The biggest airplanes in the world are strange, beautiful monsters. They’re built for weird purposes, end up in odd jobs, and belong to a tight circle where each project is more impressive than the last. The result? A bunch of really awesome, giant airplanes for us to explore! From the newest entrant in 2017 to historical planes that still impress us today, here’s a quick rundown of the largest planes in the world, along with some fun facts about each one.
The Stratolaunch, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was immediately hailed as the world’s largest airplane when construction finished in 2017. That title is a bit debatable though, because if you take an extra-long tape measure and look at the dimensions, some other planes are actually a bit longer from tip to tail. But the Stratolaunch does win in several other categories: It has the longest total wingspan thanks to the double-cockpit setup, and it’s designed to carry more weight than any other plane in existence — up to 500,000 pounds.
That last part is particularly important, because Allen’s intention is to use the Stratolaunch to send rockets into orbit around the earth (though it’s not yet certain how practical this is). That’s why the plane comes equipped with six Boeing 747 engines and an incredible wingspan of 385 feet. The Stratolaunch is so new that it will require considerable testing before experts are sure just how to fly it correctly.
Photo: Stratolaunch Systems Corp.
Another plane that carries the title of the “biggest plane in the world,” the Antonov is actually a throwback, designed and built back in the 1980s by the Soviet Union. Its goal was quite similar to the Stratolaunch’s, with a plan to carry a space shuttle up through the atmosphere and into orbit. That didn’t pan out, but the Antonov aircraft did find another calling: carrying really heavy stuff to countries around the world. You may recognize this one-of-a-kind airplane by its famous twin tails.
With its six engines and 290-foot wingspan, the craft can carry emergency supplies and massive loads that would be very difficult for other airplanes to carry. It only flies a couple times a year these days, but still sees regular work and continues to hold the world record for carrying the heaviest payload: a 247-ton load of oil pipeline materials. We’ll see how long that record can hold with the aforementioned Stratolaunch on the scene.
Photo: Alex Beltyukov/Wikipedia
Here’s a blast from the past! The famous Spruce Goose still holds a spot as one of the biggest airplanes in the world, which is even more impressive when you remember that it was constructed of wood (birchwood, actually, despite the name) and completed in 1947 thanks to the ambitious dreams of Howard Hughes. The plane’s length stretches to 210 feet, and it was built to carry 150,000 pounds for troop and material transport in World War II — without today’s high tech gadgetry, like autopilot, to help out.
That plan didn’t work out: The Hughes H-4 took a long time to build, and by the time it was finished, the war was wrapping up and no one really needed it. Hughes, determined to pilot the craft at least once, took it up in the air and flew it for around a minute before bring the plane back down, presumably satisfied. Now it sits at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, which says that the plan is still in good shape.
Photo: SDASM Archives/Flickr
Let’s turn to a commercial model: This Airbus is huge, but it’s also meant for passenger flights. The 4-motor carrier is nearly 239 feet long for extra capacity and has a wingspan of 262 feet. Its most unique feature is a large double deck that allows it to house two levels of seats and accomodate up to 555 passengers (early models actually allowed for a different configuration that could fit far more people, but far less comfortably). This Airbus also gets recognition for still being in regular service, making frequent trips across the world for those who want to travel in luxury.
Photo: Maarten Visser/Flickr
This Boeing model is an extra-large version of the 747 with a modified fuselage designed for extra carrying capacity…and a little light competition with the Airbus A380. With a length of around 250 feet and a wingspan of 225 feet, it doesn’t quite reach the Airbus in terms of size, but Boeing does claim that its model is lighter and more fuel efficient. It can carry up to 467 passengers on its intercontinental journeys, some of which may soon be piloted by robots.
The Convair isn’t the largest plane on our list, with a wingspan of around 230 feet and a length of only 162 feet — but what it lacks in size this large plane makes up for with sheer ambition and guts. The plane was designed to be a long-range heavy bomber back in the 1940s, and by the time it was built in the 1950s everyone had the Cold War on their minds. With six radial piston engines, the craft was ready to carry anything, as well as protect its load with 16 cannons positioned at all sides. It even housed nuclear weapons at one point, and variants of the B-36 carried out a variety of U.S. scouting and strategy missions. They were all eventually retired by 1959 as smaller, lighter bombers were developed, but the legend of the Peacemaker lives on.
Photo: US Goverment/Wikipedia