Jet aircraft, particularly the fighters, represent a Freudian’s play date. Long, slender, blisteringly fast, spewing bullets out the tip and, until recently, powered as much by testosterone as by kerosene (the main ingredient in jet fuel — what a disappointment). Of course, now that women fly them, and fly them quite well, thank you, this men’s club is no longer so exclusive.
Airplane lovers like me all have our favorites, and though most of us won’t admit it, those favorites are dictated more by aesthetic considerations — or, to be more honest about it, by an airplane’s sexiness — as by important things such as performance, fuel efficiency and other boring statistics.
A famed aircraft designer, “Dutch” Kindleburger of North American Aviation, said (and why do these guys always have staccato, manly nicknames like, well, “Dutch,” “Buzz” or “Bull”?), “If it looks good, it will fly good.” And who are we to quibble with such wisdom from an aviation legend? At no time were airplanes so sexy, so come-hither, so inviting to a man to rub up against her skin, than during the Cold War. Take a look at, say, Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter (even the name was sexy) and compare it to their newest fighter, the F-22A Raptor. I would kick the latter out of bed, frankly.
We began to think about these Cold Warriors of the air, and tried to compile a list based purely on their aesthetic or sex appeal. So let’s go. The top 11:
11. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter A fighter pilot friend once opined, “If I had a 104, I’d never need pussy.” In the manner of male fighter pilots everywhere, in every language, it equates to the horny grunts of a caveman — i.e., an obscenely powerful and fast airplane equals sex. Period. (Remember, this is the Cold War and we had no female fighter pilots. Right to the sexist point.)
We proved this to our own satisfaction when, taking off in a Starfighter from Ellington, we had the most primal (and embarrassing) Freudian moment while being smashed back into our seat cushion by the Warp Speed acceleration of the Starfighter.
Oh, and it’s drop-dead beautiful to boot, and very, very dangerous to fly. The Starfighter does not suffer fools at all, and the Canadians, who flew the 104 for many years, dubbed it “The Aluminum Death Tube.” In Germany when it was a NATO favorite, it was said that if you wanted to own your own Starfighter, you bought an acre of land and waited. Of course, the Germans lost more than a thousand of them purely to accidents. Oh, but the sex, the unvarnished, fiery, thundering sex of the thing!
10. Boeing B-47 Stratojet Yes, I’m biased because as a small child my father flew these proto-jet bombers. Take a look at it. Every single cargo plane and jet airliner designed to this very day follows the design of the B-47. It’s an extremely clean design aerodynamically, avoiding extraneous lumps, bumps and bulges that tend to slow an airplane down. The one word to describe this airplane would be “elegant.”
9. Tie: Convair’s (General Dynamics’) F-106A/B, and France’s Dassault Mirage IIIThese were among the first airplanes that took the WW II German designs for delta-winged aircraft seriously. These were fast — very fast — airplanes that did pretty much all that was demanded of them. And pretty? The French really do think of their aircraft as women, and would a Frenchman design an ugly woman? We don’t think so. And this leads to:
8. Convair B-58 Hustler The designers at Convair took the delta idea a step further and created a gorgeous (and quite lethal) Mach 2 nuclear bomber. It set speed records that stand to this day, though the last B-58 was retired more than 40 years ago.
7. Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird Though this was a pure reconnaissance plane, we would be more than honored to wine and dine her before making our move to the boudoir.
Speaking of aeronautical records, the Blackbird still holds records for altitude and speed that will likely not be broken in the lifetime of anyone reading this. And those records were set almost 40 years ago! Everything from tires to hydraulic fluid to jet fuel had to be reinvented from scratch to deal with the heat and other physics problems that crop up when you’re flying at more than three times the speed of sound.
