The Largest Commercial Planes of All Time

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in airports on my way to the cockpit or the cabin, and I’ve never stopped being mesmerized by aircraft, regardless of where I’m seated. The level of genius and engineering that goes into designing one is hard to fathom. But that ingenuity reaches peak levels when we supersize everything. 

Size is something humanity has always been obsessed with; everything has to be bigger. It might seem like this trend has run its course in aviation since both Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s are being phased out. The former changed the course of global aviation, and the latter introduced commercial passengers to a flight experience that was previously only available to passengers aboard private jets. 

However, humanity will always dream bigger, and aircraft like the Boeing 777 will replace their older counterparts, ushering in a new age of gargantuan aircraft. 

boeing 747 head-on

Bottom Line Up Front 

This list doesn’t rate the biggest aircraft in the world because there isn’t a criterion for these jumbo jets. Some are passenger jets, some are cargo freighters, and some are military freighters, so rating them is nearly impossible. But one thing all the aircraft on this list have in common is that their fuselage is longer than 229.6 ft (70 m), save for one. 

However, If any aviator had to choose the greatest large aircraft, it would be the Boeing 747, without a doubt. It invented the jumbo jet category and pushed the envelope of aeronautics at the time, has had an impressive production run of 54 years, and is the highest-selling jumbo jet in existence. 

Largest Commercial Planes of All Time

Boeing 747

boeing 747

It’s no surprise that this list starts with the Boeing 747. It’s the original jumbo jet and kick-started long-haul aviation routes, made air travel affordable for the masses, and connected the world. It was famously created when the CEO of Pam American Airways, Juan Trippe, asked Boeing for an aircraft that was two and a half times larger than the Boeing 707, and he wanted it in three years.

In 1996, an undertaking of this magnitude was unheard of, and Boeing had to build a plant to manufacture the B747 because it was so large. The Boeing 747 was introduced with its launch partner Pan American Airways and was the largest passenger airliner until the introduction of the Airbus A380 in 2007. 

Since 1996, Boeing has made 34 variants of the B747. The largest variant of the B747 is the B747-8; sadly, it is also the final variant. The last B747 will roll off the production line in 2022, ending an impressive 54-year production run during which 1,573 units have been sold.

Specifications B747-8

B747-8
Length 250 ft 2 in (76.30 m)
Height 63 ft 6 in (19.40 m)
Wingspan 224 ft 5 in (68.40 m)
MTOW 987,000 lbs (447,696 kg)
Maximum Occupancy  660

Boeing Dreamlifter

boeing dreamlifter

The Boeing Dreamlifter is a modified Boeing 747 that was built to ferry parts of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner quickly after customers pressured the company to deliver aircraft faster. However, the parts would not fit into even the Antonov An-225, so Boeing had to devise a solution.  

The company used inspiration from NASA’s Supper Guppy and converted four used passenger B747-400s, three from airlines in China and one from Malaysia. Boeing created the Dreamlifter with help from Rocketdyne, Gamesa Aeronautica, and the Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corp. The completed aircraft was first seen in 2006 and was designated the 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter (LCF). 

The Dreamlifter has a maximum payload of 113,400 kg and can fly only 4,200 nm when fully loaded, but the payload was never the focus of the project; it was volume. The Dreamlifters cargo compartment has a total volume of 64,979 ft³ (1,840 m³). Cargo is loaded onto the aircraft using a swing tail door, which allows the entire empennage to swing open, allowing Dreamliner wings and fuselage sections to be loaded. 

Specifications Boeing 747-400 LCF

B747-400 LCF (Dreamlifter)
Length 250 ft 2 in (76.30 m)
Height 70 ft 8 in (21.54 m)
Wingspan 211 ft 5 in (64.4 m)
MTOW 803,001 lbs (364,235 kg)
Volume 64,979 ft³ (1,840 m³)

Boeing 777-9

boeing 777-9

Boeing’s 777X aircraft are meant to take the place of the recently retired B747-8. The 777-9 is only in its certification stage, with airlines expecting Boeing to deliver the first aircraft sometime in 2025. The 777-9 measures 250 ft 2 in (76.25 m) from tip to tail and will overtake the Boeing 747-8 as the longest airliner. A 777-10 has been proposed, but there are no concrete plans to go through with the aircraft. 

