The Mystery: What is the biggest airplane in the world? Sounds simple, but you hear several different models being spoken about as the “biggest.” Is the term meaningless, or can there be a champ?
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The Backstory: There are five or so airplanes called the biggest in the world. They are: the Boeing 747, the Airbus A380-800, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, the Antonov An-225 and the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch. All of them are big, in one way or another, but “big” is a broad term. When Ed Sullivan announced every Saturday night that he had a “really big show,” he was talking about its quality, its entertainment value and its importance in the American show business world. And he was often right about all three.
But when we talk “big” airplanes, we’re talking about none of those things. Instead, we’re most likely considering the wingspan, the weight, the height, the length, the volume and the lifting ability. Of these, only the last one, the useful load, is a measure of something we typically assign to the “performance” category, though one might argue that it’s a dimensional figure, as the plane needs to be able to fit and lift the stuff that adds the weight to the plane. In short, it takes a big plane in terms of size, passenger capacity, wingspan, engine power and internal capacity to lift a giant load. And all of those things are dimensional, or at least very closely related.
So the question becomes, if you agree that there are all these different kinds of “big,” which one matters most? Because, the truth is, no airplane earns the “biggest” mantle in all of these categories. Then again, is there a plane that is overall the biggest, or close to it in most categories?
Here are the champs in the categories considered part of the discussion of what plane is the biggest:
Wingspan: Stratolaunch. It wins the wingspan game going away with its 385-foot stretch, which is longer than a football field, though only if you don’t count the end zones. Still, huge. The runner-up is the Hughes H4 Hercules, aka, the Spruce Goose. Its wingspan is a whopping 319 feet. Okay, you say, the Spruce Goose flew only once, and even then it “flew” only in ground effect, so does that count? The third runner-up is the Antonov An-225, which has been flying for 30 years now; tip-to-tip, it measures 290 feet.
Maximum Takeoff Weight: When it comes to this figure, the clear champ is the Antonov. With a max gross weight of better than 1.4 million pounds, its only close competitor is the A380-800, which has an MTOW of around 1.268 million pounds.
Height: In terms of height, some might roll their eyes. After all, the height of an airplane is almost always determined by the height of its tail. The winner of this category, by a comparative whisker, is the ginormous Hughes flying boat, which at 79 feet, 4 inches has the A380-800 beat by 4 inches.
Length: The Antonov cargo hauler is the clear winner in this comparison, too, with a length of more than 275 feet, 25 feet longer than the biggest Boeing.
Volume: The champ here used to be the modified 747 called the Dreamlifter—that is, until Airbus introduced its big lifter, the Beluga XL, with a gargantuan 78,000 cubic foot capacity. So none of our contenders has much stake in the most voluminous contest.
Payload: With its payload of almost 560,000 pounds, the champ here is the Antonov, with the not-much-consolation prize going to the A380-800 at about a third of that figure.
The Truth: With all of these factors taken into consideration, the airplane that we semi-officially proclaim the world’s biggest—and we will add the term “baddest” to get our point across—is the Antonov An-225, the cargo hauler that is bigger in many dimensions than any other active airplane while carrying an absolutely gargantuan payload aloft.