These flying machines are the most remarkable in US history

Since 1911, the Collier Trophy has recognized a significant aerospace achievement, from early seaplanes to the supersonic X-1. This year it went to a NASA mission.

Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
1 of 22 NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dawn spacecraft

The Collier Trophy is one of the most prestigious prizes in the aviation world. Awarded annually since 1911 by the National Aeronautic Association, it focuses on achievement in "aeronautics or astronautics in America" by planes, pilots, designers, manufacturers and the armed services.

This week, the NAA announced the winner of the 2015 Collier Trophy: the NASA/JPL Dawn program team, for pioneering new frontiers in space travel and specifically its "extraordinary achievements of orbiting and exploring protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres." The artist's rendering here shows the Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres.

2 of 22 Blue Origin

Blue Origin

It didn't win, but among the nominees for the 2015 prize was Blue Origin, the private space company backed by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. In November, the company made history when its rocket flew to the edge of space, then safely returned to Earth and landed in one piece, signaling that we may not be far from an era of space travel marked by reusable rockets.

3 of 22 Sarah Tew/CNET

Icon A5

Another nominee for the 2015 award was the Icon A5, a distinctive light sport plane intended for the masses, in that it doesn't require a full pilot's license or extensive training. On the other hand, it does require someone who can pay $189,000. Last September, CNET's Roger Cheng got a chance to fly in one, even taking a moment or two at the controls: "It was exhilarating, crazy, a little scary and, above all, a lot of fun."

4 of 22 National Archives

Glenn Curtiss

The first winner of the Collier Trophy, two years running, was early aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, first in 1911 for development of the "hydro-aeroplane" and then in 1912 for the flying boat. Pictured here is the Curtiss A-1, the US Navy's first seaplane, at an airfield in Hammondsport, New York, in June 1911. Glenn Curtiss is sixth from left, in the white shirt with the necktie.

5 of 22 Corbis

Air mail

The US Air Mail Service won the Collier Trophy twice in the second decade of the award. The first occasion was in 1922 to mark a full year's operation without a fatal accident. The other came the next year to recognize the agency for night flying in the service of commercial transportation. In this photo from May 1918, a biplane in Philadelphia picks up mail bags bound for New York

6 of 22 NASA

The cowling

The 1929 Collier Trophy went to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, for its development of a cowling, or engine cover, for radial air-cooled engines. This photo shows a Curtiss Hawk aircraft with the NACA cowling in 1928.

7 of 22 NASA

Pitcairn autogiro

This unusual-looking aircraft is the Pitcairn Autogiro, an experimental hybrid of a fixed-wing aircraft with the overhead rotor of a helicopter. The 1930 Collier Trophy went to those who developed it: Harold Pitcairn and his associates.

8 of 22 Bettmann/Corbis

Lockheed Super Electra

The billionaire businessman and eventual recluse Howard Hughes was a daring aviator in his early days. Among his accomplishments, in 1938 he piloted a Lockheed Super Electra in a round-the-world flight that the Collier Trophy committee called "epoch making." The circumnavigation, which lasted three days, 19 hours and 14 minutes, took a Northern Hemisphere route that included this refueling stop in Fairbanks, Alaska.

9 of 22 NASA

X-1 breaks the sound barrier

On October 14, 1947, US Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager, piloting the rocket-powered X-1, became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. The Collier Trophy for that year honored not only Yeager, but also Lawrence Bell, the president of X-1 builder Bell Aircraft, and John Stack, a NACA scientist, for his "pioneering research" into the physical laws affecting supersonic flight and for his conception of transonic research aircraft.

The image here shows the X-1 aircraft in flight, along with a snippet of the paper tape that tracked the flight data, showing the jump to Mach 1.

10 of 22 US Coast Guard

Helicopter rescue

At the start of the 1950s, helicopters had been around for less than a decade, but from their earliest days they proved useful for performing search and rescue missions. In 1950, the Collier Trophy went to a broad grouping of the helicopter industry, the military services and the Coast Guard for the development and uses of rotary-wing aircraft -- aka helicopters -- for air rescue operations. Pictured here in this undated photo is a Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw, a helicopter that was entering service just as the decade was getting under way.

11 of 22 US Air Force photo

B-52 scramble

Calling the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress a "powerful weapon of peace," the National Aeronautic Association bestowed the 1955 Collier Trophy on Gen. Nathan Twining and the US Air Force for making the aircraft operational, along with William Allen and associates at Boeing for conceiving and building "America''s first all-jet, long-range bomber."

