We will therefore focus on the term "most numerous" since that seems to be the intent of the question. This choice also makes the question easier to answer since it is not a subjective one. Even so, determining the precise production numbers for many aircraft designs can be a difficult task. Records are sometimes poor and many designs have been license built in several countries by numerous manufacturers making it more complicated to determine the final tally. Another challenge comes when an aircraft is so popular that it inspires a family of highly related but slightly different designs, raising the question of whether to count all variants as part of the same production run or treat them separately. The end result is that even a seemingly objective comparison of the "most numerous" aircraft becomes somewhat subjective based on how one decides to count. Given that disclaimer, let us now explore each category in greater detail.
Largest Production Run in History
The plane built in the greatest number of all time appears to be the well-known Cessna 172. Development of the piston-engine powered aircraft began in the mid-1950s as an improved version of the Cessna 170 with a tricycle landing gear design replacing the taildragger of its predecessor. The first prototype of the four-person light plane flew in 1955, and the new design was so popular that over 1,400 were built in the first year alone.
A series of new improvements were introduced through the 1960s giving the Cessna 172 the recognizable appearance it has today. New engines, improved pilot visibility, and better avionics continued to attract sales in record numbers and the Cessna 172 family is still in production. The type has become the most successful and popular light training aircraft in the world and is widely used both by private pilots and military services. Production totals vary between sources, but Cessna indicates over 43,000 had been built by 2007.
Although the Cessna 172 attained its title only recently, a Soviet plane previously held the record for largest production run for decades. The Polikarpov Po-2 Kukuruznik, also called the U-2, was designed during the 1920s. Despite its rather archaic appearance even compared to designs of the day, the Po-2 became an incredibly popular aircraft that was widely used for crop dusting, flight training, transport, and other duties throughout the communist world. The two-seat piston-engine biplane was particularly useful during World War II when many thousands were built for light bombing and re-supply missions.
Many were exported to Soviet allies during and after the war and they continued in widespread use into the 1960s. Few are still flyable today, but the Kukuruznik was operated throughout the Soviet Union, North Korea, China, Poland, and other Eastern European nations. Manufacture of the Po-2 was so plentiful that exact totals are unknown, but it is believed over 40,000 examples were built in the Soviet Union and Poland before production ended in the 1950s.
Both the Cessna 172 and Polikarpov Po-2 fit into this category, but a number of other aircraft are also worth mentioning. Probably the third most heavily produced plane in history was a Russian military aircraft called the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. The Il-2 was developed shortly before the outbreak of World War II and was used extensively by the Soviet Air Force as a ground attack plane. The Shturmovik featured a heavy armor protection for the engine and two crewmembers giving it extraordinary ruggedness against enemy fighters and anti-aircraft gunnery. This survivability made the Il-2 especially effective in making low altitude attacks on enemy tank formations. The Shturmovik proved deadly against Germany's well-armored tanks along the Eastern Front and was credited as one of the most decisive weapons in driving back the German invasion of Russia.
The aircraft earned such a reputation that even Joseph Stalin frequently remarked on its capabilities. Stalin was particularly upset when initial production of the Il-2 proved too slow for his liking. He sent one telegram to Sergey Ilyushin demanding:
You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have not manufactured Il-2s until now. The Il-2 aircraft are necessary for our Red Army NOW, like air, like bread. ... It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army. I ask you not to try the government's patience, and demand that you manufacture more Ils. I warn you for the last time. Stalin.Stalin's prodding was rewarded by a marked increase in production of the early single-seat Il-2, two-seat Il-2M series, and the improved Il-10 that appeared late in the war. Between all models, a total of the 36,163 units of the Il-2 family were built before production ended. The Il-2 remained in use for many years after the war and saw service with several Soviet allies including China, Poland, and North Korea.
Other noteworthy production runs among piston-engined planes include the Cessna 150/152 family (31,289 built), the Piper J-3 Cub (19,073 built), the Beechcraft Bonanza that is still in production (over 17,000 built), and the T-6 Texan trainer developed by the US during World War II (15,495 built).
