American Aviation: History By the Numbers

Celebrating 112 Years of Aviation


Humans have been obsessed with flying ever since they saw the first bird and thought, “I bet that beats walking.” (Archeologists have yet to confirm this, but we’re somewhat sure this happened.) But it wasn’t until the Wright Brothers in 1903 that controlled human flight became possible. Since that time we have gone from a top speed of 30 mph to more than 2,000, flown into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and have just generally made taking to the skies a normal part of our modern world.

The following are some interesting facts and figures about the history of American flight.

Need for speed

  • Top speed of Wright Flyer: 30 mph
  • Top speed of first American jet fighter, the F-86 Sabre: 697 mph
  • Top speed of SR-71 Blackbird (pictured above): 2,200 mph

BabyBirdie (Image: "StitsDS-1" by FlugKerl2.)

A matter of size

  • Smallest plane ever made (that can carry a person): The Stits DS-1 “Baby Bird,” with a wingspan of 6 feet, 3 inches; 11 feet long; weighing in at 425 pounds
  • Largest American plane ever made: Hughes H-4 Hercules (a.k.a., the Spruce Goose) with a wingspan of 320 feet, length of 219 feet, and weighing a whopping 300,000 lbs.


Heavy loads

  • Payload capacity of first American heavy bomber, the Martin MB-1 (pictured above): 2,000 lbs.
  • Payload capacity of B29 Superfortress (circa 1945): 20,000 lbs.
  • Payload capacity of B1-B Lancer (current): 75,000 lbs.


Top Guns

  • First American Ace (and first American to score an aerial victory): Paul Frank Baer, with nine confirmed and seven unconfirmed in World War I
  • Top American Ace of WWI: Eddie Rickenbacker, with 26 aerial victories (pictured above, wearing his Medal of Honor)
  • Top American Ace of WWII: Richard Bong, with 40 confirmed aerial victories
  • Top American Ace of Vietnam: Tie between Capt. Richard S. Ritchie (Air Force) and Lt. Randell “Duke” H. Cunningham (Navy), each with 5


To the air via the sea

  • First takeoff from a naval vessel: Eugene Burton Ely, Nov. 14, 1910 (pictured above)
  • First landing on a naval vessel: Also by Eugene Burton Ely, Jan. 18, 1911


The inflation is real

  • Cost of a B-17 Flying Fortress in WWII (in 2015 dollars): $2.695 million
  • Cost of a B-52 Stratofortress built in the 1950s (in 2015 dollars): $77.7 million
  • Cost of a B-2 Spirit (a.k.a., Stealth Bomber, pictured above): $737 million


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