Ever since the turn of the 20th century, the human race has continually pushed the boundary of flight. While flight had been part of our history before them, the Wright brothers took the airplane to next level, powering it with engines and providing controls which made sustained flight possible. From there, we developed new technologies and designs which meant aircraft got faster, larger and more sophisticated. Over the last 100 years, the airplane has gone from a flimsy wood and fabric creation powered by piston engines to a massive double-decker passenger liner, capable of carrying over 800 passengers.
Being a very competitive industry, aircraft designers are always pushing the limits to outdo rival firms. In the civilian sector this is best seen in the competition between Boeing and Airbus when it comes to making passenger liners. However, take that competition to the national level and throw in a war here and there are you get some truly massive creations. As a result of the Second World War, aircraft development stepped into high gear as opposing militaries worked to build planes which were faster, had longer range or could carry more weapons than their enemies. Airframe and engine development progressed so quickly during the war that the jet age began, ushering in a new era of massive aircraft development which continues to this day.
In terms of wingspans, weight and just overall size, military aircraft development has produced some impressive planes. The following list looks at 10 notable giants of the sky. These aircraft span the last 70 years and include everything from piston-driven bombers and flying boats of the World War Two era to the massive military cargo planes and jet powered bombers seen around the world today.
11 Honorable Mention: Hughes H-4 Hercules
Despite the fact this aircraft was built almost entirely of birch, Howard Hughes’ monstrous H-4 is better known by the nickname ‘The Spruce Goose.’ The plane started development in 1942 as a way to transport goods and men across the Atlantic to Great Britain – thereby avoiding Hitler’s deadly U-boat packs. With aluminum deemed a vital war material, the H-4 was designed to use a considerable amount of wood in its construction. It was powered by eight engines and was reportedly designed to carry nearly 75 tons of cargo, 750 soldiers or two Sherman tanks.
So why only an honorable mention when it should be #1 on this list? The plane never entered production and the sole prototype built made only one very short flight (just over 1 km) to demonstrate its ability to fly. Nonetheless, despite being built nearly 70 years ago, the Spruce Goose is the largest flying boat ever made and its wingspan of over 320 feet still dwarfs anything flying today.
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany pushed the limit when it came to developing many types of weapons. From the 188 ton Maus tank to the V-2 ballistic missile to jet and rocket fighters, the Third Reich developed some of the most massive and advanced wartime creations. Along with jet development, Nazi Germany also led the way in developing very large aircraft.
One of these massive planes was the Me-323 transport. Nicknamed the ‘Giant,’ the Me-323 was created from a glider in use with the German military. By putting six engines on the glider, the largest land based transport of that time was created. It could carry 130 troops, light vehicles or around 10 tons of cargo. This plane was big and it was also very slow which made it an easy target for enemy fighter planes. Even armed with several machine guns for protection, the Me-323 was a lumbering target and most were shot down during the war.
9 Boeing B-29 Superfortress
Introduced in 1944, the B-29 Superfortress was, for its time, one of the largest and most advanced bombers in the world. In terms of size, the B-29 weighed 37 tons, was almost 100 feet long and had a 141 foot wingspan – the largest of any strategic bomber of that time. Used in the Pacific during the bombing campaign against mainland Japan, the B-29 is best remembered as the aircraft which dropped the two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Superfortress was fully pressurized, equipped with a fire-suppression system and armed with remote-controlled turrets linked to a fire-control system. All of these characteristics meant the United States had a bomber which was miles ahead of anything else on the planet. The design was so good that the Soviet Union took three captured examples and copied them to create the Tu-4 strategic bomber.
8 Blohm & Voss BV 238
The period around the Second World War saw every major military power developing a fleet of flying boats to be used for reconnaissance and support. First flown in 1944, this German plane was the heaviest aircraft ever flown up to that point in history as well as the largest Axis aircraft of the Second World War. Three BV 238 aircraft were built or under construction by the time the war ended. The sole completed plane underwent various flight tests before being destroyed late in the war while docked at a pier.
Weighing nearly 60 tons empty, with a wingspan of over 197 feet, armed with 22 machine guns and light cannons and crewed by 12 people, the BV 238 was massive for its time. Given this plane could reportedly carry up to 20 bombs or four guided missiles for use against ships, it’s probably a good thing for the navies of the Allied forces of the time that the BV 238 never entered production earlier or in any large numbers.
7 Martin JRM Mars
Not to be outdone by Nazi Germany, the Allies had their fleets of flying boats as well. The American Martin JRM Mars holds the distinction as the largest flying boat to ever enter production. In the Second World War, the US Navy put in an order for the massive aircraft which would be used for patrol and transport duties in the Pacific theatre. Unfortunately for Martin, the ending of the war meant only seven of the Mars were complete and delivered before the line was shut down.
Powered by four engines, the Mars has a 200 foot wingspan, and is over 38 feet tall and 117 feet long. This allows it to carry over 130 passengers, 16 tons of cargo or several light vehicles. For patrol purposes, the Mars carries enough fuel to fly nearly 8000 km – roughly the same range as a 747 jumbo jet. Today one of these massive planes continues to be used as a water-bomber to fight forest fires in North America.