The Boeing 777-9 will have an exit limit of 475 passengers, though the typical seating capacity is expected to be around 420. The aircraft will have an MTOW of 775,000 lbs (351,500 kg) and a maximum range of 7,285 nm(13,500 km). The 777-9 is also the first commercial aircraft to incorporate folding wingtips. This feature allows it to fly into high-density airports that have limited gate space. When unfurled, the wingspan of the aircraft measures 235 ft 5 in (71.75 m). 

Specifications Boeing 777-9

B777-9
Length 251 ft 9 in (76.73 m)
Height 64 ft 7 in (19.68 m)
Wingspan 235 ft 5 in (71.75 m)
MTOW 775,000 lb (351,500 kg)
Maximum Occupancy  475

Airbus A380

airbus a380

The Airbus A380 dethroned the Boeing 747 as the largest passenger jetliner in service when it was launched in 2007. Unlike the Boeing 747, the Airbus A380’s upper deck extends along the entire length of the fuselage, making it a true double-decker. 

The A380 is a marvel of modern engineering; it has a maximum takeoff weight of 1,234,600 lb (560,000 kg), an exit limit of 853, a wingspan of 261.8 ft (79.8 m), a total volume of all three decks (including cargo/baggage hold) is 55,444 ft³ (1,570 m³), or as Airbus puts it, “enough space for 35 million ping-pong balls.”

Which makes it the largest passenger jetliner by weight, occupancy, wingspan, and volume. These specifications are not surprising as the designers of the aircraft had one focus: to steal market share from the Boeing 747, which was the long-haul aircraft to beat in the early 2000s. 

The A380 was purchased by airlines that focused on a hub-and-spoke model; it was also popular with luxury airlines such as Emirates that used the space to offer amenities such as showers and first-class suites for passengers. However, most airlines weren’t able to fill the A380’s seat capacity for it to be cost-effective. As the aviation industry moved to a point-to-point model, long-range twin-engine aircraft became the weapon of choice. 

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic brought air travel to a standstill and made the aircraft obsolete, resulting in mass retirements. The A380 is an economic failure because Airbus took roughly $32 billion to develop, and the company sold only 251 units, which didn’t cover the development costs. In 2021, production of the A380 ended, only 18 years after it began.

Specifications A380

A380-800
Length 72.7 m
Height 24.1 m
Wingspan 79.8 m
MTOW 1,234,600 lb (560,000 kg)
Maximum Occupancy  853
Total Volume 55,444 ft³ (1,570 m³)

Airbus Beluga XL

Airbus Beluga XL

The Airbus Beluga XL is the successor to the Airbus Beluga. Like the Boeing Dreamlifter, the Beluga is used to ferry Airbus components to their final destination for assembly. The Beluga XL was introduced into service in January 2020. 

The Beluga XL is based on the A330 but is a mash-up of different variants of the aircraft. The main structure is based on an A330-200 Freighter for strength and rigidity. For performance reasons, the front of the aircraft is based on the A330-200, and the rear is based on the A330-300. The Bulga parts are manufactured by Stelia Aerospace, a subsidiary of Airbus. 

Airbus decided to build the Beluga XL for the exact reason Boeing decided to build the Dreamlifter. Even though Airbus already has a fleet of Beluga’s, the XL was needed to increase efficiency and production speed. By 2023, all six Beluga XLs will join the existing Beluga fleet to deliver Airbus components worldwide. 

