By Jay Bennett and Jennifer Leman
The marvel of flight never ceases to amaze, and the spectacle is that much more unbelievable when the aircraft are longer than Olympic swimming pools, heavier than the world’s biggest tanks, and taller than five-story buildings. From Antonov’s hulking An-225 Mriya to the inconceivably wide Stratolaunch, we’ve compiled a list (in no particular order) of the biggest planes in the world flying today.
1 Antonov An-225 Mriya
By most metrics, the Antonov An-225 is the biggest plane in the world. The Antonov Design Bureau in Ukrainian SSR built just one of these monster cargo aircraft. Antonov designed it to carry the Buran spaceplane (the Soviet version of the space shuttle) as well as Energia rocket boosters, but the plane quickly found other airlifting work after being refurbished following the collapse of the Soviet space program.
The An-225 is the heaviest aircraft ever built, with a maximum takeoff weight of 710 tons. It holds the record for total airlifted payload at 559,580 pounds, as well as airlifted single-item payload at 418,830 pounds. It has the longest wingspan of any plane currently flying at 290 feet, and it has six freakin’ engines.
In 2020, the hulking aircraft joined the global fight against COVID-19, when it took to the skies to deliver supplies to countries around the world whose resources were stretched by the pandemic.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine may mark the end of an era, however. Unconfirmed reports suggest the aircraft, which was parked at Hostomel Airport and undergoing maintenance, may have been damaged during the incursion.
2 Aero Spaceline’s Super Guppy
A guppy might be prey, but the Super Guppy is a predator. The bloated aircraft has been retired by every institution in the world except for one: NASA. The U.S. space agency finds the Guppy’s wide dimensions perfect for transporting spacecraft and rocket components.
The first Super Guppy was constructed from a ballooned fuselage taken from a Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, which first flew in 1965. The turboprop cargo plane was largely replaced by the Airbus Beluga for large and awkwardly shaped cargo delivery, but as long as NASA still has a use for the Super Guppy, it will continue to baffle people in the sky—and NASA loves the Super Guppy.
3 Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
With a payload capacity of almost 135 tons, the C-5 Galaxy is the largest aircraft routinely operated by the U.S. military. The Air Force announced it was reactivating the monster airlifter in May 2017.
The C-5 has enough cargo space to carry two M1 Abrams tanks, 16 Humvees, three Black Hawks, or a variety of other vehicles. Without cargo, the C-5 can fly up to 7,000 miles without refueling, making it the longest-range military airlifter in the world. When the Air Force needs a lot of tonnage moved quickly, it turns to the C-5.
4 Boeing 747 Dreamlifter
In the 2000s, Boeing found it needed a cargo plane with an enormous amount of storage to transport components for the 787 Dreamliner, which has parts made all over the world. The solution was to take its biggest plane, the 747, and build a custom cargo hold around it.
At 65,000 cubic feet, the Dreamlifter has the largest cargo hold in the world, capable of carrying three times the volume of a 747-400F freighter. The four Dreamlifters Boeing made also use the longest cargo loader in the world, and can haul payloads up to 125 tons.
5 Antonov An-124 Ruslan
Here’s another monster designed and built by the Antonov Design Bureau. The An-124 Ruslan, operated by the Russian Air Force, is the largest military aircraft in the world. For almost 30 years after its introduction in 1984, the An-124 (NATO reporting name: Condor) was the largest and heaviest cargo aircraft in the world, besides the single An-225. The 747-8F overtook the An-124 in 2011.
With a reported payload capacity of 165 tons, the An-124 can haul even more than the C-5 Galaxy, though its range isn’t as long. A surviving engineering triumph of the Soviets, the An-124 continues to fly airlifting missions for Russia.
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6 Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
The B-52 entered service in 1955, and the first B-52H, the current model, debuted in 1961. The B-52 bomber is the grandfather of the air force: aging, but still capable of delivering a serious punch.
The BUFF (Big Ugly Fat F***er) can carry 70,000 pounds of weapons, from precision-guided conventional bombs to nuclear warheads. While the B-2 stealth bomber and B-1 supersonic bomber could be retired when the B-21 is introduced, the Air Force wants to outfit the reliable B-52 with new engines to improve efficiency and range.
While the giant bomber enters its sixth decade of service, the technology within its hold is ever-evolving, as the Air Force is also planning to equip the B-52 with the Long-Range Stand-Off missile, a stealthy nuclear cruise missile.
7 Ilyushin Il-76
This Soviet-era long-range transport aircraft is a certified workhorse. It has a 164-foot wingspan, can transport up to 140 troops, and has a max payload of up to 50 tons.
Designed to operate in extreme conditions, the Ilyushin Il-76 prototype made its debut in 1971 and went into production three years later. (It can take off and land on short, unpaved runways and can fly through difficult weather with ease.) More than 800 of them were built, according to Military-today.com, and it is still widely used by multiple countries today.
8 Airbus BelugaXL
Step aside, Beluga. There’s an even bigger whale in town.
Developed in 2014, the BelugaXL flew its first operational flight in 2020 after more than 200 test flights. It has officially joined Airbus’s already behemoth fleet to move certified Big Things around the world.