The most built jet-powered aircraft in history is probably the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighter that first appeared during the late 1940s. The MiG-15 was a revolutionary aircraft that shocked Western observers when it first emerged, and the design soon proved its combat capabilities over Korea. The aircraft featured a swept wing design for low drag, a powerful and reliable engine reverse engineered from the Rolls-Royce Nene, and excellent maneuverability in high-speed flight. The nimble MiG-15 proved more than a match for Western piston engine and jet fighters it encountered during the Korean War and became a feared opponent with its heavy armament of two 23-mm and one 37-mm cannons. It was only with the introduction of America's F-86 Sabre into the conflict that the MiG-15 met its equal.
The MiG-15 was a popular fighter throughout the Soviet Union and in the air forces of many Soviet allies. Numerous models were built for different missions or equipped with various improvements. At least 12,000 are believed to have been manufactured in the Soviet Union and the MiG-15 was also license built by factories in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China. Foreign production may have pushed the total number built as high as 18,000. The MiG-15 was also widely exported and served with over 40 nations both in fighter and trainer versions. Only a few remain in use today.
The basic MiG-15 design was so successful that it was also adapted into the improved MiG-17 (some 10,000 built) that in turn inspired the MiG-19 (about 8,500 built). The succeeding MiG-21 was even more successful with over 11,000 built in the Soviet Union and in China as the J-7/F-7. The MiG-21 has served with over 50 countries, and new upgrades will likely keep the fighter in service well into the 21st century.
The most produced jet in the West, meanwhile, is the aforementioned North American F-86 Sabre that was built in several models in multiple countries. US production included 6,297 units of the F-86 and 1,115 of the related FJ Fury. Canada license built 1,815, Japan made 300, Italy assembled 221, and Australia produced 112. The total production run reached 9,860 planes that served in almost 40 countries.
Though it has been used for many other tasks besides air travel, the Antonov An-2 holds the record for the largest production run of any transport plane. The An-2 first flew in 1947 and is the largest single-engine biplane ever made. Originally developed for use in agriculture and forest management across the vast Soviet Union, the design has lent itself to a variety of other duties and many different models have been built. The An-2T transport is the most common and can carry up to 12 passengers. Other models include crop-dusters, aerial fire fighters, seaplanes fitted with pontoon floats, flying ambulances, scientific versions used for atmospheric sampling, military transports carrying paratroops, and even a ground effect version.
The An-2 remains popular throughout the world and especially in remote areas where the rugged aircraft can operate from unprepared airstrips. The aircraft also has excellent short takeoff and landing abilities so that it can be flown from very short fields. Over 5,000 units were built in the Soviet Union by 1960 when production was moved to Poland. Another 12,000 were built here by the time full-scale production ended in 1992. Still more are built today in limited numbers from spare parts, and a license version called the Shijiazhuang Y-5 is made in China. A total between 18,000 and 20,000 are believed to have been built though some estimates go as high as 36,000. Civil and military models have been used by at least 50 nations including just about every country in Asia and Eastern Europe, much of the Middle East, and several African countries. The An-2 has also become popular with collectors in the West since the fall of the Soviet Union.
One of the most revolutionary aircraft in the history of aviation was the Douglas DC-3 developed during the early 1930s. At the time of its introduction, no existing plane was able to efficiently complete transcontinental flights across the United States. That changed with the development of the DC-3 that could cross the country with just one refueling stop. This improvement was a jumpstart to the fledgling air travel industry, and early airlines quickly ordered more than 400 for their fleets.
The DC-3 truly came into its own once World War II began. Many civilian DC-3 airliners were taken over for the war effort, and these were soon joined by thousands more built as the C-47 Skytrain, R4D, C-53 Skytrooper, or Dakota. Yet more were license built in the Soviet Union as the Lisunov Li-2 and even in Japan as the Showa L2D. The DC-3 fleet was vital in transporting troops and supplies in every theater of the conflict including the D-Day invasion of Europe. Military C-47 models continued in service after the war and were used from the Berlin Airlift through the Vietnam War. Once World War II ended, thousands of surplus DC-3 transports were also sold to civilian operators where the low-cost, reliable, and easy to maintain aircraft helped revolutionize commercial aviation. At least 400 are still flying today. Between civil and military models, a total of 10,655 DC-3 variants were built in the US, another 487 were made in Japan, and anywhere from 2,200 to 6,000 were manufactured in the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1952. The total number of DC-3s produced is believed to be over 13,000.
