The coolest aircraft you can own as a civilian
Believe it or not, these aircraft are all ones you can privately own!
The world of civilian aviation can be a bit of a dreary, homogenous one. The coolest aircraft tend to be reserved either for the military, commercial use or for the super-rich to be ferried around in between vacations, board meetings and second homes. That's not to say that, with enough money, you can't get some truly awesome stuff on the market that you can privately own. In fact, there's actually quite a few really cool options out there! I've gone and done a bit of research and found a wide variety of cool aircraft that you as a civilian can go out and buy (finances permitting, obviously!), ranging from Cold War-era jets to military trainer aircraft, frontline helicopters and rugged transporters.
The Tucano is, in my humble opinion, one of the coolest little planes that you can get anywhere. It's a low-wing turboprop-powered basic training aircraft that's been in service with various different air forces all over the world since the 1980s. Being a trainer aircraft it's supposed to be easy to fly with the capability for pulling some high-G manoeuvres and since it's a turboprop aircraft and one that's still in service today it should be very easy to keep the maintenance up and be fairly cheap to run.
As you might imagine with an aircraft that's fairly easy to fly and keep going as well as having good air display potential, quite a few of them have ended up in private hands over the years. A surprising amount of the Shorts-built Tucanos now reside in the US as part of warbird collections or as leisure aircraft, likely because of how readily they're available and great people have realised they are. One famous Tucano owner was the celebrated composer James Horner, who was a very keen pilot in his spare time!
A secondhand Tucano will likely set you back around a million dollars, which makes it a pretty expensive proposition for something that's a turboprop plane. The Tucano isn't just any normal prop plane though. That million dollars will get you something with fighter jet handling without the fighter jet fuel and maintenance costs and honestly, I can't think of many better things you can buy for a million dollars. Except for maybe a Bugatti Chiron, but a Bugatti Chiron can't fly or do a loop.
Bell UH-1 Iroquois ("Huey")/Bell 204 & 205
Where do we start with the Huey? It's been a rugged, safe and reliable helicopter useable for all sorts of military and civilian roles for decades now. Being able to be used for everything from moving troops to and from the battlefield to being fully outfitted as an aerial gunship with guns and rockets galore, there's a good reason why so many of the world's armed forces use the Huey as an essential piece of their arsenals. The 204 and 205 civilian versions aren't half bad either, being able to be used for basically anything you might need a civilian helicopter to be able to do (including the potential to be an air ambulance!).
If you're more of a helicopter person than a plane person and you have a good amount of money to spend on an infinitely capable helicopter, you can't get much better than a secondhand Huey. Just make sure it doesn't have any weapons attached...
Curtiss C-46 Commando
The Curtiss C-46 Commando was originally created as a military transport plane that was used during the 1940s, but in the post-war era it gained a second life as a civilian transporter. In many ways it's the C-47/DC-3's less famous cousin and just like the DC-3 it's still in use today as a civilian aircraft in remote regions up in the arctic. It was one of the first military aircraft to have a pressurised cabin, something that was a real luxury feature back in the mid-1940s!
If you want to get a C-46 these days, you're likely to have to pay out $250,000 at least and as there aren't many around that are still flying sourcing parts could be a bit of a struggle. What you will have though from owning a C-46 is a rugged, dependable transporter with a pressurised cabin that'll be able to get you pretty much anywhere in the world from the deserts to the arctic. If you want a classic 'warbird'-era transporter for working out in the most remote and hostile places but feel like a DC-3 is too much of an obvious choice, the C-46 will definitely be right up your alley!
Lockheed C-130/L-100 Hercules
Privately owning a Hercules? That can't be possible, I hear you ask. Well, not only is it absolutely 100% possible, but Lockheed has actually made a civilian version of the aircraft! The civilian model of the Hercules is called the L-100 and, whilst it's obscenely expensive to buy even secondhand, it's one of the coolest and most capable freighters money can buy.
Both military and civilian version of the Hercules can do things that a huge plane shouldn't be able to do such as take off from short runways and grass strips and perform almost combat-level manoeuvres in the air. As you'll see from the video I've linked above, they can even do a loop perfectly safely! These characteristics, combined with its incredible ability to haul all sorts of heavy cargo, have made the Hercules a favourite of air forces and civilian cargo operators the world over.
If you want to get an entry into the world of jets (let's face it; who wouldn't want to own a jet if they could?), there probably aren't many better options you could go for than the Folland Gnat. The venerable Gnat is a trainer aircraft just like the Tucano, although it was also designed to be a competent fighter aircraft. The Gnat was beloved by the Royal Air Force, fitting into the same niche that the Hawk fits into now, and was also well-liked by the Finnish air force. It was even the aircraft of choice for the Red Arrows before the Hawk came along! Being purposefully designed to be small, nimble and very easy to maintain you won't be surprised to know that a lot of Gnats are still around, being kept alive by museums and private owners and even showing up at the odd air display.
