so radically modified a Clayton Stephens Akro homebuilt that it was classified as a new aircraft, a unique mid-wing monoplane that set the design standard for the next generation of competitive aerobatic airplanes. After Loudenslager altered the wing, forward fuselage, vertical and horizontal stabilizer, propeller, spinner, and cockpit, a mere 10 percent of the Akro—mostly the tailcone— remained. Between 1975 and 1982, in what was then named Beautiful Obsession, capable of 230 mph and 9 Gs, Loudenslager won seven U.S. national aerobatic championships and one world title. First flight: April 1971. Donated by Caroline and Kelly Loudenslager in 1999; one built.

Cierva C.8W (not shown)
Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva built his first autogyro in 1920, and in 1928, Harold Pitcairn, a biplane builder in Pennsylvania, bought de la Cierva’s C.8. Just as Pitcairn set about improving the aircraft’s performance, the Great Depression struck. Regardless, in 1930 Pitcairn received the Collier Trophy for his development of the PCA-1, and eventually built almost 100 autogyros. The vehicle’s greatest contribution to rotary-wing flight was Cierva’s addition of a hinge to each rotor. That innovation equalized lift on all blades, leading to the helicopter’s success. Pitcairn pilot Jim Ray flew the C.8W onto the National Mall in July 1931, where Secretary Charles Abbot accepted it on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. One of two survivors; a Cierva C.8W is at the Musée de l’Air in Paris. The NASM C.8W is in storage.

Ryan NYP Spirit Of St. Louis

(Dana A. Penland)

Former Army Air and airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, taking off in the Spirit of St. Louis from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, at 7:52 a.m. on May 20, 1927, and landing in Paris 33.5 hours later. While the Spirit was homing in on Le Bourget Field, Paul Garber—himself a one-of-a-kind—wrote a telegram for Smithsonian assistant secretary Charles Abbot, inviting Lindbergh to donate the Spirit to the national collection. Lindbergh sold the aircraft to the Institution for $1; on April 30, 1928, it made a final flight, to Washington, D.C. First flight: April 28, 1927; one-of-a-kind modified Ryan M-2.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.