What is my vote for greatest military aircraft?

To celebrate 100 years of Flight International, we want to discover the "100 Greatest" in aviation; by determining the top twenty civil aircraft, military aircraft, engine, people & moments. Here the best military aircraft is put forward!

One of my bosses asked me the above question today, and, somewhat distressingly, he wasn’t being idly curious. It was actually one of my assignments today to come up with a reasonable answer! (It’s for our web site’s AirSpace discussion forums, which are honoring Flight International magazine’s 100th anniversary this year with contests like this.)Now, back to the question. Where does one even begin? Is it the F-22 or the B-29? The SR-71 or the Me-262? The Bell UH-1 or the Bell X-1? What’s my criteria: the most sophisticated or the most revolutionary? The best-looking at an air show or the most operationally relevant? I’m going with relevancy. History’s greatest military aircraft is a product of the Soviet Union. It first entered service in 1957 but remains operational today; sold a whopping 10,000 copies in more than 40 countries and fought in nearly every major conflict I can think of since the 1960s.I hereby nominate the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21. In the Cold War era and beyond, the MiG-21 was aviation’s answer to the AK-47: a rugged, cheap, easy to operate instrument of firepower. It’s charm is not it’s sophistication but its simplicity. Sure, it couldn’t beat the F-104 in a sprint, but it isn’t nearly as likely to crash as the Starfighter either, even with a lightly trained pilot. More than 3,000 MiG-21s are estimated to be in active inventory today, even more than 50 years after first entering service. No front-line combat fighter jet can seriously make that claim. (But ask me again in 2025 if the F-16 is still flying!)mig-21.jpg

Do you agree with this choice?Why not nominate your own favourite of the following categores in our "100 Greatest" area:


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10 Responses to What is my vote for greatest military aircraft?

  1. bigfoot 30 January, 2008 at 7:56 am #

    Concur. Likewise, if I had to pick an armored vehicle, I would probably pick the Soviet T-55 tank–coincidentally a fighting vehicle made by the same country during the same era.

    And if I had to pick an assault rifle, why….

  2. John Price 30 January, 2008 at 11:03 am #

    Congratulations on your choice, surprising (and even provocative!) though it may be. Once I saw one of these close up, I realised what a superb match it was/is between the various conflicting demands that a front-line fighter designer has to make … And how much I’d have liked to have a go in one …
    Personally I’d have chosen the Canberra, but “there you go” …

  3. Paul Richfield 30 January, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    Hmm, the MiG-21′s a good choice. But in terms of raw combat effectiveness you can’t beat the mean old ME-109. How many planes did these things shoot down? From how many countries? It is also the most produced single-seat fighter in history, with more than 30,000 built.

  4. Matthew G. Saroff 30 January, 2008 at 3:57 pm #

    If you go by the mount of the greatest ace, for the US it would be the P-39, flown by that Soviet ace (can’t remember his name).

    In terms of numbers, it’s the IL-2 Sturmovik. Most produced military aircraft, and it was the first successful aircraft in the “flying tank” category.

  5. Peter 30 January, 2008 at 6:51 pm #

    I agree that in terms of numbers in service (and numbers of air forces using it during the jet age) the MiG-21 is indeed significant. However, may I suggest a slightly different criteria?

    If we’re trying to select the ‘greatest military aircraft’, surely we should do so on the basis of the impact or operational difference that aircraft made in history? Numbers in service may well be significant, but what about its effect on enemies (and allies, for that matter)?

    On that basis, I’d suggest that the MiG-21 isn’t as important as a number of other aircraft over the past 100 years. Some examples:

    1. The B-17: the first heavy bomber, the first four-engined long-range bomber, the backbone of the US air assault on Germany, etc.

    2. The P-51 Mustang: the first fighter to combine speed, maneuverability and long range in a single combat-worthy aircraft.

    3. The F-86 Sabre: the first really useful all-round jet fighter, so much so that it was in front-line service from the Korean War into the 1970′s.

    4. The C-47: revolutionized military air transport, parachute assault, glider towing, etc. Without it it’s doubtful that the Allies would have won World War II so easily.

    5. The C-130 Hercules: revolutionized air military air transport in the jet age with its turboprop engines, rough-field performance, capacity, speed, etc.

    6. The Dassault Mirage III/V family and derivatives: provided clear air superiority in almost every conflict in which it participated, and added France to the list of countries producing genuinely excellent combat aircraft.

    7. The U-2: from the 1950′s to the present day it’s revolutionized aerial reconnaissance and probably prevented a fair number of conflicts from escalating into shooting wars by providing accurate intelligence.

    8. The B-52: again, from the 1950′s to the present day it’s put bombs on target, provided a nuclear deterrent, and probably killed more people than any other bomber in aviation history (ask the Iraqi Republican Guard about its effects on entrenched troops!).

    Just a few ideas.


  6. rapier 4 February, 2008 at 5:17 pm #

    Surely a MiG-21F-13 bearing the markings of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.
    But the nose number 5063 was assigned to a MiG-21PFM…..
    What about ?

  7. rapier 16 February, 2008 at 7:41 pm #

    Further to my February 4, 2008 post …..
    Turning over the pages of a pictorial book (“MiG Dinasty” by David Oliver – Airlife, 1990) I found another photo of the same aircraft in the same place.
    The caption:
    “Another ex-Hungarian Fishbed far from home, this time a MiG-21F Fishbed-C acquired by the US Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, in 1989 and displayed in North Vietnamese Air Force markings.”

  8. rapier 17 February, 2008 at 3:47 pm #

    Further (again and, I hope, definitively):
    The photos were taken in Wright-Patterson AFB, the location of the National Museum of the USAF, where the aircraft is displayed.
    The Museum’s MiG-21 fact sheet states:
    “The MiG-21F on display appears to have been built in Czechoslovakia and flown by Czech air force. It is painted and marked as a MiG-21PF of the North Vietnamese Air Force during the Southeast Asia War.”


  9. Jack parker 12 October, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    the comments are quite interesting but there is an instance of dissagreement, which type of aircraft was built in the greatest numbers, some say the ME109 and others the IL-2 Sturmovik which is correct?

  10. Paloma Romero 30 September, 2010 at 4:49 am #

    Whenever I’m shopping I’m considering making love, so I’m making love I’m thinking about shopping.

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