Which is the largest airplane in the world as of 2021? A large airplane gets the advantage of economies of scale. For example having one large aircraft with the capacity of two smaller airplane is more economical to operate. Moreover, the number of crew need not be doubled. Also having more small airplanes, instead of big ones, requires more ground staff to maintain.
There are other operational problems too. These factors are especially vital and decisive in case of military airplanes. Bigger airplanes also enable more forces and arms to be deployed in a much shorter time. The aim is to take the ‘First mover advantage’. This is the reason that once the importance of air supremacy was realized, more research was done to develop large aircraft. Most of the largest, longest and heaviest airplanes have military origin.
Most of the biggest and largest airplanes were funded by military research. That is the reason most of them are for use by the military. Few of such airplanes were customized for civil and commercial use. Here is the list of top 14 largest airplanes in the world as of 2021.
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13. Ilyushin Il-76
The Il-76 was the first Soviet four-jet heavy transport. It was code-named Candid by NATO. It is a multi-purpose four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter designed by Ilyushin design bureau. It was originally planned as a freighter to replace the Antonov An-12. It started production 1974 and more than 800 were built. It formed the backbone of the Soviet Air Force along with An-12. It is still in service with many countries.
The Il-76 has a payload capacity of 50 tons. It was designed to deliver heavy vehicles and machinery. It can operate from short, unprepared and unpaved runways. It can fly and land in the worst weather conditions. It has been used as an emergency response transport for civilian evacuations and for humanitarian aid and disaster relief around the world.
12. Tupolev Tu-160
The Tupolev Tu-160 Beliy Lebed, or White Swan in Russian, is a supersonic heavy bomber exceeding the speed of Mach-2, which means it can fly at twice the speed of sound. It has variable-sweep wings. It was made by the Soviet to counter the American development of the swept-wing supersonic B-1 Lancer bomber. It was designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau. It was codenamed Blackjack by NATO forces.
It is the largest and heaviest combat aircraft still in use. It has a take-off weight of 300 tons. It entered service in 1987 and was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union, before it broke up into several nations. There are 16 aircrafts in operation and the fleet is being upgraded and modernized.
11. Y-20 Chinese transport aircraft
The Y-20 is a new Chinese transport aircraft developed by Xian Aircraft Corporation in collaboration with Russia and Ukraine. Its development commenced in the 1990’s and Y-20 made its first flight in 2013 and was inducted in Chinese Air Force in 2016. China became the fourth country after US, Russia and Ukraine, to develop a 200-ton military cargo jet.
The Y-20 has a payload capacity of around 60 tons. It can carry tanks and large combat vehicles. In terms of payload it comes between a larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (77 tons) and Russian Ilyushin Il-76 (50 tons). The Y-20 has sufficient range to reach most of the Europe, Africa, Australia and Alaska from China. It has four Russian D-30KP2 turbofan engines.
10. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is the largest workhorse that the USAF possesses. It was developed by McDonnell Douglas which later merged with Boeing in the 1990’s. It was designed to replace the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and also to provide an alternate to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. The development of this heavy transport aircraft began in the 1980’s. It first flew in 1991 and was inducted in service in 1995.
Around 250 of Globemaster were built, and are used by US Air Force and some other NATO countries including UK, Australia, Canada, UAE and India. It has a payload capacity of 76 tons and can Abrams tank, or three Stryker armored vehicles, or three Apache helicopters. It can operate from unprepared airstrips or unpaved, unimproved runways.
9. Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy was upgraded to its succeeding version Lockheed Martin. It is one of the largest military transport aircraft. It is designed and built by Lockheed Corporation. It is used by the United States Air Force (USAF) for heavy intercontinental-range strategic airlift. The Lockheed Martin’s C-5M Super Galaxy is the workhorse of USAF and is the largest aircraft in operation. The Galaxy has many similarities to the later Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. The C-5 Galaxy has been operated by the USAF since 1969. It was used in several conflicts like Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Gulf War. It has roll-on and roll-off capability which means cargo can be accessed at both ends of the aircraft.
With a payload capacity of 130 tons, it can carry two M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, or 7 armored vehicles. It has also been used in humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The C-5M Super Galaxy is an upgraded version. It has new engines and avionics to extend its service beyond 2040.
8. Boeing 747
The Boeing 747 is referred by its original nickname, Jumbo Jet. It has a distinctive “hump” upper deck along the forward part of the aircraft. It was the first wide-body jet manufactured by Boeing in the US. It was made to have 150 percent greater seating capacity than the Boeing 707.
The four-engine 747 has a double-deck configuration for part of its length. Boeing designed the 747’s hump-like upper deck to serve as a first class lounge or seating. The 747-400, the most common passenger version can accommodate 660 passengers in a high density economy class configuration.
7. Boeing 747 Dreamlifter
The Boeing 747 Dreamlifter is a wide-body cargo aircraft manufactured by Boeing. It was developed from Boeing 747-400 and first flown in 2007. It was known earlier as Boeing 747 LCF, or Large Cargo Freighter. It was made to be used exclusively for ferrying Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft components from around the world to Boeing’s plants.
6. Antonov An-22
The Antonov An-22 “Antei” was codenamed as Cock by NATO. It is a heavy military transport aircraft designed by the Antonov Design Bureau. It is powered by four turboprop engines each driving a pair of contra-rotating propellers. It remains the world’s largest turboprop-powered aircraft. In 1965, when it was first produced, it was the world’s largest aircraft. It has a payload capacity of 80 tons. This aircraft has been designed to operate from unprepared airfields and can take-off and land on soft ground. The Antonov An-22 is capable of outperforming the Boeing C-17 Globemaster. It has been used in major military and humanitarian airlifts for the Soviet Union.