While planes like the An-2 and DC-3 helped make commercial air travel common, it was not until the introduction of jet-powered aircraft in the 1950s that airlines began to dominate the travel industry. The largest production run of any commercial jetliner belongs to the Boeing 737. The 737 is a narrowbody airliner that carries anywhere from 85 to 220 passengers in six abreast seating. After entering service in 1968, the 737's combination of range and passenger accommodation quickly made the design popular in the short-range market.
The second-generation 737-300, 737-400, and 737-500 that came out in the 1980s introduced more fuel-efficient engines, wing enhancements, and an electronic flight instrumentation system to significantly improve fuel economy. The 737 was reborn yet again in the early 1990s with the introduction of the 737 Next Generation family that includes the 737-600, 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900 models. These larger versions carry more passengers over longer distances thanks to fuselage stretches, increased fuel capacity, better engines, and the addition of winglets. A variety of military and government models have also been developed to transport cargo or personnel in several countries. The 737 is the best-selling aircraft in the history of commercial jets, and over 5,200 have been built so far out of more than 6,000 ordered.
The 737's only close competitor for the largest commercial jet production run is its counterpart in the narrowbody market, the Airbus A320. First introduced in 1988, the A320 was the first airliner equipped with a digital fly-by-wire flight control system. The A320 also features a variety of other enhancements to reduce operational costs including fuel-efficient engines, excellent wing aerodynamics, lightweight composite parts, an electronic flight instrumentation system, glass cockpit displays, and a computerized maintenance system.
The A320 has proven so popular that it launched an entire family of short- to medium-range airliners. The shortened A318 carries the smallest number of passengers on short-range flights. The A319 is slightly shorter than the A320 but carries fewer passengers over longer distances. The stretched A321 carries more passengers but has comparable range to the A320. Counting all models, over 3,000 examples of the A320 family have been delivered out of some 5,000 ordered. Both Boeing and Airbus are planning replacements for the 737 and A320 family, but the two aircraft are likely to remain in production until at least 2020.
While this category includes the jet-powered MiG-15, MiG-21, and F-86 described earlier, these aircraft pale in comparison to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 of World War II fame. Development of the Bf 109, also called the Me 109, began in the early 1930s. Designer Willy Messerschmitt strove to keep the plane light and simple resulting in a low-drag high-performance fighter revolutionary for its day. These features made the Bf 109 the principal fighter of the German Luftwaffe during World War II, and the type was used for a variety of missions including air superiority, ground attack, fighter escorts, air intercept, and reconnaissance. The Bf 109 scored more aerial kills than any other aircraft used during the war and its pilots included the top three aces of the conflict.
Series production of the Bf 109 began with the Bf 109B "Bruno" but several new models came in rapid succession. The most common version early in the war was the Bf 109E "Emil" that fought the Battle of Britain. Numerous improved and specialized variants of the Emil and the Bf 109F "Friedrich" were built, but probably the most important model was the Bf 109G "Gustav" that came out in 1942. The Bf 109G-6, in particular, was the single most widely built version with a heavier gun armament and the ability to carry bombs or rockets. Most Bf 109 aircraft saw service in the Luftwaffe but considerable numbers were also sold to Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Once the war ended, the Bf 109 remained in production in Spain as the Hispano Aviacion Ha 1112 and in Czechoslovakia as the Avia S-99 and S-199. Rather ironically, some of the Czechoslovakian Bf 109 copies were even sold to Israel. Combining all German production with foreign manufacture, about 35,000 units of the Bf 109 were constructed making it the most-built fighter in history.
