Collection Inspiration: Vintage Airplanes

Posted on 12/21/2021

Airplanes quickly found their way onto banknotes and they continue to be featured on them today.

Paper money collectors often focus on a particular nation or even a particular series. This column is designed to offer ideas for building a collection of notes from around the world based on a common element. This month, we look at vintage planes and early pilots as we celebrate nearly 120 years since the first airplane flight.

From the myth of Icarus to the first ornithopter sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, humans have been fascinated by the wonders of flight. The era of manned, powered flight began in North Carolina in December 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew their Wright Flyer. As innovators rapidly created different models to improve speed, weight and endurance, a new profession was born: the air pilot. Captivated by the new mode of transportation, nations would pay tribute to these aircraft and honor pilots who flew them on their banknotes.


From the Land Down Under, two aviation pioneers are featured on the ND (1991) 20 Dollar note: Sir Charles Kingsford Smith “Smithy” (1897-1935) on the front with Lawrence Hargrave (1850-1915) on the back. In 1928, two flight records were broken by Smith: the flight from the US to Australia known as the transpacific flight, as well as the Trans-Tasman flight to New Zealand. Meanwhile, Hargrave used his inheritance to devote himself full-time to researching aviation. He invented the box kite, which improved the lift-to-drag ratio in gliders, and worked on the rotary engine, used by early planes up to the 1920s.

Australia, Reserve Bank ND (1991) 20 Dollars graded PMG 65 Gem Uncirculated EPQ
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Aurel Vlaicu (1882-1913) was a pilot, airplane constructor, engineer and inventor. He created three versions of the A Vlaicu Nr. airplane. This aircraft had a wingspan of 32 feet and could reach a maximum speed of 68 mph, a wonder in its day. While attempting to be the first to fly over the Carpathian Mountains in Europe, he tragically perished in a crash at the age of 30. Vlaicu’s aircraft, the A. Vlaicu Nr. II, is featured on the back of the Romania 2019 50 Lei note.

Romania, Banca Nationala 2019 50 Lei graded PMG 69 Superb Gem Unc EPQ
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United States

On the back of the 1918 $20 Federal Reserve Bank Note is a vignette entitled “Land, Sea and Air.” The image displays the major methods of transportation used by the US, including a small aircraft in the sky just to the right of the train. The plane in the background resembles a Benoist XIV, a biplane flying boat, according to an article archived at E-Sylum.

1918 $20 Federal Reserve Bank Note (Atlanta) graded PMG 55 About Uncirculated
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The first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean was Carlos Gago Coutinho, a geographer, cartographer, naval officer and aviator. In 1922, Coutinho and fellow aviator Sacadura Cabral successfully flew a Fairey IIIB seaplane named Lusitânia from Lisbon, Portugal, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Featured on the Portugal 1978 20 Escudos, Coutinho’s portrait is on the front, while a scene of his record-breaking feat is displayed on the back.

Portugal, Banco de Portugal 1978 20 Escudos graded PMG 67 Superb Gem Unc EPQ
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On the back of the Poland 1936 50 Zlotych is a boy admiringly holding an airplane that resembles Poland’s successful aviation export during the 1930s: the PZL P.11. The plane on the note is also reminiscent of the famous Spirit of Saint Louis, which American pilot Charles Lindbergh flew during the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927.

Poland, Bank Polski 1936 50 Zlotych graded PMG 35 About Uncirculated EPQ
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Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, known for long-distance and endurance, attempted to fly from the US to Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1933. After successfully flying over 4,000 miles, their plane, a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker called Lituanica, crashed due to undetermined circumstances, only 404 miles from their destination. Both pilots died.

Lithuania, Bank of Lithuania 1993 10 Litu graded PMG 67 Superb Gem Unc EPQ
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The nation of France dedicated the 1997-99 50 Francs to honor the best-selling novella The Little Prince and its author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A writer, aristocrat and aviator, Saint-Exupéry would incorporate his aviation experiences in his story, including when he crashed in the Libyan desert. During World War II, Saint-Exupéry disappeared during a mission in 1944.

France, Banque de France 1997-99 50 Francs graded PMG 67 Superb Gem Unc EPQ
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The idea of airships was around as early as the 17th century. In the early 20th century, there was some question whether the primary mode of air transportation would be the airplane or the airship. Advances in airplane speeds coupled with the Hindenburg tragedy in 1937 sealed the fate of the airship. An example of an airship is shown on the front of a China, Bank of Communications 1941 25 Yuan.

China, Bank of Communications 1941 25 Yuan graded PMG 64 Choice Uncirculated EPQ
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Military aviator José Abelardo Quiñones Gonzáles flew during the Ecuadorian-Peruvian War in 1941. Gonzáles’ plane, NA-50 "TORITO" (shown on the front of the note), was struck in the air during combat. According to Peruvian accounts, instead of parachuting to safety, Gonzáles guided his damaged plane into the Ecuadorean forces. He was honored as a national hero in 1966. Gonzáles’ portrait and plane are featured on the Peru 1992 10 Nuevos Soles.

Peru, Banco Central de Reserva 1992 10 Nuevos Soles graded PMG 67 Superb Gem Unc EPQ
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Netherlands Indies

The Dutch colony in Southeast Asia could not escape World War II, as Japanese forces eventually occupied most of what today is Indonesia. The Netherlands Indies air power during the war included the Curtiss P-36 Hawk (also known as Curtiss Hawk Model 75), which resembles the plane used on the Netherlands Indies 1943 5 Gulden note.

Netherlands Indies, Muntbiljet 1943, 5 Gulden graded PMG 66 Gem Uncirculated EPQ
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Be sure to check out other Collection Inspiration articles such as Castles and Large-Denomination Notes for other collecting ideas.


The E-Sylum. (2017, April 30). 1914 $20 Note Vehicle Vignettes Identified.

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