For one thing, the outside of the airplane became white-hot in places during flight, and yet its 1960s and ’70s computers had to operate perfectly at this speed and altitude (did we mention that it performed best at about 16 miles above the earth while traveling faster than a rifle bullet?). But most important to us, it looks like it was designed by the artists who created Batman. It still looks futuristic today (and Hollywood still uses it as the avatar of airplanes of the future, most recently in the last X-Men film) almost 10 years after the Air Force retired it for good. The Blackbird was originally designed for and operated by the CIA, which adds to its mysterious cache.
6. F9F Panther/Cougar series We’ll get bitching from partisans at the inclusion of this family of Navy/Marine Corps fighter-bombers. So what? If we’re going to throw around words like “elegant,” these airplanes, made famous in the Korean War for starring in such films as The Bridges at Toko Ri, must be included. What can we say about them except, like the B-47, throughout their service life and scores of design changes, the Panther/Cougar family retained essentially the same clean, erotic lines of the original.
5. North American F-100 Super Sabre Yes, it will be argued that the “Hun’s” older and smaller sister, the F-86 Sabre Jet, should have been included instead of this one. And for historical reasons, and those reasons alone, that would be correct. But this is about sexiness, not impact on the evolution of flight. With its aggressive-looking nose air intake, racy swept wings and tail, and overall shark-like looks, if it were a woman, this machine would leave deep scratches on one’s back. It was blooded in Vietnam, and carried much of the burden of the air-to-ground war in that war. This also means that a great number of young American pilots died in the F-100.
4. F-4 Phantom II Now, this airplane, as far as we know, has never been on a list of most beautiful aircraft anywhere. As one pilot described it when it was new, the airplane was “brutishly ugly.” Maybe it’s pure sentimentality, but this is my list after all. This is the first airplane that carried me past Mach 1 (“took my cherry” in the parlance of fast jets), and the first to show me just how much unfettered joy could be had in an airplane. And in its own way, it is beautiful.
On takeoff, the pilot stood on the brakes after lighting the afterburner, running up the power to a controlled explosion. An observer could literally see the Phantom’s rear end rise up on its haunches, while the nose dipped toward the ground. The sound was indescribable, but you could feel the earth shake even inside the airplane. When the brakes were released, the Phantom surged forward in a pounce, roaring down the runway like hell with the lid off. And who, besides your mother, couldn’t love all that?
3. McDonnell-Douglass F-15 Eagle This twin-tailed beauty won our heart when we took off in it and, without pulling more than two Gs, accelerated straight up to six miles high without slowing down one bit. Oh, and it’s a drop-dead, come-hither plane in the looks department as well.
2. North American-Rockwell B-1B “Bone” This machine has been controversial throughout its life, canceled by Jimmy Carter and, at the behest of Rockwell lobbyists, resurrected by Ronald Reagan. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good bomber, just an obscenely expensive and unnecessary one.
Consider this: Our B-52 fleet is still going strong and is not expected to retire for, by many predictions, another 20 years. That will make it 75 years old when it finally goes to the boneyard! But practicality aside, we do have the B-1B, and Lord is it the aviation equivalent of that haughty girl in high school who was so incalculably out of your league you didn’t even consider the possibilities. It’s all curves and all of those in just the right places. It also does its job very, very well, and of course, very, very fast.
1. North American A-5 Vigilante We have to add one more, because it’s just so often overlooked. It was a failed Navy nuclear bomber cum reconnaissance platform that suffered terrible losses in Vietnam. It wasn’t that it was a lousy airplane — it most certainly wasn’t. Rather, it had a near-suicidal mission that required it to fly in after a bomb raid — when the enemy was really, really pissed off and waiting to get revenge on the next airplane to fly by — and take pictures of the damage inflicted by the bombers that had visited earlier. But like Liz Taylor, the Vigilante managed to stay beautiful even when playing the trashiest harridan on the screen.
Now we may find ourselves surprised at how many aviation sex maniacs will be brought out of the closet by this. Or not — it is a very secret shame. If they have the guts, they’ll pillory us for our oversights, as well as for our outright “wrong” answers here. But we stick tightly to our opinions, like the pages of our stack of aviation magazines we keep hidden under the bed.