This photo from the 1960s shows members of a Strategic Air Command B-52 combat crew racing for their aircraft. According to the Air Force, 50 percent of the SAC bomber and tanker force was on continuous ground alert and ready to take to the air immediately if early-warning systems were to detect ballistic missiles launched from the Soviet Union.

12 of 22 NASA/North American Aviation

Test pilot Scott Crossfield

The 1961 Collier Trophy went to test pilots of the X-15 aircraft for their "great skill and courage" and their technological contributions to the advancement of flight. The pilots named in the award were US Air Force Maj. Robert White, NASA's Joseph Walker, Scott Crossfield of North American Aviation and US Navy Cmdr. Forrest Petersen. Pictured here is Crossfield as he gets ready for an early X-15 test flight.

13 of 22 NASA

Mercury Seven

The 1960s brought the first wave of manned space exploration, and the Collier Trophy adapted to the times. In 1962, the award went to the Mercury Seven astronauts, seen here in flight suits (not spacesuits) in front of a US Air Force F-106B. From left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.

14 of 22 NASA

Apollo 11 crew

In 1968 and 1969, astronauts again won the Collier Trophy. First it was the Apollo 8 crew for the first-ever manned orbit of the moon. Next up came the Apollo 11 threesome for their "epic flight," which culminated in the historic July 20, 1969, moon landing. In this picture, US President Richard Nixon congratulates the Apollo 11 crew -- from left, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin -- in their quarantine facility aboard the USS Hornet just after their return.

15 of 22 NASA


The 1973 Collier Trophy went to NASA's Skylab program and the Skylab astronaut crews for producing "data of benefit to all the people of the Earth" and for "proving beyond question" the value of humans in future space exploration

16 of 22 Jim Sugar/Corbis

Gossamer Albatross

Forget jet planes and rocket-powered spaceships. The Gossamer Albatross harked back to the earliest days of flight with little more than a wing, a propeller and a prayer for favorable winds. It won the 1979 Collier Trophy for inventor Paul MacCready for the aircraft's completion of the first human-powered flight across the English Channel. (The citation lists "special recognition" for pilot Bryan Allen, who provided the pedal power.)

17 of 22 NASA

NASA Voyager

The 1980 Collier Trophy went to NASA's Voyager mission team for its "spectacular fly-by" of Saturn and the knowledge the spacecraft provided about the solar system.

18 of 22 Bettmann/Corbis

Voyager aircraft

In 1986, a completely different Voyager won the Collier Trophy; this one never left the atmosphere. Instead, this spindly experimental aircraft, built of lightweight composite material and filled with fuel, made a nonstop, nonrefueled flight around the world that lasted just a hair over nine days. The award went to pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, to designer Burt Rutan and to the entire Voyager team of volunteers.

19 of 22 US Air Force photo

F-117A Nighthawk

The F-117A Nighthawk brought the term "stealth aircraft" into our vocabulary. The US Air Force took delivery of 59 Nighthawks for operational use during the 1980s and retired the plane, which had a maximum cruise speed of about 684 mph, in 2008. The angular aircraft, hard for radar to pick up, won the Collier Trophy in 1989 for the Air Force and manufacturer Lockheed.

20 of 22 Armando Arorizo/ZUMA/Corbis

SpaceShip One

In October 2004, the rocket-powered SpaceShip One from Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private space travel when it repeated its feat of flying to the edge of space and safely returning to Earth. That achievement also earned it the Collier Trophy for that year, which went to the entire SpaceShip One team, including Mojave Aerospace founder Paul Allen (who also co-founded Microsoft), designer Burt Rutan and pilot Brian Binnie, seen here celebrating after his landing.

21 of 22 Tech Sgt DeNoris Mickle/US Air Force

V-22 Osprey

The 1990 Collier Trophy went to the Bell-Boeing team that developed the V-22 Osprey as the world's first large-scale tilt-rotor aircraft. The engines face up to let the Osprey hover like a helicopter, and can be rotated to point the propellers forward for flight like a fixed-wing aircraft. Here, US Army Special Forces soldiers exit an Osprey during a 2011 exercise at Fort Carson, Colorado.

22 of 22 US Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt

X-47B drone

This aircraft needed no pilot to win the Collier Trophy. In 2013, the US Navy's X-47B drone flew itself off an aircraft carrier, and in an even more daunting maneuver, landed back on the carrier's flight deck, a first for any unmanned aircraft. Here, the X-47B flies high against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

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