The Gnat was specifically designed to be as hardy and as easy to maintain as a jet fighter and jet trainer could possibly be. Intensive production methods were minimised as much as possible during the production process to make the jet as cheap and simple as it could possibly be and the combination of sturdy landing gear and low weight meant it could operate from grass airstrips if it had to. This no doubt would have helped when the Red Arrows attempted Operation Longbow, a very ambitious journey that took the world-famous display team across the Atlantic from the UK to the US through the arctic circle and Canada.
Whilst the Gnat (much like its spiritual successor the Hawk) is a subsonic jet, Finnish pilots were apparently able to get it to break the sound barrier under the correct conditions. This pretty fantastic feat was first managed by Finnish Air Force Major and WWII fighter ace Lauri Pekuri and it granted the Gnat have the distinction of being the first aircraft used by the Finnish air force to be capable of supersonic speeds! Pretty impressive for a plane that was only supposed to be cheap, rugged and easy to maintain...
A used Folland Gnat can be had for around $250,000 which, quite honestly, makes it somewhat of a bargain considering it's a high-performance jet trainer! The majority of Gnats that are still around are the two-seat trainer variants, although occasionally single-seat fighters will show up. Whilst it definitely won't be as cheap to run as the similarly compact Tucano, it will at least be fairly simple to maintain and with a lot of them still flying parts might be much easier to come by than with other jet-powered warbirds.
Harrier jump jet
It might sound a bit mad, but there are actually privately owned Harriers around these days and if you've got the money and resources there is absolutely nothing that can stop you from getting your hands on one! There isn't much that hasn't been said about how groundbreaking the Harrier was. Coming out of a Cold War necessity to have fighter aircraft that could operate away from airfields, the vertical take-off and landing capabilities of the Harrier were unlike anything else in military service at the time except for the VTOL fighter jets Yakovlev were developing on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
If you want to own your own Harrier, you might be looking around for a while as they rarely ever come up for sale. Furthermore, it's very difficult to fly as an aircraft so you've either got to have been somebody who was a Harrier pilot back in the day or be willing to get yourself sunk into a serious amount of training to make sure you can pilot it reliably. There's no other aircraft in the entire world though that has as much show-stopping power as a Harrier does and having one in your private possession would make you the talk of the aviation world everywhere!
Lockheed F-104 "Starfighter"
The F-104 Starfighter is a bit of a mixed bag as an aircraft. Whilst its an iconic Cold War jet fighter that's capable of supersonic speeds (it'll max out at Mach 2.2!) and has a glorious howl, during its time in active service it was marred by constant reliability and safety problems. This was especially prevalent when it was in service with the Luftwaffe where 292 out of the 916 aircraft the Luftwaffe ordered were lost in accidents, killing 116 pilots in the process. This diabolical safety record meant that the German public called it "the Widowmaker". Despite this poor reputation, the Starfighter managed to hang on in active service until 2004, its final operator being the Italian Air Force.
There are currently at least 10 F-104 Starfighters in private hands according to the FAA, several of them being owned by the Clearwater, Florida based company Starfighters Inc. who use them for aerial displays as well as government and private contract work. The Starfighters owned by Starfighters Inc. have been used in roles as diverse as being high-performance chase planes on flight tests to taking part in military defence excercises as 'enemy' aircraft. Starfighters Inc. also runs a training course for anyone with a pilot's licence who wants to have a go in one.
If you want an F-104 Starfighter, you're gonna have to have at least a quarter to half a million dollars to spare and you may need to take on a project that needs restoring. If restored to its former glory though, an F-104 Starfighter could be one of the coolest aircraft you could privately own and fly! You might want to make sure that you budget in a trip to Florida though to make sure you're fully trained up to fly your new jet.
Sukhoi SU-27 "Flanker"
Believe it or not, it's possible to privately own one of these! The SU-27 is a Russian fighter jet from the 1980s that's still in use with multiple air forces around the world today. It's still an immensely capable aircraft; it's incredibly agile at low speeds thanks to having a low wing loading and powerful basic flight controls and it was the first Soviet-built aircraft to feature a fully operational fly-by-wire control system. It was also the plane in which Russian test pilot Viktor Pugachev first performed the famous 'cobra' manoeuvre which is often named after him. Quite a few SU-27s have come out of military service or been sold secondhand to the air forces of other nations over the years and with this kind of thing going on it's not surprising that occasionally they'll come up for sale on the open market.
As far as I can tell there are only 2 SU-27s in the world that have been under private ownership and one of them was up for sale in the US 10 years ago for $5 million. That's a hell of a lot of money, but it'll buy you one of the coolest aircraft a civilian could possibly own. Keeping the thing running might not even be the hardest thing in the world either, considering it's an aircraft that's still in regular use. Expect to pay top dollar for parts though!