Though toy planes might seem like a byproduct of human flight, toys were actually airborne long before we were. In the late 1700s, Sir George Cayley built the first flying top using feathers, cork, and whalebone; by the middle of the following century, a helicopter device launched using a pull-string, called the “Spiralifère,” was a major hit in France. As inventors worked to develop life-size flying machines, they often tested their ideas on a smaller scale, leading to a variety of “mechanical birds” and other plane-like toys during the late 19th century.
Once the Wright brothers toured Europe and Louis Blériot had flown the English Channel, airplanes were quickly produced in miniature. These models tended to be monoplanes with a single set of wings, since they were easier to construct, rather than the biplanes used by early human pilots. Typically made from paper, wood, and tin, these planes often included a string attachment so they could be flown by hand.
Most major toy companies didn’t produce model planes until the late 1920s, following Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated transatlantic flight. Many of these were simply cast-iron pull toys with twistable propellers, such as Hubley’s “Lindy Glider.” Their exteriors were simply painted, sometimes with a name like the “Mighty Mender” embossed across the wingspan. Balsa wood model kits were first developed in 1926 by Paul K. Guillow, a former pilot for the U.S. Navy. Guillow’s initial series included 12 different World War I biplane models that sold for 10 cents each.
Some of the earliest mechanical plane toys were wind-ups built into a merry-go-round design, with two-to-four planes hanging from a central shaft that rotated to imitate flight. However, by the 1930s, model planes were using elastic-band propulsion to fly through the air, like the “Frog Interceptor” made by Lines Brothers. The bumpy technological leaps that aeronautics underwent during the early 20th century were documented in toys of the era, such as the brief trend for top-mounted engines as seen in the “Sea Gull” model made by Kilgore.
By the 1930s, impending war led many companies to develop a variety of military model planes, a trend that would last for the next two decades. One of the Bing firm’s most interesting models was a tinplate amphibious mechanical plane, complete with wheels, under-wing floats, and overhead propellers. Tipp & Co. models were particularly elaborate, with tiny mounted lights and hand-painted details, while Meccano’s kits allowed kids to build their own enameled-metal planes. “U-Control” planes, which improved flight simulation with a simple U-shaped wire held in a youngster’s hand, sold in stores like F.A.O. Schwarz.
As passenger air travel increased, models were increasingly designed after real airplanes, like the Boeing or Pan American aircraft created by various Japanese and Germany companies. Some planes even featured plastic see-through cabins, with tiny tinplate passengers visible in their seats. Airlines also created their own models, designed not for children but to promote the latest plane designs and flight technology.
During the 1950s, Japanese manufacturers dominated the motorized toy plane market, creating realistic models with spinning propellers and flashing lights. The futurist styling of the space race led companies to create some fascinating flying toys, like Bandai’s “Space Bus,” essentially a three-wheeled city bus with helicopter blades mounted on top. As battery technology was adapted for toy use, model planes were given new life; toys like the “Bristol Bulldog” made by Straco could now start and stop automatically...
The 1960s and '70s saw an explosion of battery-powered and remote-control flying toys. The “Orbit Jet” allowed kids to manipulate a mounted plane in circular paths to hit specific targets, while other models, like the “Tru-Jet Streak” and the “Mini Rocket,” used compressed gas to launch them high into the air. In contrast, Matchbox introduced its popular “Skybusters” line of simple die-cast jetplanes in 1973, all modeled after real military and commercial aircraft.