The question of how thousands of pounds of steel can hang seemingly weightless in the air crosses every passenger’s mind at least once during a flight. And truly, that logic-defying fact is the central theme of all aircraft engineering. But some aircrafts represent greater feats of impossible lift than others—let’s take a look at some of the largest aircrafts ever to take flight, despite every effort of gravity.
It’s also worth noting that we’re excluding “airships” from this list, which was what the huge aerostats—more commonly known as blimps or dirigibles—were called at the height of their popularity. “Balloon” travel used lighter-than-air gases like hydrogen or helium for lift, and were the height of the aviation craze until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, after which hard-bodied, engine-powered, winged airplanes of today took their place. The largest aircraft in the world today could be fit inside the balloon of the Hindenburg zeppelin eight times over, but most of that was empty space, not mass, and not really even as impressive as the 750 lb flyer the Wright brothers designed in 1903.
Antonov An-225 Mriya
The An-225 is generally agreed to be the largest airplane in the world. It’s a strategic lift cargo aircraft built by the Soviet Union, and not only can keep itself in the air, but can lift other aircrafts weighing up to 545,000 pounds.
First Flight: December 1988
Length: 275 ft
Wingspan: 290 ft
Empty Weight: 628,000 lbs
Fun Fact: There was only one of these aircrafts built, named Mriya, which means Dream in Ukrainian
Hughes H-4 Hercules
Nicknamed the “Spruce Goose” because it was made mostly of wood due to wartime restrictions on aluminum, the Hercules has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in history. It’s wooden body means it’s light relative its size, but it was designed to transport heavy water material to Britain during WWII. It is also the largest flying boat ever created; so large in fact that during its final stage of construction, a massive fabric airplane hangar was constructed to launch the flying H-4 into the harbor where it was built.
First Flight: November 1947
Length: 218 ft
Wingspan: 321 ft
Empty Weight: 250,000 lbs
Fun Fact: Completed too late for use in the war effort, the Hercules was only flown once to demonstrate that it hadn’t been a waste of tax dollars
The Boeing 747 has reigned supreme in large jet airliner commercial crafts, and after it was first flown in 1970 it held the record for passengers for 37 years, and the 8 is the largest and newest in the line. Linked with Pan Am from the first sale, the 747 has defined ultra-high-capacity air travel for over forty years, and the 8 is the longest passenger airliner and heaviest aircraft, commercial or military, manufactured in the US.
First Flight: February 2010
Length: 250 ft
Wingspan: 224 ft
Maximum Take-off Weight: 975,000 lbs
Fun Fact: Unlike the other 747s, most orders for the 747-8 have been for freight purposes, not passenger
This Airbus four-engine jetliner is the world’s largest passenger airliner and in an all-economy class configuration can provide seating for 853 passengers. Designed to challenge the dominance of the Boeing designs in high-capacity jetliners, the Airbus holds more passengers and burns 20 percent less fuel than the 747-400 fleet, and can fly farther non-stop.
First Flight: April 2005
Length: 238 ft
Wingspan: 261 ft
Maximum Take-off Weight: 1,268,000 lbs
Fun Fact: Emirates by far leads the world in Airbus A380 orders, and after ordering 50 aircrafts in bulk received $20.75 billion in discounts
The Tu-160 is the world’s largest combat and supersonic aircraft, originally used as a bomber for the Soviet Union. Manufactured in the Ukraine, after the Ukrainian independence movement Russia had to buy back the bombers they’d originaly commissioned, and have since been using them under the direction of Putin as part of a revitalized air combat program that is causing tension abroad and perceived by some as threatening.
First Flight: December 1981
Length: 177 ft
Wingspan: 189 ft
Empty Weight: 243,000 lbs
Fun Fact: The Tu-160 is painted anti-flash white, which deflects thermal radiation from nuclear explosions and protects those aboard. This color earned the aircraft the nickname “White Swan.”