What's the Biggest Plane in the World?

By: Julia Layton  | 
Passenger airplane with connecting jet bridge
The Airbus A380 is the largest commercial aircraft for civilian passengers, but it's still much smaller than the biggest plane in the world. Lin Yangchen / Getty Images

Flight has fascinated 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 captivated humanity since man first walked upright. Where the two obsessions meet we end up with some pretty incredible flying machines.

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


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

A Brief History of Flight

As early as 400 B.C., innovators in China used 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].


Howard Hughes' enormous H-4 Hercules held the record for wingspan. But that doesn't mean there's not a bigger plane out there.
Keystone Features/Getty Images

Notably Large Aircraft

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, held 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.


The Biggest Airplane in the World

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 aviation industry experts most often use 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: The Antonov An-225 has earned the title on the Guinness World Record.


Operated by Antonov Airlines, the An-225 is a cargo plane. Up until 2022, it transported vehicles, supplies and all sorts of aid all over the world.

But it began its life serving a different purpose.

What the An-225 Carries

Originally built to haul around the Buran (the former Soviet Union's space shuttle) the An-225 found itself unemployed and in storage when the Russian space program came to an end in the early '90s.

Over a decade later, one of the two An-225s in existence found a new role as a commercial cargo jet (the second remains unfinished in storage to this day). It's ideally suited to the role because of both its size and its max takeoff weight.

It has 46,000 cubic feet (1,300 cubic meters) of cargo space. That's enough for five military tanks or eight double-decker buses [source: BC]. More importantly, 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].

Comparing the An-225 to Other Large Aircraft

For comparison, both the Boeing 747 and the An-124 (the model that inspired the An-225) 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 [source: FG].

The An-225 and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The largest aircraft is not in use today after Russian forces invaded the Hostomel Airport in Ukraine and destroyed this important piece of aviation history. According to Antonov's estimates, repairing the wide-body aircraft would cost $500 million.


A Few More of the World's Biggest Planes

Scaled Composites' Stratolaunch took its first flight in April 2019. Built and designed by Paul G. Allen's company, the plane is 238 feet (72.54 meters) and has a wingspan of 385 feet (117.35).

According to Scaled Composites, "The large aircraft project has been an idea our founder, Burt Rutan, has played with for over 20 years. Various designs have been explored as customer interest came and went. Ultimately, in 2011 Paul Allen agreed to pursue this project. Prior to the final contract, Scaled worked to validate fabrication costs by building demonstration pieces to lower the cost of pounds of material labor to man hour. This factor drove the overarching design of the aircraft — flat-sided fuselages with a mostly straight wing."


The Airbus Beluga — or Airbus A300-600ST Beluga — is another enormous aircraft. Used to transport works of art, humanitarian aid and helicopters, the plane has a maximum operating altitude of 35,000 feet (10,688 meters).

When it comes to maximum passenger capacity, the winner is the Airbus A380-800, which can seat 853. Airbus introduced the largest passenger aircraft in 2007.


Frequently Answered Questions

What's bigger than the C-5 Galaxy?
The C-5 Galaxy is one of the largest military aircraft. The Antonov An-225 is even larger.

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