From the huge Zeppelin bombers of the First World War to the wooden planes of the 1940s all the way through to todays’ marvels of science and engineering, you can’t fail to be impressed by the biggest planes in the world.
Our list includes the biggest passenger plane in the world, massive military aircraft, bizarre-looking cargo planes, an aircraft with two fuselages and even one plane made almost entirely of wood.
By any criteria in which ‘biggest’ is judged – weight, length, capacity, volume or wingspan – these planes seem to defy the laws of physics and for the aircraft on our list, the sky really is the limit where size is concerned!
The Largest Planes in the World
On December 17th 1903, the age of modern aviation was born. At Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful flight in the history of heavier-than-air aircraft. The propeller-driven biplane was in the air for 12 seconds and covered 36.5 metres – less than the wingspan of a modern jumbo jet.
Since then we have witnessed some incredible milestones – the development of the jet engine, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the SR-71 Blackbird, the rise of Concorde, to name just a few – but one of the biggest challenges in all of aviation is to go big. Very, very big.
Here’s our list of the world’s biggest airplanes.
Hughes H-4 Hercules ‘The Spruce Goose’
Wingspan: 97.8m | Length: 66.6m | Empty Weight: 113.3 tons | Number Built: 1
The H-4 is one of the most famous aircraft ever built and even though it was constructed almost entirely of wood in the 1940s, it remains one of the largest planes in the world.
It was intended as a transatlantic transport plane for use during World War II but by the time the plane was finished, the war was over. Its one and only flight lasted 26 seconds and today it sits in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon, USA.
Antonov An-225 ‘Mriya’
Wingspan: 88.4m | Length: 84m | Capacity: 253.8 tons | Max. Speed: 530 mph
This spectacular Soviet-era 32-wheeled transporter is arguably the biggest airplane in the world. To date, it is the longest and heaviest aircraft to ever fly.
Originally designed to carry the Soviet version of the space shuttle, only one was ever built. Today, the Mriya, literally ‘dream’ or ‘inspiration’, is contracted out for serious heavy lifting jobs and is a firm favourite at airshows around the world.
Update: The Antonov An-225 has reportedly been destroyed.
Wingspan: 79.75m | Capacity: 853 passengers | Range: 9,200 miles | NumberBuilt: 251*
The biggest passenger plane in the world by weight, passenger capacity, wingspan and volume, the double-decker A380 was designed for a world of exponential air traffic growth and to ease congestion at the world’s major airports.
However Airbus has struggled to recoup its $25 billion investment and, in 2019, the manufacturer announced production would end in 2021.
*correct to 31 August 2021
Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy
Wingspan: 67.9m | Max. Take-Off Weight: 381 tons | Max. Speed: 532 mph | Range: 5,500 miles
The largest aircraft in the US Air Force inventory, the C-5M is one of the biggest planes in the world. Its primary mission is to transport cargo and personnel around the world for the United States’ armed forces.
Capable of airlifting six Apache gunship helicopters, 16 Humvees or two M1 main battle tanks, it has a vast, cavernous interior. While cargo is taken out through the hinged nose, it can be loaded through the hinged tail.
Airbus Beluga XL
Wingspan: 60.3m | Length: 63.1m | Max. Take-Off Weight: 227 tons | Cargo Hold: 2,209 m3
Technically the A330-743L, the Beluga XL is the biggest airplane in the Airbus arsenal and was designed specifically to transport oversized components like the wings of the A380, the biggest passenger plane in the world.
The XL entered service in January 2020 and it is, in common parlance, an absolute unit. It has the largest cross section of any cargo plane in the world and with a maximum payload of 51 tons (the same as seven elephants), it is designed to fly over four million miles a year at a cruising speed of Mach 0.69, or 530 mph.
Wingspan: 117m | Length: 73m | Max. Take-Off Weight: 590 tons | Max. Speed: 530 mph
The brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Stratolaunch – broadly based on the Boeing 747-400 – is a bizarre-looking 28-wheel, six-engine, twin-fuselage plane designed as a launch platform to put payloads into space orbit.
Codenamed ‘Roc’ after the mythical bird so big it was said it could carry an elephant, it has the largest wingspan of any plane in the history of aviation.
Staggering Feats of Design
The biggest planes in the world are staggering feats of design and engineering. While the planes listed above may take top spot, we must give a special mention to a number of other worthy contenders including:
- the Boeing 747-8;
- the Tupolev-TU-160, the largest and heaviest combat aircraft currently in service;
- the Boeing C-17 Globemaster cargo plane;
- the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender, the world’s largest fuel capacity tanker aircraft;
- and of course the legendary B-52.