Specifications A330 Beluga XL

A330-743L
Length 207 ft (63.1 m)
Height 62 ft (18.9 m)
Wingspan 197 ft 10 in (60.3 m)
MTOW 500,449 lbs (227,000 kg)
Total Volume 78,000 ft³ (2,209 m³)

Antonov AN-225 Mriya

Antonov AN-225 Mriya

The Antonov AN-225 Mriya is one of the most recognizable large aircraft in existence. The Mriya holds the record for the heaviest aircraft ever made and had a maximum takeoff weight of 1,410,958 lbs (640,000 kg). To get airborne, the Mriya was powered by six Progress D-18T high bypass turbofan engines which produced 51,600 lbf (229.5 kN) of thrust each, for a total of 309,600 lbf (1,377 kN). The Mriya also held the record for the longest wingspan for an operational aircraft, measuring 290 ft (88.4 m). 

The Mriya as an aircraft makes little financial sense, but it survived because no other aircraft could do what it did. The aircraft transported massive payloads that were normally impossible to deliver via air travel, such as blades for wind turbines and parts of the Delta and Atlas rockets. 

The Antonov AN-225 Mriya was built to transport Soviet-made space shuttles, and only one was ever built. It was destroyed in its hangar on the 24th of February, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A second was started but never finished due to a lack of interest and funding. However, the Mriya may fly again if Ukraine’s President Zelensky is to be believed. 

Specifications AN-225 Mriya

AN-225 Mriya
Length 275 ft 7 in (84 m)
Height 59 ft 5 in (18.1 m)
Wingspan 290 ft (88.4 m)
MTOW 1,410,958 lbs (640,000 kg)
Cargo Hold Volume 46,000 ft³ (1,300 m³)

Hughes H-4 Hercules

hughes h-4 hercules

The Hughes H-4 Hercules is the only aircraft on this list that is made of wood. The “Spruce Goose” is the brainchild of Henry Kaiser and was designed and made by Howard Hughes’ company Hughes Aircraft Co. It was invented after the U.S. government asked for a military carrier that could get around German U-Boats.

The H-4 Hercules was made from Duramold composites and was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major radial piston engines that produced a total of 24,000 hp (17,600 kW). Each engine powered a four-bladed, constant-speed, Hamilton Standard propeller. The H-4 has the longest wingspan of any aircraft ever made, measuring an amazing 320 ft 11 in (97.82 m). 

The combination allowed the H-4 Hercules to, theoretically, carry up to 750 armed troops or two Sherman. Hughes would never get to test the capabilities of the H-4 as the aircraft only flew once, to prove to the senate that the $22 million of government funds spent on its development was not in vain.

The test flight took place on November 2nd, 1947. There were 36 people on board, including Hughes at the controls. The H-4 flew for less than a nautical mile, accelerated to a maximum speed of 117 kts (217 kmph), and only reached an altitude of 70 ft (21 m). The entire flight only lasted 26 seconds. 

The H-4 spent the remainder of its days inside its hangar, being maintained by the Hughes company until Hughes’s death. Today the aircraft resides at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. 

Specifications H-4 Hercules

The specifications mentioned below are theoretical because the aircraft was never fully operational. 

H-4 Hercules
Length 218 ft 8 in (66.65 m)
Height 79 ft 4 in (24.18 m)
Wingspan 320 ft 11 in (97.82 m)
BEW 250,000 lbs (113,398 kg)
Gross Weight 400,000 lbs (181,437 kg)
Service Ceiling 20,900 ft
Maximum Occupancy  753

Korabl Maket (Caspian Sea Monster)

korabl maket

The Korabl Maket (KM) is one of the more unique aircraft on this list because it’s a ground-effect vehicle or an ekroplane in Russian. A ground-effect vehicle flies just a few meters above the ground on a “cushion” of air between the surface and the wing. Flying in the ground effect envelope reduces induced drag by up to 50 percent and is extremely efficient. 

The Korabl Maket was named the Caspian Sea Monster by American intelligence when it was discovered due to its unorthodox shape and size. The KM was the brainchild of Rostislav Alexeyev and was built by the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau of the Soviet Union. When it was built in 1966, it was the largest aircraft in the world and would remain so until 1988.

