What's the world's largest airplane?

Howard Hughes' enormous H-4 Hercules may still hold the record for wingspan. But that doesn't mean there's not a bigger plane out there. See more flight pictures.
Howard Hughes' enormous H-4 Hercules may still hold the record for wingspan. But that doesn't mean there's not a bigger plane out there. See more flight pictures.
Keystone Features/Getty Images

The quest to understand flight has obsessed humanity since man first looked up and saw a bird soaring effortlessly across the sky. The quest to make everything bigger, better and faster has obsessed humanity since man first walked upright. Where the two obsessions meet we end up with some pretty incredible flying machines.

Achieving controllable flight has not been an easy endeavor. Or a quickly advancing one. As early as 400 B.C., innovators in China were using specially designed kites to test weather conditions [source: NASA]. More than 2,000 years later, the Montgolfier brothers flew the first hot air balloon, carrying a (presumably surprised) rooster, duck and sheep to an altitude of 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) for more than a mile [source: NASA].


The quest moved more quickly after that, with gliders, steam-powered flying machines and finally the Wright brothers' first biplane success unfolding over the next 120 years [source: NASA]. With a working, motorized airplane at last on record, man turned to his natural inclination and set about enlarging it. Howard Hughes' infamous H-4 Hercules seaplane (aka Spruce Goose), which took off for its one and only, 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) flight in 1947, still holds the record for wingspan at nearly 320 feet (97.5 meters) [source: Malone].

Another giant, the U.S. Air Force's C-5 Galaxy, introduced in 1968 and still around today, falls short of the H-4's wingspan, coming in at nearly 223 feet (68 meters), but has it beat on length: 247 feet 10 inches (75.5 meters) compared to the Goose's 218 feet 8 inches [source: Malone]. And the much-talked about Airbus A380, notoriously plagued by production problems but superlative to the nth degree, beats out the C-5 on wingspan (261 feet 10 inches or 79.8 meters) and the Spruce Goose on length (239 feet or 73 meters).

Still, the A380 is not the largest aircraft. It's not even that close.

In this article, we'll find out which plane has the distinction of "largest" and how that honor is typically determined. It's not easy to find universal criteria for ranking aircraft, but there is one way many experts can agree on: maximum takeoff weight.

And there is one plane that outshines all others in how much it can lift off the ground.


The Biggest Airplane in the World

A Ukrainian Antonov An-225 practicises above Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 21, 2009.
A Ukrainian Antonov An-225 practicises above Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 21, 2009.
(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

While length, height, wingspan and empty weight are all valid criteria in ranking aircraft, the one most often used to determine which plane is biggest is the maximum takeoff weight (MTOW). That's the most a plane can weigh and still get off the ground; it incorporates not only the weight of the plane but also its fuel supply and cargo (human or otherwise).

Using the MTOW criteria, it's not hard to pick a winner. It's the Antonov An-225.


The An-225 is a cargo jet. It transports vehicles, supplies and all sorts of aid all over the world. But it began its life serving a different purpose. It was built to haul around the Buran, Russia's space shuttle. When the Russian space program was discontinued in the early '90s, the An-225 found itself unemployed and went into storage.

Years later, one of the two An-225s in existence found a new role as a commercial cargo jet (the second remains in storage to this day). It's ideally suited to the role because of both its size and its maximum takeoff weight. It can accommodate 46,000 cubic feet (1,300 cubic meters) of cargo. That's enough for five military tanks or eight double-decker buses [source: BC]. More important, with a maximum takeoff weight of 1.32 million pounds (600,000 kilograms), it can get those tanks or buses off the ground -- and fly them almost 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) to their destination [source: Aerospace, Eisenstein].

For comparison, both the Boeing 747 and the An-124 (the model the An-225 was based on) have maximum takeoff weights of 900,000 pounds (405,000 kilograms) [source: Aerospace]. The A380 can get off the ground carrying about 1.24 million pounds (560,000 kilograms), which is a pretty close second and beats out any other passenger aircraft [source: GA]. The massive Spruce Goose had an MTOW of 400,000 pounds (181,000 kilograms), which is still the record for a seaplane [source: Aerospace].

While the An-225 tops all aircraft, and the A380 beats out every other passenger plane, the future of aircraft design could make going even bigger a little easier. Increasingly lightweight composite materials are allowing for more size without more weight, and advances in aviation technology and flight design are making it easier to get more weight off the ground. With the A380 in service as of 2007, we can no doubt look forward to seeing progressively massive airliners in development in coming years [source: FG].

For more information on aircraft and the An-225, including complete specifications, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • An-225 Cossack. Global Aircraft.http://www.globalaircraft.org/planes/an-225_cossack.pl
  • Eisenstein, Paul. "Extreme Machines: An-225 is World's Biggest Plane." Popular Mechanics. January 2003.http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/extreme_machines/1280771.html
  • History of Airplanes. ThinkQuest.http://library.thinkquest.org/J0112389/airplanes.htm
  • History of Flight. NASA UEET.http://www.ueet.nasa.gov/StudentSite/historyofflight.html
  • Malone, Robert. "The World's Biggest Planes." Forbes. June 4, 2007.http://www.forbes.com/2007/06/01/aviation-aerospace-planes-biz-cx_rm_0604bigplanes.html
  • Largest Plane in the World. AerospaceWeb.http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/design/q0188.shtml
  • Top 50 Largest Aircraft. Global Aircraft.http://www.globalaircraft.org/50_largest.htm
  • The World's Largest Aeroplanes. British Council.http://www.britishcouncil.org/learnenglish-military-largest-airplane.htm