Aviation has had many high-profile pilots in its day, from the Wright Brothers and their Wright Flyer in 1903, to Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, to Amelia Earhart in her Lockheed Model 10-Electra in 1937, to Chuck Yeager in the 1940s and ’50s, and, most recently, Capt. Sully Sullenberger. In the background, away from the headlines and global praise, were the inventors of the aircraft, who pushed aviation forward one model at a time, with constant innovations and fresh designs. Here are 25 of the most important business aircraft in the last century, starting from the 1920s Bellanca Pacemaker, a true transatlantic flier, to the Gulfstream G700, private aviation’s most recent and stunning business jet.
Bellanca “Pacemaker” CH-300, 1929
Giuseppe Mario Bellanca’s designs were considered radical for the time. The Pacemaker was a champion load lifter and long-distance aircraft considered the most desirable taskmaster of its day. It also delivered on performance. The CH-300 set endurance, distance and altitude records while successfully making long nonstop flights, such as a 1931 trip from New York City to Istanbul, Turkey, which took 49 hours and 20 minutes. Bellanca believed that all surfaces should be lifting. In addition to the struts, wings and gear, even the fuselage has an airfoil shape. The CH-300 was the first aircraft of Hawaiian Airlines, which also started Star Airlines, which later became Alaskan Airlines. Weather permitting, Hawaiian still uses its CH-300 every day for VIP and employee rides.
Laird LCB-200, 1928
Emil Matthew Laird not only created some of the world’s finest aircraft in the industry’s formative years, but the self-taught designer and pilot also modified aircraft for other companies. The LCB-200 epitomises Laird’s superior designs. Aimed at the sportsman-pilot market, this airplane boasted marvellous handling and was lauded among pilots during its production run from 1928 to 1935. While it somehow slipped out of the conversation regarding modern aircraft design, it’s important to point out that Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman—three titans of aviation history—all worked for Laird early in their careers.
Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro, 1931
Neither helicopter nor airplane, the PCA-2 was an “autogiro.” Being the first commercial, purpose-built rotary wing aircraft in the U.S., the PCA-2 garnered great attention wherever it flew. Despite being built in small numbers, some companies lined up for purchase because of its attention-getting marketability. While incapable of hovering or vertical takeoff, the autogiro could operate in and out of spots that fixed-wing aircraft could never attempt. The PCA-2 is likely responsible to igniting the imagination of designers to create what we now know as the helicopter.
WACO QDC, 1931
The WACO Aircraft company of Troy, Ohio, was wildly successful at building open-cockpit aircraft for a multitude of uses. Sensing a market shift and opportunity, WACO redesigned a popular open cockpit model into the closed cabin named the QDC. Designed as both a business tool or family airplane with an economical pricetag and operational costs, the QDC was first in a long line of WACO “cabin” aircraft. The ODC’s speed, load-carrying capability and comfort still rival that of a modern Cessna 172. Considering it came out in 1931, that’s an impressive feat.
Luscombe 8 Series, 1937
Don Luscombe revolutionised light-aircraft design by coming up with an all-metal aircraft that could be mass produced. “No wood, No nails, No glue,” is a saying associated with the aircraft. Luscombe created the aircraft with a “stress-skinned” fuselage design and metal wings. These were a vast departure from traditional means of aircraft construction. A sprightly performer, it was mostly used as a trainer. However, it was also beloved by the sportsman pilot. The 8 series spanned from “pre-war” to “post-war,” with the largest variables between models being engines and fuel capacity. Many Luscombes are still cherished as light aircraft for personal use.
Beechcraft D17S, 1937
Walter Beech and Ted Wells set out to design an aircraft that could cruise at 200 mph, yet land at 60 mph. That was a rare development for a personal airplane at the time. Form followed function in the development of the iconic “Staggerwing” series, leading to a thread of variants. The “Staggerwing” is often lauded as one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built. Fast, capable and expensive, the aircraft flies better than it looks, with Beechcraft hallmarks of control and stability. The military ordered a large number of D17S’s, which gave Beech the financial boost for the growth needed in the early 1940s. Beech remains a leading industry name today.