The KM was mainly designed to be a military transport but could also be fitted with surface-to-surface missiles to strike ships and other targets on land. Since the KM flew so close to the ground, it was virtually undetectable by radar. The KM would later crash during a test flight due to pilot error and was deemed too expensive to restore and was abandoned. But the project was a success and yielded the Lun-class Ekroplane. 

The KM was powered by 10 Dobrynin VD-7 turbojet engines producing a total of 286,700 lbf (1,275.3 kN), which propelled the aircraft to a maximum speed of 400 kts (740 kmph). However, sources claim that this is exaggerated, and the actual number is around 350 kts (650). The KM boasted a range of 810 nm (1,500 kmph) because of the low induced drag it experienced when flying at a maximum altitude of 45 ft (14 m).

The use of ground-effect meant that a large wingspan was not required, therefore the KM, which was 301 ft 10 in (92.00 m) long and had an MTOW of 1,199,315 lbs (544,000 kg), only had a wingspan of 123 ft 4 in (37.60 m). 

Korabl Maket (Caspian Sea Monster)

Korabl Maket
Length 301 ft 10 in (92.00 m)
Wingspan 123 ft 4 in (37.60 m)
BEW 250,000 lbs (113,398 kg)
MTOW 1,199,315 lbs (544,000 kg)
Range 810 nm (1,500 kmph)

Lockheed C-5 Galaxy

lockheed c-5 galaxy

The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy is a high-wing, quad-engined, t-tailed and is the largest military transport aircraft the United States military uses. It was introduced into service in 1970 and is still in use 52 years later. The C-5 was a result of the Heavy Logistics System project that the military commissioned in 1964. Boeing’s failed bid for this project is what paved the way for the B747. 

The C-5 is powered by four General Electric TF39 high-bypass turbofan engines. The TF39 was the first high-bypass jet engine developed and has since been developed into the General Electric F138, which powers the Super Galaxy variant. The former produces 43,300 lbf (193 kN), while the latter produces 51,000 lbf (230 kN).

The C-5 is 247 ft 1 in (75.31 m) long, which makes it longer than the A380. With no payload, the C-5 has a range of 7,000 nm (13,000 km); this drops to 2,300 nm (4,260 km) when the aircraft is fully loaded. However, the C-5 can refuel in the air, so the range is not an issue.

Lockheed produced a total of 131 units of the C-5 Galaxy; 81 were the original C-5A variant, with the remaining 50 units being the upgraded C-5B. In 2002, the C-5s underwent the Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) to retrofit the aircraft with new autopilot systems, new displays, and improved communication and navigation equipment.

Four years later, the Air Force decided to introduce the C-5 Reliability Enhancement and Re-engining Program (RERP). The engines were upgraded to the General Electric F138 with new pylons. The landing gear, frame, and skin were all overhauled to have the aircraft in operation until 2040. 

Specifications C-5 Super Galaxy

C-5 Super Galaxy
Length 247 ft 10 in (75.3 m)
Wingspan 222 ft 9 in (67.89 m)
Height 65 ft 1 in (19.84 m)
Payload 81,001 lbs (127,460 kg)
MTOW 840,000 lbs (381,024 kg)
Range 810 nm (1,500 kmph)

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

Fondly referred to as the BUFF (Big Ugly Fat Fucker) by the Air Force, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress was introduced into service in 1995 and is still being flown today, making it one of the longest-serving military aircraft in existence. The B-52 is a long-range, subsonic, strategic bomber that doubles as an airborne patrol aircraft as well. Since its release, Boeing has constantly maintained and provided upgrades to the B-52 to keep it both airworthy and technologically current. 

The B-52 can carry 70,000 lbs (31,500 kg) of armaments and is designed to launch virtually every type of ordinance possible, from nuclear weapons to conventional bombs and everything in between. The B-52 has been in active service since the Cold war and played a large part in both the Vietnam war and the Gulf war. 