World War II created a number of other noteworthy competitors to the Bf 109 as well. Among these are the Supermarine Spitfire and Seafire designed in the UK (22,759 built), the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 from Germany (20,051 built), the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-9 (16,769 built), the USA's Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (15,686 built) as well as the North American P-51 Mustang (15,675 built), and the British Hawker Hurricane (about 14,000 built).
The single largest production run of a bomber belongs to the Consolidated B-24 Liberator built during World War II. The heavy bomber was used primarily by the US Army Air Corps that made an emergency order for the aircraft in 1939. Designed in just 11 months, the B-24 was shorter with less wing area than the contemporary B-17 but had a larger takeoff weight, greater range, and higher cruise speed. With the outbreak of war in Europe, orders from the US, Britain, and France rolled in even before the B-24 prototype had flown. The first Liberators entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1941, and the type was soon being used for anti-submarine patrols, transport duties, and bombing missions.
Production ramped up as America entered the war, and the B-24 was seen as critical to the war effort. Multiple factories were given contracts to build the Liberator as quickly as possible. Consolidated built B-24s at its San Diego plant that had been tripled in size as well as at a new factory in Fort Worth, Texas. Other companies also joined as Douglas manufactured the B-24 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; North American built Liberators in Dallas, Texas; and Ford opened a massive bomber factory near Detroit, Michigan. The first mass-produced model was the B-24D but the most common type was the B-24H that appeared in 1943. Over 12,000 Liberators were used by the US Army Air Forces, 2,100 served with the RAF, 1,200 with the Royal Canadian Air Force, nearly 300 with the Royal Australian Air Force, and the US Navy bought 1,800 PB4Y patrol bombers. Between the B-24 and PB4Y bombers, C-87 transport, C-109 tanker, and F-7 photographic reconnaissance model, a total of 18,482 Liberators were built by the end of production in September 1945.
Other piston-engine bombers built in large numbers include the Junkers Ju 88 multirole bomber from Germany (14,900 built), America's Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (12,761 built), the Vickers Wellington of the UK (11,461 built), the Petlyakov Pe-2 from the Soviet Union (about 11,400 built), and the North American B-25 Mitchell (9,984 built).
The most heavily produced jet bomber was the Ilyushin Il-28 twin-engine medium bomber. Carrying three crewmembers, the Il-28 was designed in the USSR and made its first flight in 1948. Major variants included the initial Il-28 bomber, Il-28T torpedo bomber, Il-28R reconnaissance plane, and Il-28U trainer. China also license built its own versions including the H-5 bomber, HZ-5 reconnaissance model, and HD-5 electronic countermeasures platform.
Both the Soviet and Chinese Il-28 models became popular throughout the communist world and were exported to over 20 countries. Some of the major operators included the Soviet Air Force and Navy, the Chinese Air Force and Navy, North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Poland, and Egypt. Cuba also acquired over three dozen but these were taken back after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some Il-28s were also demilitarized and transferred to the Soviet airline Aeroflot for use as mail transports. Total Il-28 production has been estimated between 2,000 and 6,000 aircraft but was most likely around 3,000.
Other jet bombers produced in similar numbers include the Boeing B-47 Stratojet from the US (2,042 built), the Tupolev Tu-16 from Russia (1,509 built), and the English Electric Canberra from the UK (1,352 built).
Though helicopters are one of the more recent developments in aviation, their flexibility has made these craft some of the most popular flying vehicles in both civil and military use. The most produced helicopter powered by the jet-based turboshaft engine is the Mil Mi-8 series. The Mi-8 was designed in the Soviet Union as a medium transport helicopter powered by two engines. Following its first flight in 1961, the helicopter quickly grew into a large family of variants used for military transport, armed gunship duties, aerial jamming, reconnaissance, medical evacuation, and other military tasks.
The size and performance capabilities of the Mi-8 also made it attractive for a number of civil uses, and several additional models were developed for the commercial market. Some of the more popular include variants designed for passenger and VIP transport, search-and-rescue, and agricultural applications. The helicopter has also proven quite popular on the foreign market leading to a dedicated series of Mi-17 export models. Total production of the Mi-8 and Mi-17 family exceeds 17,000 to date, and the helicopter has been flown by military and civil operators in some 80 nations.