Stinson Reliant SR-9, 1937
Stinson built reliable, strong, comfortable and aerodynamically superior aircraft. The “Gullwing” hit its most aesthetically pleasing version with the SR-9 in 1937. Think of the SR-9 as the Gulfstream of its day. While not the fastest corporate aircraft in the fleet, it was highly sought after for its comfort and flying abilities. Its dynamic wing provides perfect control throughout the aircraft’s speed range, while offering a superior ride. With its lavish interior, the SR-9 was equivalent to a personal jet today. Priced at a whopping $10,000 in 1937—or about the cost of three average houses—the SR-9 attracted many corporations and wealthy individuals. Stinson used the most luxurious appointments, largely because E.L. Cord of Cord Automobiles was a 60-percent shareholder in the company.
Aeronca Champion 7AC, 1945
The “Champ,” designed for a post-war aviation boom, was an immediate hit. While not long on looks, the Champ was a great flying airplane that was economical and roomy, and performed well. Flight schools and individuals lined up to buy the Champ. In 1946, 43 were built every day. Many older pilots still look at a Champ with a glimmer and say, “I learned to fly in a ’46 Champ.” Enhanced over the years, the basic design is still built today by American Champion Aircraft, a testament to its endearing qualities.
Beechcraft Bonanza, 1947
Looking to produce a mid-market, all-metal aircraft as a business tool, Beechcraft hit a home run with the Bonanza. The home run, in fact, hasn’t even hit the ground yet, as pilots can still order a new one. While there are many differences, the design’s longevity is a testament to its superiority. Before the Bonanza, fast, personal aircraft were fuel-thirsty, large-engine aircraft from the war. The Bonanza ushered in the age of clean-sheet, efficient and speedy personal aircraft. Cruising at 175 mph with a range of 750 miles, this aircraft with its trademark “V” tail has always been the businessman’s time machine.
DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver, 1947
There are purpose-built tools that will forever be sought after and cherished. The Beaver is that tool in aviation. Designed and produced in Canada, the Beaver is probably the most recognized bush plane ever. The Beaver’s ability and performance is so legendary that even though it’s out of production, enthusiasts have spent upwards of a million dollars to refurbish and bring one back to flying status. Every part of the Beaver was well thought out to provide maximum utility. The rear cabin door, for instance, was designed to accommodate 55-gallon drums, so fuel could be transported to remote locations. Even today, the working qualities of a Beaver are largely unmatched.
Lockheed JetStar, 1960
The JetStar, which came out of Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works division, went from project approval to first flight in 241 days. The program started as a proposal for the U.S. Air Force, but eventually became the world’s first business jet, with its distinguishing four-engine assembly on the tail. The JetStar’s unusual wing-mounted “slipper” fuel tanks not only delivered a longer range, but also created less drag than other tank configurations. The jet also had a sunken area in the center of the aircraft so passengers could stand during long flights. Celebrities like Elvis and Bob Hope loved their JetStars. The jet went into service in 1961, and by the time production ceased in 1978, 204 had been delivered. The last original JetStar was retired last year in Georgia.
Learjet 23, 1963
This light jet became the household name for private jets after it took its first flight on October 7, 1963. The Learjet 23 became the go-to travel tool for corporations, but it was also made famous by celebrities who regularly jetted from L.A. to Las Vegas. The 23, based on the FFA P-16 fighter jet designed for Switzerland, was adopted into a six-passenger aircraft. Lear himself wasn’t an aeronautical engineer, but an entrepreneur who invented the eight-track music player, car radios and the first jet autopilot. He was 61 when he founded Learjet. Production of the 23 ended in 1966 after 101 aircraft had been delivered.
