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"Plane" is a bit of a misnomer for the X-15, though. "Rocket with wings" is more accurate.

There are some (mostly Brazilians) who would disqualify the Wright Flyer as the first airplane on the grounds that it took off from a rail. Is the engine breathing air really an essential part of the "airplane" definition? Solar Impulse 2 didn't breath air either, yet wasn't it an airplane too?


It's certainly a glider on reentry. Now, most speed records for planes are "in level flight" which would disqualify the shuttle during reentry. But if we ignore that it's interesting that the speed record for manned aircraft is held by a glider, and the speed records for RC aircraft are also held by gliders! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoaWlKC3wIM

The authoritative body for aircraft records is normally Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and I believe the SR-71 is in Class C as a Aeroplane while the X-15 is a Class P Aerospacecraft.

So as far as "Official" speed records go the fastest "airplane" is a Sr-71. Its technically the fastest manned air breathing aircraft.

There seem to be some semantic ambiguities between Aircraft, Airplane, Rocket, etc.

The X-15 also wasn't launched from the ground which seems a pretty significant distinction from a plane as well.

I think more technically the Wright Flyer was the first powered flight. People had been flying guiders successfully for decades before.

Technically that was probably New Zealander Richard Pearse, not the Wright brothers.


His flight was a bit... crashy. The Wrights managed a fully controlled powered flight first, but even then their "first flight" wasn't as far as Pearce's flight had been nine months earlier. And it also ended in a crash.

Not the "first powered flight". That honour probably belongs to Henri Giffard.

Typically the Wright Flyer is credited with "the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight" or something similar.

If you add enough qualifiers you can be first at anything.

Is the space shuttle a plane?

The NASA Shuttle, no, the Soviet Buran, yes.

As a Brazilian (see previous comments about the Wright Brothers), I consider that an airplane:

* Is powered, otherwise, it's a glider;

* Can maintain level flight, otherwise, it's just "Falling with style";

* Can take off on it's own, assistance (RATO, catapults) is allowed for short take-offs (like from a carrier);

The Shuttle fails in all that in some point of the flight or another, Buran on the other hand, could be fitted with air breathing jet engines that allowed it to do all that.

...falling with style

I like Douglas Adams' description: The ship hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

> Can take off on it's own, assistance (RATO, catapults) is allowed for short take-offs (like from a carrier);

Well, by that definition I think the X-15 isn't a plane - it required a B-52 mothership to launch after all. IMO it's hard to find a definition of "plane" that includes the X-15 but not the Space Shuttle stack (not the orbiter on its own - the full stack).

Was the Buran ever actually flown with air-breathing jet engines or is this purely hypothetical fantasy like most of that program?

Before the OK-1 unit did it's unmanned flight, several prototypes were built to test different aspects of the craft, one of these had jet engines and made atmospheric flights, including taking off on it's own.

Not exactly the same Buran that flew, but its atmospheric analog during training and development:


That's pretty cool, I didn't know they did that.

Could the Shuttle not be fitted with jet engines? Or do you mean there was no official spec to actually do that, whereas with the Buran there was?

Nope. Rocket only.

And on descent it was gliding, not under its own power.

I feel like a basic requirement for a plane would be that it can maintain its altitude, so no?

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