Given the many applications of the Mi-8, it is not surprising that its American counterpart has proven just as popular. Development of the Bell 204/205 family began in the mid-1950s when the US Army contracted Bell to create a turbine-powered helicopter for medical evacuation. The result was the UH-1 Iroquois, more popularly known as the Huey, that was soon adopted by every branch of the US military. Numerous variants of the H-1 series quickly followed including models optimized for troop transport, search-and-rescue, armed gunship missions, VIP transport, aeromedical evacuation, and a specialized AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.
Joining these military models were a variety of civilian versions used for tasks like crop dusting, cargo lifting, aerial firefighting, and police duties. These civil variants, including the Bell 204, 205, 210, 212, 214, and 412, are differentiated by improvements like better engines, a longer fuselage, or a new rotor system. The popularity of the design is illustrated by the fact that the UH-1 series has been used by military services in over 70 countries in addition to civilian operators. Between manufacture in the US and license construction by Agusta in Italy and Fuji in Japan, a total of more than 16,000 Bell 204 series helicopters were built before production ended in 1976. Many are still in service today and Bell continues to offer upgrade programs to improve the engines and rotor systems of these prolific helicopters.
The closest competitor to the Mi-8 and Bell 204 family is the Bell 206 series still in production today. While the majority of the Bell 204 series was built for military operators, the Bell 206 JetRanger has become the most popular civilian helicopter in history. Some 8,400 units of the Bell 206, 406, 407, and 427 had been built by 2007 including several military models like the OH-58 Kiowa. The JetRanger series is particularly popular in the film and television industries and is frequently featured in movies and used for news or traffic reporting. The Mil Mi-2 was also heavily produced as a light transport helicopter for the Soviet Union and allies. The Mi-2 was designed in Russia but built exclusively in Poland. Totals vary by source, but somewhere between 5,200 and 7,200 were completed by the time production ended.
The record for largest number of piston-engined helicopters was set by the Bell 47. The historic Bell 47 was among the earliest helicopters and became the first certified for civil use in 1946. Though its appearance changed over time, the definitive model 47G that came out in 1953 introduced the bubble canopy, exposed tail boom, and fuel tanks mounted next to the main rotor hub that have since come to distinguish the design.
Principal customers for the Bell 47 included the US Army, which designated it as the H-13 Sioux, and the Royal Army of the United Kingdom. The US Navy and Coast Guard also purchased several while a few were used by NASA as lunar lander trainers. Military models were used by over 40 nations and many more were sold to civil operators around the world. The Bell 47 is perhaps best remembered today for its medical evacuation missions as shown in the opening credits of the popular television show M*A*S*H. More than 5,600 Bell 47 helicopters were built over nearly 30 years before production ended in 1974. The total includes US production as well as 1,200 built under license in Italy, 239 in the UK, and 239 in Japan.
Perhaps the next most popular piston-engine helicopter is the Robinson R22 light helicopter. Carrying two people, the utility helicopter is commonly used for training, police work, news gathering, and livestock management. Over 3,600 R22 helicopters have been built since 1979 and the design remains in production alongside the larger R44 that carries four people.
This discussion is informative not only for determining the most produced aircraft in history but also to identify why those designs have been popular. Clearly, World War II had a profound influence on the course of aviation and encouraged the mass production of many planes in far greater numbers than would have been built otherwise. Indeed, some of these aircraft would not have been built at all had it not been for the pressing need to overwhelm opposing militaries. It is also clear that smaller, multipurpose aircraft tend to dominate most of the categories given their inherent low cost and greater flexibility compared to larger and more specialized competitors.
We are still left with the original question about which aircraft was "most successful," and as we have pointed
out, this is a subjective debate with many possible answers. Nevertheless, many historians consider the Douglas
DC-3 to be the most successful aircraft in history because of the profoundly revolutionary effect it had on both
commercial and military aviation during the 1940s. Though certainly a matter of opinion, it is difficult to ignore
how far aviation has come since the DC-3 was introduced in the 1930s and the role it played in creating the
aviation industry that exists today.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 4 February 2007
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