Gulfstream II, 1966
The Gulfstream II, which made its first flight on October 2, 1966, was born as other business jets like the Lockheed JetStar, Hawker Siddeley Dassault Falcon 20 had entered the market. Owners of the Gulfstream I wanted a jet but with a similar range and comfort as that turboprop airplane. Using newly developed Rolls-Royce Spey, second-generation turbofan engines, the Gulfstream II was built as a “green” aircraft (with no finished interior or avionics) and quickly became a top-selling business jet with transcontinental range. Even today, the aircraft has one of the largest interiors of any business jets in its class. An impressive 240 of the 256 built remain in service.and
Cessna 500 Citation I, 1969
When the Cessna Fanjet 500 made its first flight on September 15, 1969, skeptics weren’t sure how it would be received. It was slower than competitors like Learjet, but its single-pilot configuration, lower operating costs and easier handling quickly won a following. In 1976, after multiple improvements that included lengthened wingspans and more powerful engines, Cessna changed the 500’s name to the Citation I. The aircraft remains a popular and reconfigurable business jet. With more than 690 variations of this Citation built between 1971 and 1985, nearly 450 remain on the FAA registry. Despite entering the business-jet field a decade later than competitors, this first Citation was a good investment for the company’s future. More than half the world’s business jets are Citations.
Dassault Falcon 50 Trijet, 1973
When Dassault designed three engines into the tail section of its 50 Trijet, it had one goal in mind: Transatlantic flight. The Falcon 50 Trijet was the first jet to accomplish that. After its first flight in November, 1976, Dassault modified the aircraft with industry-first supercritical wings for transoceanic travel. In 1995, the jet underwent further modifications to become the Falcon EX so it could fly higher and faster, with an increased range. Production continued until 2007, ending a nearly 30-year run for the 50.
Pilatus PC-12, 1991
After it was launched in 1991, the PC-12 became known as the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft, able to serve multiple missions in different forms. The single-engine turboprop offered owners much more than versatility: It was the first single-engine, high-volume aircraft flying at high speeds across long distances. The aircraft was modified for 16 years, until Pilatus announced the PC-12NG (next generation) in 2006. The new design delivers better climb performance and increases the maximum cruise speed to 280 knots. It also has a Honeywell Primus glass cockpit. In 2019, Pilatus announced the PC-12NGX. The version increased cruise speed to 290 knots and came with updated Honeywell avionics as well as larger cabin windows and lower cabin noise. The aircraft has become the best seller in its class, with more than 1,700 delivered by the start of 2020.
Cessna X, 1996
The Citation X was a breakthrough design for Cessna, helping shed its corporate image as a maker of slow jets. The clean-sheet design was a break from the past, with the wings, tail, gear and systems being designed from scratch. It was also capable of carrying 12. The X was also the first Cessna to use Rolls-Royce engines. Golfer Arnold Palmer, who took delivery of the first Citation X in 1996, used his jet to set a speed record: 473 knots on a 3,100-mile closed course. In 2010, Cessna’s Citation X+ upped its performance with upgraded engines and new avionics. Elliptical winglets, increasing range and fuel efficiency, also become standard on the Citation X+.
Gulfstream GV, 1997
Long the hero of Wall Street execs and rappers, the “G-5” is probably the world’s most famous modern business jet, at least in the public’s mind. The GV was a breakthrough design for Gulfstream, its first ultra-long-range business jet. With more powerful Rolls-Royce BR700-710A1 engines, its range was 6,500 nautical miles, making intercontinental travel common for both businesses and high-net-worth individuals. The aircraft, which led to the development of the Gulfstream G550, G650 and, most recently, the G700, made Gulfstream the brand name for wide-body business jets. Gulfstream built 193 GV’s before ceasing production in 2002; 191 are in operation today.
Bombardier Global Express, 1996
Announced in 1991 and taking its first flight in 1996, the Bombardier Global Express was a game-changer for business aviation, with the goal of carrying eight passengers and four crew over 6,700 nautical miles at Mach 0.80. The initial project also had a highly ambitious 99.5 percent dispatch reliability goal, so that no single failure would result in a diversion. A commercial airliner level of safety was also designed into the Global Express. The breakthrough business jet was so successful that available production slots were sold out for four years. It had the largest cabin among private jets, until it was eventually surpassed by the Gulfstream G650. The Global Express offers intercontinental range. For instance it flies nonstop between New York and Paris or New York and Tokyo.