The plane is massive. It’s 206 feet long and has the largest cross section of any cargo plane in the world. A pair of Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofan engines help keep the hulking plane airborne.
It’s got a leg—er, wing—up on the previous A300-600 Super Transporter. The BelugaXL can haul not one, but two of the massive A350 XWB’s wings. (The first generation Beluga can only carry one.)
9 Boeing 747
The Dreamlifter is already on the list, but it only represents a small part of the accomplishments of the Queen of the Skies. Boeing has built over 1,500 Boeing 747s, and the planes have served as the largest passenger and cargo aircraft in the world, a military command center in the sky, Air Force One, and a space shuttle lifter and infrared telescope flier for NASA. Plus, Iron Maiden even has one called Ed Force One.
The aircraft is being phased out of airlines in favor of single-aisle designs that can now fly with enough range to cross the oceans. But as the only U.S. mass-manufactured four-engine jumbo jet, the Boeing 747 has some years in it yet.
10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
The C-5 Galaxy may be the U.S.’s biggest military plane, but the C-17 Globemaster is the primary workhorse. The aircraft took its first flight in 1991, and 279 Globemasters have been built since.
The C-17 airlifter can haul about 85.5 tons into the sky, flying missions around the world to transport troops and cargo, perform airlifts and medical evacuations, and fly airdrop routes.
11 Airbus A380
The Airbus A380 is the European 747, and the A380-800 is the largest passenger aircraft ever made, with room for 850 passengers. It flies some of the longest routes around the planet, but like the 747, it may be starting to get replaced with smaller planes with similar range.
The Airbus A380 is truly the world’s flying bus, flying more people at a time than any other plane in history.
12 McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender
The McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender is the largest fuel capacity tanker aircraft in the world. With a 164-foot wingspan, the aircraft can haul a massive amount of fuel—we’re talking 52,250 gallons.
The Air Force is in the process of acquiring a new tanker, the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus, which will be more efficient and have more advanced avionics than the KC-10, but the trijet Extender will still have the Pegasus beat on fuel capacity by about 70 tons.
The KC-10 stores jet fuel in three main wing tanks, as well as large fuel tanks under the cargo floor. It can alternately be flown with a crew of 75 and 73 tons of cargo, or 85 tons of cargo in an all-cargo configuration.
Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch certainly is a monster plane. The composite six-engine, twin-fuselage aircraft has the longest wingspan in the world: 385 feet from tip to tip. If you placed Stratolaunch on a football field, the wings would extend through the goalposts an extra 12.5 feet on both sides.
The aircraft is designed to carry rockets up into the stratosphere and drop them, where they would then launch to space. The alternative to conventional rocket launches could conserve some of the fuel needed to overcome all of Earth’s gravity from sea level into orbit, and launch small rockets at a rapid pace. (Stratolaunch could carry as many as three small launch vehicles at a time.) Virgin Orbit is working on a similar plan to launch rockets using a 747-400.
In 2018, Stratolaunch conducted low-speed and high-speed runway tests—the first time it moved under the power of its six Pratt & Whitney turbofans. A year later, it took to the skies for its first test flight. The 2.5-hour flight was a sight to be seen.
14 Tupolev Tu-160 (Blackjack)
The Tupolev Tu-160 is the largest, heaviest supersonic and combat aircraft ever constructed. The aircraft also holds the title for the largest variable-geometry “swing wing” aircraft. The Tu-160 (NATO code: Blackjack) has a 183-foot wingspan and a max takeoff weight of 606,271 pounds.
Only 36 of the planes were ever built. The Soviet-designed Tu-160 first took to the skies in 1981 and went on to set 44 world records. It was the last bomber ever designed for the Soviet Union.
But the Tu-160—nicknamed the “White Swan”—is making a comeback. In 2015, Russia revived the monster plane and ordered it to production again. The newly revamped Tu-160R made its inaugural flight in January 2018.
15 Boeing 777-9
Boeing’s 777-9 is the world’s largest and longest twin-engine commercial aircraft. Once it goes into service, the 251-foot-long aircraft will ferry up to 425 passengers on long-haul flights—spanning up to 7,285 nautical miles—around the world. Each of the Boeing 777-9’s wings (complete with retractable wingtips) are the “largest single composite structure in the world,” according to a report from CNN. The jet’s twin General Electric GE9X engines, which generate roughly 105,000 pounds of thrust and are as wide as the fuselage of the company’s 737 jet, are the most powerful engines to be attached to a commercial aircraft yet.
After several delays due to poor weather, the aircraft’s inaugural test flight took place on January 27, 2020. But Boeing’s gargantuan jet, which officially launched in 2013, is now facing a number of hurdles.
Recent documents viewed by the Seattle Times revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has halted the certification process of Boeing’s behemoth jet due to a number of issues, including an “uncommanded pitch event” that took place during one of the plane’s test flights. FAA certification of the behemoth airliner could be at least two years away, meaning it may not go into service until 2024, according to the Times report.
About Autors: Jay Bennett Associate Editor Jay Bennett is the associate editor of PopularMechanics.com., Jennifer Leman Jennifer Leman is a science journalist and news editor at Popular Mechanics, where she writes and edits stories about science and space.