The B-52 is powered by eight Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-3/103 turbofans that produced 17,000 lbf (76 kN) of thrust each. These engines are far from fuel-efficient by today’s standards, but the Air Force has begun a program to re-engine the B-52 with Rolls Royce made BR725 engines, which have been militarized and are now called F130 engines.

The increase in power may be enough to change the engine configuration from eight to four. However, the B-52’s tail lacks the authority to keep the aircraft in check in the event of a critical engine failure, so it may not happen.

Boeing has produced 13 variants, including prototypes from 1952 to 1962, during which a total of 744 have been built. The aircraft was introduced into service in 1955, and there are no plans to retire it yet. 

Specifications Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
Length 159 ft 4 in (48.5 m)
Wingspan 185 ft 0 in (56.4 m)
Height 40 ft 8 in (12.4 m)
Payload 81,001 lbs (127,460 kg)
MTOW 488,000 lb (221,323 kg)
Range 8,816 nm (16,327 km)
Combat Range 7,600 nm (14,200 km)

Stratolauncher

The Stratolauncher is a sight to behold. This experimental aircraft is a twin-fuselage, six-engined mother-ship is that currently holds the title for the longest wingspan of any aircraft beating the H-4 Hercules’ massive 320 ft 11 in (97.82 m) wingspan with its mammoth wingspan of 385 ft (117 m), which has earned it the nickname “Space Goose.” 

The Stratolauncher, or ROC, is built by Scaled Composites to air-launch space shuttles. The specifications for the ROC are just as large as its wingspan. The ROC is powered by six Pratt and Whitney PW4056 turbofans producing 56,750 lbf (252.4 kN) of thrust each, for a total of 340,500 lbs (1,514.4 kN). 

It needs all the thrust it can get because it’s one heavy aircraft. The rated maximum takeoff weight is 1,300,000 lbs (589,670 kg) while the payload is a whopping 550,000 lbs (249,475 kg). To carry all this weight on the ground, the ROC has a total of 28 wheels, 12 on the main landing gear and two on the nose gear, on each fuselage. 

The ROC is currently in its flight testing phase and completed its seventh test flight in June 2022. The ROC’s service ceiling was tested, and it was able to fly up to 35,000 ft (11,000 m) with its payload and has a total ferry range of 2,500 nm (4,600 km). 

Specifications Stratolauncher

Stratolauncher
Length 238 ft (73 m)
Wingspan 385 ft (117 m)
Height 50 ft (15 m)
BEW 500,000 lb (226,796 kg)
MTOW 1,300,000 lb (589,670 kg)
Payload 550,000 lb (250,000 kg)
Ferry Range 1,000 nm (1,900 km)
Combat Range 2,500 nm (4,600 km)

FAQs

Question: When will the Stratolauncher fly?

Answer: The aircraft first flew on the 13th of April, 2019. Currently, the timeline for its introduction is unknown

Question: Why does the Boeing 777X have folding wingtips?

Answer: The 777X has folding wingtips to allow it to fly into high-density airports that have limited gate space.

Question: Why does the military not replace the B-52 and C-5?

Answer: Producing a cutting-edge military aircraft costs billions, and staying ahead of the technological curve and other countries requires constant development, which often results in cost overruns. 
A prime example is the F-35 project. So when the military has aircraft that perform well and can used for extended periods with smaller, cheaper changes, it takes the opportunity, even though the aircraft may have lost its technological edge. 

Question: Why are Jumbo Jets no longer feasible?

Answer: The aviation industry has moved away from a hub-and-spoke model, where large aircraft ferry passengers to the main airport like O’Hare and smaller regionals fly passengers to their destinations. Instead, it has become more economical to fly directly to the final destination; this model is called point-to-point. The reduced number of passengers per flight means that high-density aircraft are no longer as necessary as they were. 

stratofortress

Conclusion

These giants of the aviation industry aren’t built because they can be; they are built because they are needed. And we should be glad they were because each aircraft on this list pushed aeronautical engineering to its limits and exceeded them, allowing pilots and passengers to enjoy better and safer commercial air travel. 

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References

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