What Was the Most Significant Airplane Flight in History?

The Wright brothers’ first flight, Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic crossing, D. B. Cooper’s disappearance, and more

Graham Roumieu

Erica Jong, author, Fear of Flying

Amelia Earhart’s last flight ended her life and gave birth to a myth.

Tom D. Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum

“Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform press home Christmas.” That’s how Orville Wright described the first and most important airplane flight in a 30-word telegram to his father on December 17, 1903.

Laurence Gonzales, author, Flight 232

Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was the first passenger to be killed in an airplane, in September 1908, testing whether flying machines could be useful in war. The aircraft was piloted by Orville Wright, who was severely injured. Selfridge’s death drove home the message that we would have to pay to fulfill Faust’s wish “to fly among the stars.”

Gregory Crouch, author, China’s Wings

The first commercial crossing of the Pacific, by Pan Am’s China Clipper, in 1935, inaugurated modern transoceanic air travel and changed the world.

Colum McCann, author, Thirteen Ways of Looking (forthcoming, October 2015)

In 1919, Alcock and Brown crossed the Atlantic ocean in an open-top Vickers Vimy. They flew without a gyroscope, fueled by passion and desire. They arrived in County Galway after a 16-hour flight from Newfoundland through snow and sleet and rain. The tips of their hair froze. They crash-landed in a bog in the west of Ireland, thinking it was hard, level ground. The earth is always full of surprises.

Brendan I. Koerner, author, The Skies Belong to Us

Though hijackings became commonplace during President Nixon’s first term, U.S.-based airlines refused to search all passengers for fear of scaring them away. They finally had to relent after the November 1972 hijacking of Southern Airways Flight 49, during which three men threatened to crash the plane into a Tennessee nuclear reactor. Eight weeks later, the metal detectors rolled out.

Keith Rosenkranz, former fighter pilot

On May 20, 1927, equipped with four sandwiches, two canteens of water, and 450 gallons of gasoline, Charles Lindbergh took off in the Spirit of St. Louis from Roosevelt Field in New York. Nearly 34 hours and more than 3,500 miles later, he landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris. The flight opened the door for travel not just across the Atlantic but around the world.

Geoffrey Gray, author and founder, True.Ink

Northwest Orient Flight 305, Portland to Seattle, November 1971. Takeoff: 2:50 p.m. Arrival: infamy. Last row, middle seat, a passenger chain-smoking and sipping bourbon. Wrote his name on his ticket as Dan Cooper, then hijacked the plane, secured a $200,000 ransom, and parachuted out the back, never to be seen again. He proved that good guys can root for the bad guy, if the crime is impressive enough: even the agents looking for Cooper must have wanted him to get away.

Reader Responses

Tom Henkey, Chicago, Ill.

October 1947: Chuck Yeager pushes his Bell X‑1, named Glamorous Glennis, past the speed of sound, making him the first human being to survive Mach 1.

Lee Ayres, Atlanta, Ga.

On August 6, 1945, early in the morning, the Enola Gay ushered in the end of the Second World War, kick-started a new age in energy, and issued the starting shot of the Cold War.

Bill Lonergan, Yokohama, Japan

United Airlines Flight 175 on September 11, 2001: the second plane to crash into the World Trade Center, making everyone realize the first was not an accident.

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