5. Antonov An-124 Ruslan
The Antonov An-124 Ruslan, nicknamed by NATO as Condor, is an airlift jet aircraft. It was designed in the 1980’s by the Antonov design bureau and is still the largest military transport aircraft in the world. It first flew in 1982, and was pressed in service in 1986. It is used by the Russian Air Force. About 55 such aircrafts are in operation.
It is similar to the slightly smaller Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. It is the world’s largest production military aircraft, except the Antonov An-225. An-124 has a maximum payload capacity of 150 tons. The cargo hold can carry any load, including Russian tanks, combat vehicles, helicopters, and any other military equipment.
4. Airbus A340-600
It is a long-range, wide-body commercial passenger jet developed and manufactured by European aerospace company, Airbus industries. It seats up to 440 passengers. It has four turbofan engines. It comes in several version and the heavier A340-500 and A340-600 are longer and have larger wings. It is now succeeded by its larger variant, the Airbus A350.
It has a range of 6,700 to 9,000 nautical miles or 12,400 to 16,700 km. Its distinguishing features are four high-bypass turbofan engines and three-bogie main landing gears. Earlier Airbus planes had only two engines. The A340 is used on long-haul, trans-oceanic routes due to its immunity from ETOPS restrictions, which is applicable to two-engine airliners.
3. Boeing 747-8
The Boeing 747-8 is a wide-body jet airliner developed and manufactured by Boeing. It is the third generation of the 747, with a lengthened fuselage and extended wings. The 747-8 is the largest 747 version and the largest commercial aircraft built in the United States. It comes in two main variants; the 747-8 Intercontinental and the 747-8 Freighter. The changes in this model of Boeing include raked wingtips and a ‘sawtooth’ engine-end for noise reduction. On November 14, 2005, Boeing launched the 747 Advanced as the “Boeing 747-8”.
2. Airbus A380-800
The Airbus A380 is still the largest passenger plane in operation, even after almost a decade of its regular service. The A380 is so large that many airports had to modify their installation to accommodate its height and length. It is a double-deck, wide-body, four-engine jet. It is manufactured by European manufacturer Airbus industries. The A380 has several variations of engines. The configuration British Airways and other premium airlines use, is four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofans engine which generate more than 3,000,000 pounds of thrust. It can seat 853 people in Economy class, else 469 if there is a first class.
More than 160 A380’s have been built so far. The A380 made its first flight on 27 April 2005. It began commercial flights on 25 October 2007 with Singapore Airlines.
1. AN-225 (Mriya)
AN-225 is the longest and biggest aircraft that was ever created on earth. Designed by the legendary Antonov design bureau, AN-225 was designed and built during the 1980’s of the Cold War and Soviet Union. The length of the cargo hold itself is longer than the distance covered by Wright Brothers’ in their first flight. The plane was nicknamed ‘Mriya’ or ‘Dream’ in Ukrainian. It was originally built as a transport for the Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle.
The plane is an extension of its little brother, the An-124 ‘Ruslan’ –the largest military transport in the world. It is powered by six turbofan engines. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tonnes, which means it can carry more than 20 times the cargo weight that other aircraft would carry earlier. It also has the largest wingspan of any aircraft.
The first and only An-225 was completed in 1988. It is in commercial operation with Antonov Airlines carrying oversized payloads. The airlifter holds several world records for airlifting largest and heaviest materials to be ever airlifted. It is in fine condition and ready to fly for 20 more years at least.
Image Credit: Stratolaunch
On May 31, 2017; the “world’s biggest airplane,” Stratolaunch was rolled out from the hangar for the first time. It is the flagship of the Stratolaunch project promoted by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The Stratolaunch has six Boeing 747 engines, 28 wheels, and a wingspan of 385 feet, which is longer than a football field. It has a length of 238 feet. It can carry 250 tons of weight. It has an operational range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles. Staratolaunch was conceived as an aircraft to send rockets into orbit.
Earlier, the largest wingspan of any aircraft in history belonged to the all-wooden H-4 Hercules, also known as the “Spruce Goose”; which had a smaller length of 219 feet. However, this plane flew only for a minute, to a height of 70 feet in 1947, and was never flown again.
Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger airliner that flies more than 300 commercial flights per day. At 239 feet, it is longer than the Stratolaunch. It also has a taller and wider body; but it has a lesser wingspan of 262 feet.
AN-225 Mriya has a length of 275 feet which is 40 feet longer than Stratolaunch. It also has a height of 59 feet, which is taller than Stratolaunch’s height of 50 feet. Mriya has a wingspan of 290 feet, which is shorter than Stratolaunch’s wingspan of 385 feet. It has an empty weight of 285 tons which is more than the weight of Stratolaunch’s 250 tons. The maximum take off weight of Mriya is 648 tons which is comparable to Stratolaunch’s 650 tons.
Stratolaunch has just been unveiled. It is still under construction at the Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California. It will have to undergo several tests and later test flights will be held. It is aimed to be made fully operational by the end of this decade. Stratolaunch is expected to perform its first launch demonstration by 2021.
As on today, (and hopefully till 2021); AN-225 Mriya is still the biggest operational aircraft in the world!!!
Some of the biggest airplanes around the world that have not been mentioned here are those which are no longer in production or use. A few of those listed above also have certain versions which may not have been listed above. The Airbus and Being airplanes have had different versions with varying length, originating from the same design concepts. If you think some airplanes have been omitted inadvertently, you are welcome to add these facts in your comments.