What: The Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird," a long-range strategic recon plane in service from 1964 to 1998:
Why: The pride of Lockheed Skunk Works, the sleek Blackbird was the bee's knees in 1976, when it set an altitude record of over 85,000 feet and a cruising record of nearly 2,200 mph. Pretty good for 1976, I'd say. And oh yeah, also pretty good for today, since those records have never been broken. Think about that: In what other arena was the standard set in the early 1960s and never surpassed? The standard response of a Blackbird targeted by a surface-to-air missile was to accelerate, since not even Soviet rockets could keep up with it. (At the height of the Cold War, its titanium was bought from the USSR. What did we tell the Soviets? "Don't worry, we're just making tennis rackets"?) Despite inefficient fuel usage, the Blackbird remained in service for three and a half decades. But none of that is the coolest thing about this marvel. My cousin Jerry, who's a commercial pilot, lauds the navigation system. Before GPS was even a mote in a satellite's eye, the SR-71 navigated by the stars. It just looked up and figured out where it was, at a thousand miles an hour. I can't even do that standing still.
Impact: In addition to its obvious military and technical superiority, the gorgeous Blackbird has affected design of subsequent aircraft and other vehicles; for example, the super-fast Koenigsegg CCX looks like it learned a few things from the SR-71. And in 1975, Marvel gave its relaunched X-Men team a Blackbird of its very own, modified with VTOL and room for a dozen mutants. (The real thing couldn't hold a dozen Cabbage Patch Dolls.)
Personal Connection: This is me in the cockpit of an SR-71 Blackbird. My aforementioned cousin Jerry came into Seattle today, and we went to the Museum of Flight, where he took this picture. We also got to walk inside a surprisingly small Concorde and—get this—Air Force One. A very fine day.
Other Contenders: The aforementioned Concorde, which buried a tiny little fragment of me when one went down near Paris in 2000; the Junkers Ju 87 'Stuka' dive bomber, whose terrifying London Blitz made me enthusiastically approve its use as the German fighter in Axis & Allies Revised, much to purists' chagrin; the lithe V/STOL-equipped Hawker Siddeley Harrier jump jet; the Boeing 747 Classic, still the best way to get to where you're going, especially if you're a space shuttle.