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]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Bellanca Super Viking Airplane Model 17-31a Nice!Global Quality Kit Skylane Radio Controlled Model Airplane KitVintage Carl Goldberg Skylane 62 Rc Gas/nitro Balsa Model Airplane Kit 62" Ws.Rare Vintage R/c Balsa Great Planes Super Sportster 20 Model Airplane KitVintage Boeing B-52g Stratofortress Chrome Airplane Desk Model Pacmin AllynVintage Hobby Shack Champion Citabria Kit Rc Model Airplane Span 43"Model Airplane Aeroplane Engine Laser Pt 180v Twin Four 4 Stroke England 1991-2Vintage Mk Kato Mattlas 40 Model Airplane Kit Made In Japan New In BoxVintage Pressed Steel Kingsbury Wind Up Us Air Mail Airplane ToyVintage Simplex Mk Ii 25 .25 1978 Series 1 .256 Rc Cl Model Plane Engine MotorVintage Large Sst Resin Prototype Airplane /model Made By BoeingHouse Of Balsa Glider Model Airplane Kit Nomad Two Vintage Toy Plane Mccoy 19 Redhead Model Airplane Spark Ignition EngineTop Flite Contender 40 Vintage Model Airplane Kit Nib # Rc-22Os 70 Surpass 4 Stroke Radio Control Nitro Airplane Model EngineSig Ryan Sta Special R/c Model Airplane Kit Rc-27Carl Goldberg G-22 Jr. Skylark Single / Twin Engines Model Rc Airplane KitLg Rare Vintage Boeing 707 Aa Travel Agency Airplane Model W/stand 1950s-1960sVintage Metal F-105 Thunder Chief Plane Desk Model, Fighter, PilotNew In Box Sig Doubler Ii 1/4 Midget Racer & Sport Model Rc Airplane KitAspect Aviation Reflex .25 Delta Wing High Performance Model Rc Airplane Kit OopHangar 9 Aresti 40 Arf , Ultra Radio Controlled Model Airplane KitVintage Mk Kato Thunder Bird 40 Model Airplane Kit Made In Japan New In BoxSportsman Aviation Waco .60 Arf Radio Control Model Airplane Arf KitVintage Lot R/c Airplane Top Flite Model Tech Airplanes Kb40 Engine Parts FutabaVtg Rare1950s Rareallyn Usaf Douglas C-133 Cargomaster Metal Desk Model AirplaneBridi Killer Chaos Model Airplane Kit, Vintage, Open BoxBalsa Model Airplane Kits Lot Of 6Vintage Linemar Japan Lithoed Tin Toy Dc 7 American Airlines Friction AirplaneRare Barn Attic Find Vintage Alloy Airplane Jet Fighter Plane Desk Model DisplayHiper Bipe Mk Master Kit Ind. Vintage Model Airplane Kit .. Not StartedHobby Shack Giant Ugly Stick Radio Controlled Model Airplane KitSig Astro Hog Radio Control Model Airplane KitRare Large Vintage Boeing Sst Airplane Model Resin Pacific MiniatureVintage Simplex Hornet 19 .19 .196 1981 Series 1 Rc Cl Model Plane Engine MotorBbi Elite Force Wwii - F4u Corsair, 1:18 Scale Model Plane/aircraftAurora 1/72 Scale Piper Aztec C Model Airplane Kit Rare Aero Spark Plug Ignition Model Airplane Tether Car Engine Coil+smith Co.newAce Rc Simple 400 Balsa/foam Rc Model Airplane KitOld Tin Unique Art Sky Rangers Airplane *vintage Wind-up Toy PlaneVintage Model Airplane Fox .35 Stunt Engine, As Close To New As You'll FindOld Vintage Sterling Lockheed P-38 Lightning Control Line Model Airplane Kit S14Vtg 1970s Ace Rc Pulse Commander Radio Control R/c Model Airplane Remote 2Vintage 1955 Berkley Privateer Flying Boat Balsa Wood Airplane Model Kit 114" WsVintage Cox .020 Pee Wee U Control Model Airplane Micro Motor EngineHerr Engineering Corp. Gee Bee R2 K-107 Flying Balsa Model Airplane Kit New!Vintage 1960's Model Airplane Control Line Fox 35 Engine Runs & Fly'sBerkeley 4-19 Stinson Sr-9c Reliant Ff Or C/l Model Airplane KitPro Modeler B-25j Mitchell Airplane Model Kit 1:48 Scale New Sealed Lot Of Four (4) Rc Gas Model Airplane Engines Thimble Drome X2, Unknown X2Vintage -2707-200 Sst Supersonic Transport Prototype Model Boeing AirplaneRare Trumpeter 1:32 Republic F-105d Thunderchief Model PlaneBbi Elite Force- Us Navy F-4j Phantom, 1:32 Scale Plane ModelVtg 1970s Ace Rc Pulse Commander Radio Control R/c Model Airplane Remote 2Model Airplane Engines G-mot Co2 Engine Gm-300 Czech Original Box PapersVintage Sealed Sterling Models Piper Cherokee Airplane Model Kit 37.5" WingspanNice Stanley No. 100 1/2 Curved Bottom Block Plane, Luthier & Model MakerVintage Svenson Fly Boy Radio Control Model Airplane Kit1950 Vintage Tn/nomura Japanese Tin Friction Plane Boeing 377 StratocruiserVintage Citabria Balsa Wood Flying Rubber Power Model Airplane Kit Old Sterling!