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    

Vintage Goldberg Skylark 56" Single Or Twin R/c Balsa Model Airplane KitVintage Sterling Stearman Pt-17 64 1/2" R/c Balsa Model Bipe Airplane KitMint Vintage Royal Curtiss P-6e Hawk 63" R/c Balsa Model Bipe Airplane KitByrons Originals P-51 D Mustang Radio Control Model Airplane Kit, Giant Scale***** Dave Platt Waco-ymf R/c Model Airplane Kit **** Yellow Aircraft At-6 Texan Giant Scale Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** Byrons Originals / Iron Bay Model Company P-47 Radio Control Model Airplane KitVintage Jensen Kraft Das Ugly Stik 60" R/c Balsa Model Airplane KitVintage Racing Speed Jet Engine Model Airplane Ignition 22" Ws Dyna Jet Rare ***Byrons Originals / Iron Bay Models P-40 Warhawk Radio Control Model Airplane Kit** Yellow Aircraft P-47d Thunderbolt Raio Control Model Airplane Kit ** New ***Carl Goldberg Ultimate 10-300 Radio Control Model Airplane Kit***new************** Great Planes ** At-6 Texan Arf Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** New!Vintage Prather Little Toni 41 1/2" Quarter Midget R/c Pylon Model Airplane Kit** E-z ** P-39 Aircobra Arf Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** New!Byrons Originals F4u Corsair Radio Control Model Airplane Kit, Giant Scale*****Rare! Antique 1930s Woods Girard Model Wind-up Mechanical Toy Monoplane AirplaneVintage Carl Goldberg Cosmic Wind U/c Model Airplane Gas Powered Kit 43" Nib **** Berkeley Cessna 170 Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** 72" Wingspan **Model Airplane Engines,mills 1.3cc Mk 2Model Airplane Engines.cox Td .15 SpecialOld Tin Marx Bomber Airplane *vintage Military Pressed Steel Toy PlaneVintage Carl Goldberg Shoestring Stunt U/c Model Airplane Gas Powered Kit 42"nib2 Vintage Tin-litho Wind-up Toys Marx Rollover Plane & West Germany Rocket SwingJohnson Model Airplane Engines And Parts Lot Of 7 !!** Bridi ** Killer Chaos 60 Radio Control Flying Model Airplane Kit ** Vintage Rc Ben Buckle Fokker D.viii Wood Model Airplane KitWing Mfg North American B-25 Pro Series Radio Control Model Airplane Kit, Mint**** Pica 1/5 Scale Waco-ymf.3 Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** Rare & New ****1960's Japan United Air Lines Dc-7 Mainliner Toy AirplaneVintage Davey Systems Great Lakes Special 53" R/c Balsa Model Bipe Airplane KitVintage Tin Usaf Boeing B-50 Bomber Plane Made By Yonezawa1950 Mew Model 105 Pulse Jet Engine 17 Inch M.e.w. Airplane Control Line Free FlVintage Sterling Ringmaster 42" C/l Balsa Model Airplane Kit** Sterling F-51 Mustang Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** 66 Inch Wingspan **** Midwest All Foam Chipmunk R/c Model Airplane Kit ** 46 Inch WingspanMidwest Cap 232 Imaa Legal Giant Scale 27% Radio Control Model Airplane Kit**Vintage Top Flite Schoolgirl 32" R/c Balsa Model Bipe Airplane Kit** E-z ** Dallas Doll P-51 Mustang Arf Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** New!Vintage Sure Flite Howard's Dga-3 Pete Racer 36" R/c Arf Foam Model Airplane KitRare! Vintage 1960Vintage Svenson Westerly 58" R/c Balsa Model Airplane Kit** Jemco Master Scale P-51 Mustang Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** AwesomeMidwest At-6 Imaa Legal Giant Scale Radio Control Model Airplane Kit***Vintage Veco / Dumas The Chief Model Airplane Kit Classic Control Line StuntVintage Goldberg Shoestring Stunter 42" C/l Balsa Model Airplane Kit** E-z ** Suprastar 25 Arf Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** New!Vintage Rc Hobby Lobby Super Cub Model Airplane KitTrench Art Brass Model Ww1 English Fighter Biplane Aeroplane Plane Aircraft** Great Planes ** Spitfire Arf Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ** New!Pfefer Diesel Model Airplane Engines Lot Of 3 ! Rare Modelectric Ignition Model Airplane Tether Car Engine Coil+condenser+leads*Monogram Speedee Bilt Spad Model Airplane KitHouse Of Balsa Fw 190 A-3 R/c 1/2 A, Sport Scale Model Airplane Kit Nib 1972 Ross Inline Twin .60 R/c Model Airplane Gas Powered Tether Car EngineMidwest Super Stinker Imaa Legal 27% Scale Radio Control Model Airplane Kit ,newVintage- -dumas/veco- Smoothie- Control Line Stunt- Balsa Model Airplane Kit- Model Airplane Engines,original,pre War,brown Jnr.** Cox ** Hyper Viper ** .049 Powered Control Line Model Airplane * New In BoxVintage Sterling Super Ringmaster 42" C/l Balsa Model Airplane Kit