Embraer Phenom 300, 2008
In the heat of the mid-2000s, very-light jet boom, Embraer hedged its bets by introducing both the Phenom 100 entry-level jet and larger Phenom 300 at the same time. That proved to be a very shrewd decision; while both aircraft soon found dedicated customer bases, a majority of customers gravitated toward the Phenom 300’s combination of “big-jet” features—including room for up to nine passengers and a 2,000-nautical mile range—with light-jet fuel efficiency and operational costs, and an intuitive single pilot-capable Garmin flight deck. This diverse mix of capabilities led the Phenom 300 to quickly become the best-selling light jet worldwide.
Citation Latitude, 2015
Textron Aviation’s Cessna division hit upon a winning formula with the Model 680A Citation Latitude by combining a new, clean-sheet fuselage design and flat-floor cabin with the existing Citation Sovereign’s wing, cruciform empennage and twin Pratt & Whitney Canada PW306D turbofan engines. The Latitude provides roomy accommodations for up to 11 people for typical trip lengths exceeding 2,700 nautical miles, while advanced Garmin G5000 touchscreen avionics provide flight crews with the ultimate in situational awareness. The Latitude soon earned the title of best-selling midsize light jet on the market, including a big order from fractional provider NetJets, which called the Citation Latitude “a true game-changer.”
Bombardier Global 7500, 2018
The Global 7500 represents the state-of-the-art for Bombardier Aviation’s storied line of long-legged Global Express aircraft, combining a globe-spanning range of more than 7,600 nautical miles with accommodations for up to 19 passengers in a four-zone cabin. Featuring a new transonic wing, the Global 7500 is also quite speedy, delivering a maximum cruising speed of Mach .90, or more than 593 miles per hour, which led to several speed and city-pair records. New fly-by-wire flight controls offer active load alleviation to dampen in-flight turbulence, resulting in unparalleled comfort for everyone onboard – an important consideration when flying nonstop from, say, Tucson, Arizona to Singapore.
Boeing BBJ Max 9, 2018
Imminent recertification of Boeing’s 737 MAX airliner also brings welcome news for the manufacturer’s private-jet clientele. The BBJ (for Boeing Business Jet) MAX-9 has extremely fuel-efficient CFM LEAP-1B engines and advanced winglets to provide a 7,000-nautical-mile cruising range with 13 percent better fuel burn and 10 percent lower operating costs than the original BBJ. The MAX-9 also features a longer cabin than other BBJs, offering more than three times the space of most competing business jets. That interior is trimmed in bespoke materials to match the customer’s exact tastes, while passengers will also appreciate a 6,500-foot cabin altitude at FL410 that reduces fatigue.
Airbus ACJ320Neo, 2018
Like the BBJ MAX-9 for Boeing, the ACJ320neo adds luxurious trappings and long-legged range to the most technologically advanced narrow-body airliner in the Airbus stable. The ACJ320neo is able to fly 25 passengers a distance of 6,000 nautical miles, or more than 13 hours, non-stop, in an opulent cabin tailored around the European plane-maker’s “Melody” design language that emphasises the flowing lines of hills, rivers and dunes. Passengers may enjoy a host of onboard entertainment options, including streaming movies and satellite-enabled inflight wireless connectivity. As with its sibling A320 commercial airliner, the ACJ also features fly-by-wire controls that ease pilot workload.
Gulfstream G700, 2020
Not content to stand by while competitors matched the range, size and speed of its flagship G650ER, Gulfstream built upon that impressive foundation with the new G700. Offering the widest, longest and tallest business-jet cabin in the industry, with five distinct living areas, up to 19 passengers may enjoy plush leather seating and whisper-quiet surroundings in the G700, while taking in views from altitude through 20 panoramic oval windows that Gulfstream notes are the largest offered in the segment. High thrust Rolls-Royce Pearl turbofans propel the G700 at Mach 0.90 on nonstop flights covering distances up to 7,500 nautical miles, while circadian lighting further helps ease the effects from jet lag on passengers.