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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Aurora B-25 Control Line Model Airplane Gas Powered CoxF6f Hellcat R/c Model Airplane Kit, Mint Condition Kit!! By Sky Shark R/cOlder Vk Sopwith Camel 56" R/c Bipe Balsa Model Airplane Kit UnassembledPica Aeronca Sedan 15ac R/c Model Airplane Kit, Rare Kit!!Vintage Ed Hunter 3.5cc Model Airplane Aeroplane Diesel Engine Used.Hobby Lobby Telemaster 40 Rc Model Airplane KitVintage Model Airplane Control Line 1/2a Cox Speed Plane Td .051 Never FlownDumas Veco Corsair Control Line Stunt Or Slow Combat Gas Model Airplane Kit Vk 1917 Nieuport R/c Model Airplane KitVintage Model Airplane Control Line Speed Td .15 Special CoxAeromaster R/c Aerobatic Bipe Model Airplane Kit Vintage Frog 150cc Model Airplane Aeroplane Diesel Engine Boxed Good ConditionVintage Freedom X-cel Rc Glider Craft Air 78" Wingspan Airplane Model KitPair Of 1977 Os 25 Fsr Rc Model Airplane Engines Vintage 762 Mufflers Glow LotHi Johnson 36 Large Case Combat Special Series I Control Line Gas Model Airplane1957 Jaguar .8cc Diesel Model Airplane Engine .049 Vintage Motor German .049Great Planes P-51d Mustang Radio Control Airplane Kit ~ R/c Model - P540Flite Line Demon Control Line Model Airplane Combat Kit By Riley Wooten 35 EngRar New In Box Cox Thimble Drome Curtiss Pusher Model Airplane Gas Powered LookMidwest, Super Sweet Stik R/c Model Airplane Kit, Nice Kit!!Vintage Sig "smith Miniplane" Rc Airplane Model Kit No.rc-38 With Box Complete!Rare Mccoy 29 Red Head Racing Gas Model Airplane Ignition Engine Bantam 19 Spark Ignition Model Airplane EngineLou Andrews Amco Trainermaster R/c Model Airplane Kit, Rare Kit!!Vintage Cox Thimble Drome Airplane Model Engine Vintage Carl Goldberg Gentle Lady Rc Model Airplane Kit 2 Meter SailplaneVintage Dc Spitfire 1cc Model Airplane Aeroplane Diesel Engine Good ConditionVintage Top Flite Super Monokote Rc Model Airplane Covering Lot Of Four NibYonezawa Cragstan Tin Battery Dc-7 Stewardess Eastern Airlines Airplane.a+ WorksVintage Model Airplane Kit Control LineVintage Model Airplane Kit Sterling Ringmaster Stunt Kit Control Line Nos051 Cox Tee Dee 1/2a Contest Engine For 049/051 Model Airplane C/l Ff Td In BoxLarge Lot Silkspan Model Airplane Fabric From EstateVintage Paw 1.5 Cc Model Airplane Aeroplane Diesel Engine Boxed UsedComet Piper Tri Pacer Vintage Gas Airplane Ok Cub .058 Engine Cox,unused Mib Webra Dynamix Carb For Glow Fuel R/c Model Airplane Engines NibRare Vintage Sterling Rayan S-t Model Airplane Control Line Gas Powered KitVintage Fury Twin Airplane Model Engine Old Tools Late Model Stanley Bailey No. 4 Smooth Bottom Wood Plane 3 Pat DatesJim Walker Fire Kitten Control Line Gas Model Airplane With 049 EnginesLot Of Two Aurora Mills 1.3cc Diesel Model Airplane Engines India Vintage 09 1.3Sterling Baby Ringmaster Control Line Model Airplane Kit Vintage Top Flite P-40f Curtiss Flying Tiger U/control Model Airplane Kit EngineVintage Sterling Citabria Model Airplane Kit Lot 25Vintage Mccoy Model Airplane Engines Lot Of Two1970's Royal Products Pitts Special "little-stinker" Rc Airplane Model Kit+box!Vintage Ohlsson & Rice O&r 60 Model Spark Ignition Engine Rc AirplaneMarx Tin Toy Honeymoon Express Airplane40 Stanley Tools Woodworking Scrub Plane Usa Model ~ JcboxlotImp Paulownia Model Airplane Propellers, New/ Unused (10 Inch)Ace Rc Alpha Airplane Kit 40" Wingspan Balsa Plane Model #50l212 Rc - Vintage! Guillow's German Halberstadt Cl2 Balsa Wood Airplane Model Kit - NosRare Cox Avion P-51 Bendix Racer Model Airplane Engine Control Line Gas PoweredControl Line Model Airplane Kit J.roberts Corsair Au-1Vintage Cox Thimble Drome Super Cub 105 Civil Air Patrol Model Airplane U/c GasVintage 1946 Mccoy 49 Ignition Engine Model Airplane Cl Rc Uc Ff N/r 5 DayGuillows Bell P-39d Aircobra Balsa Model Airplane Kit #806Royal Model Airplane Kit Lockheed P -38 Lighting 74 Inch Wing SpanBrand New In Box Max 46ax O.s. Model Rc Airplane Glow 2 Stroke EngineVintage 1928 Hubley Lindy Toy Airplane Plane Monoplane Cast-iron Original Arcade