6 Convair B-36
The largest mass-produced piston engine aircraft ever made, the B-36 Peacemaker arrived on the scene when jet aircraft were becoming the norm, making it nearly obsolete from the start. Designed during World War Two, the Peacemaker was initially conceived as a bomber which could strike Nazi Germany, and later Japan, from the United States. The end of the war saw the USSR become the primary enemy of the US and the B-36 was the only aircraft in service which could carry nuclear weapons to the USSR.
Until the late 1950s and 1960s, with the introduction of the B-52 and long range ICBMs, the B-36 was the primary strategic bomber in the US nuclear arsenal thanks to its long range and high service ceiling. In addition to its massive 230 foot wingspan, the B-36 was powered by six piston and four jet engines. It had a crew of 13 and could carry up to 40 tons of bombs over 6400 km.
5 Convair XC-99
Long before the double-decker A-380 we know today, there was the XC-99 military transport. The XC-99 was developed from the B-36 Peacemaker bomber and although only one was ever built it was a pretty impressive aircraft. The XC-99 had the same wings and engines as its bomber version (minus the four jet engines) but sported a massive double-decker cargo bay. It was also 182 feet long, 20 feet more than the bomber version which makes this the largest piston-engine plane ever to enter service. It was designed to carry up to 50 tons of cargo or 400 fully equipped soldiers. During its life, the sole XC-99 carried more than this on a couple occasions and ended up hauling a total of 30,000 tons before it was retired in 1957.
So why was only one built? The military had no need for a fleet of these massive transport planes. In short, they were too big and expensive and the current fleet of smaller cargo aircraft suited the needs of the US armed forces at that point in history.
4 Antonov An-124
For those wondering why the C-5 Galaxy isn’t on this list, look no further than this beast. Title of the ‘World’s heaviest production military cargo plane’ belongs to the Russian built An-124. Until the 1980s, the Soviet Union lacked any heavy long-range strategic transports. This changed in the mid-1980s with the arrival of the An-124.
Powered by four massive turbofan engines, this plane is 68 feet tall, has a 240 foot wingspan and is 226 feet long. As you’d expect, such massive dimensions allow for some large carrying abilities. The An-124 can carry up to 150 tons for over 3000 km. A cargo plane first, it can be equipped to carry up to 350 people in the modified cargo bay. Ironically, NATO countries lined up to lease these Russian made planes when they needed some extra hauling ability during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
3 Boeing B-52
The last B-52 rolled off the assembly lines in 1962. Despite this, and the fact that current B-52 crewmembers weren’t even born when their planes were built, the Stratofortress continues to serve the United States military more than 50 years on. While it is around three tons lighter than the US B-1 Lancer, the B-52’s 159 foot length and 185 foot wingspan make it dimensionally the largest bomber in US service.
Given that it can carry everything from nuclear cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles and conventional bombs in its massive bomb bay, the B-52 provides the US military with considerable punch still relevant decades after it was introduced. Good overall performance and relatively low operating costs have led the United States to keep the bomber in service with a series of modernizations. Military planners aim to have the B-52 serving until 2040- 88 years after its maiden flight - which means this bomber has a life expectancy greater than the crew flying it.
2 Tupolev Tu-160
In response to the American development of the swept-wing supersonic B-1 bomber, the Soviet Union pushed for the development of their own high-speed modern strategic bomber during the 1960s and 1970s. Entering service in the late-1980s, the Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ shared many features of the B-1 ‘Lancer’ but it was much bigger. The Russian bomber has a 189 foot wingspan when the wings are not swept back and is 177 feet long. Currently, the Blackjack is the world’s largest combat aircraft. Cargo planes aside, the Tu-160 also sports the heaviest take-off weight of any military plane – maximum takeoff weight is a staggering 300 tons. This beast can fly at twice the speed of sound and carry up to 44 tons of bombs and cruise missiles. There are currently 16 in service with the Russian forces although recent reports indicate production could be switched back on.
1 Antonov An-225
Topping our list is a military cargo plane of which only one has so far been built. At 275 feet long and with a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tons, the An-225 ‘Dream’ is the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Its 290 foot wingspan also means that it has the largest wingspan of any current operational airplane. Its 142 foot long cargo hold is longer than the distance covered by the first Wright Flyer. At first glance it looks a lot like an An-124 with a different tail and two extra engines. You wouldn’t be too wrong to think that. This massive plane is effectively an enlargement of the An-124 built to carry the now defunct Russian space shuttle. With no space shuttle to carry, the ‘Dream’ now finds itself used as a strategic military transport capable of carrying around 275 tons. Its capabilities were well demonstrated in 2001 when the plane hauled a cargo of four main battle tanks weighing nearly 280 tons. If the rumors concerning Russia building more of these giants is true then expect the An-225 to steal the An-124’s title of ‘heaviest production cargo plane’ sometime in the near future.