From B-52 bombers to aircraft that travel to the limits of Earth’s atmosphere to deploy rockets into space, the largest military planes in the world are fascinating behemoths of human engineering. Starting from smallest to largest, here are the 13 biggest military planes in the world.
1. Kawasaki C-2
Replacing the Kawasaki C-1 and Lockheed Martin C-130, the C-2 is the newest member of the Japanese Air Force. It became operational in 2016 and can carry much more cargo than its predecessors. The maximum capacity of the Kawasaki C-2 is 37.6 tons (75,200 pounds).
2. Ilyushin II-76
The first four-jet heavy transport to be used by the Soviet Union, the Il-76 (NATO codenamed Candid) came into production in 1974. Over 800 Il-76 military transport planes have been manufactured, and the Ilyushin was the workhorse of the Soviet Airlift Command during the Cold War. Its maximum capacity is 50 tons, and it was designed to transport heavy vehicles and machinery to poorly-serviced and remote airfields.
3. Xian Y-20
Developed with assistance from Russia and Ukraine, the Xian Y-20 is one of the newest members of the Chinese Air Force. Making its first flight in 2013, China became the fourth country in the world to build a 200-ton military transport plane, joining Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. Powered by four Russian D-30KP2 turbofan engines, the Xian Y-20 has a payload capacity of 66 tons and can carry most large combat vehicles.
4. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
A workhorse on strategic supply missions, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is one of the most relied upon aircraft in the United States Air Force. The development of the Globemaster began in the 1980s, and its first flight was made in 1991. By 1995, the C-17 Globemaster III was fully operational.
The Globemaster III has a maximum payload capacity of 76.6 tons (153,200 pounds). It can perform a variety of strategic operations in addition to transporting troops and cargo, including medical evacuations, airlifts, and airdrops. The C-17 Globemaster III can carry one M1A2 Abrams tank, three Stryker armored vehicles, or three AH-64 Apache helicopters. It can also carry an air-droppable platform up to 49.8 tons.
5. Antonov AN-22
The largest turboprop aircraft in the world is the Antonov AN-22, which was used extensively by the Soviet Union. It has a maximum payload capacity of 80 tons and can hold up to four BMD-2 airborne combat vehicles. The AN-22 also has a unique set of landing gear that allows it to land effortlessly on unprepared airfields. The Antonov AN-22 is larger and can carry more weight than the newer, more advanced Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.
6. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
The first B-52 entered service in the United States Air Force in 1955. The current model, the B-52H, first flew the skies in 1961. While the B-52 bomber has been around for over half a century, it continues to serve a purpose in the modern United States military.
The B-52 Stratofortress is a stealth bomber that can hold up to 70,000 pounds of weapons, ranging from laser-guided bombs to nuclear warheads. The U.S. Air Force also has plans to upgrade the B-52 in the future with new engines to increase range and efficiency.
7. Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy
Originally designed by Lockheed and upgraded by Lockheed Martin, the C-5 Galaxy is one of the largest military transport planes in the world. The C-5 has been in use by the United States Air Force beginning in 1969. The aircraft has played a part in all major conflicts since its inception, including conflicts in the Gulf War, Yom Kippur War, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Vietnam. A total of 131 aircraft came into service from 1969 to 1989, and 125 are still flying the skies today.
The C-5 is an immense, high-wing transport aircraft that features a distinct high-T-tail fin for stabilizing four TF39 turbofan engines. Internally, the plane holds 12 wing tanks that are used for aerial refueling. Its seating capacity is 80 in rear-facing seats.
The C-5’s cargo compartment is 13.5 feet high by 19 feet wide and 121 feet long. The nose of the plane can open to the full width and height of the cargo bay, which maximizes efficient loading capabilities. It can hold any type of military combat equipment, including five Bradley Fighting Vehicles or six Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters.
8. Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy
Designed to have a service life lasting beyond 2040, the C-5M Super Galaxy features modernized avionics and improved engines (GE CF6) compared to its predecessor. Like the C-5, cargo can be accessed from the front or the back of the plane. The maximum payload capacity of the C-5M Super Galaxy is 130 tons. It can carry ten 8×8 armored vehicles, including the LAV-25 or Stryker, or up to 16 HMMWV vehicles.
9. Aero Spacelines Super Guppy
The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy is one of the oddest-looking aircraft you will ever come across. The front of the plane features an oversized egg-shaped cockpit with a silver mirror finish. The oddly-shaped aircraft has been retired by every institution that ever used it—except one—NASA. The space agency of the United States appreciates the Guppy’s oversized dimensions and takes advantage of its width by transporting large spacecraft and rocket components.
The Super Guppy has an extensive history. The First Spacelines Super Guppy was developed from the bowed-out fuselage of a Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter and first took to the skies in 1965. And while it has been replaced in most countries by the Airbus Beluga, NASA continues to use the Super Guppy. Recently, NASA used the Super Guppy to haul the Orion spacecraft and SLS rockets from Huntsville, Alabama to Lockheed Martin in Denver.
Design-wise, the Super Guppy is ideal for packing in large cargo. Its cargo department is 25 feet tall by 25 feet wide and 111 feet long. The design also features a uniquely hinged nose that can open as wide as 110 degrees, which allows large cargo items to be loaded from either the front or the back. The Super Guppy can hold up to 24 tons of cargo.
10. Antonov AN-124 Ruslan
Operated by the Russian Air Force, the AN-124 Ruslan is the largest military aircraft in the world. For nearly three decades, starting from its first flight in 1984, the AN-124 Ruslan was the largest and heaviest aircraft in the world, period. However, the 747-8F overtook it in size in 2011.
The Ruslan, NATO codenamed “Condor,” has an estimated payload capacity of 165 tons (330,000 pounds). By comparison, the AN-124 can carry even more than the Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy. However, its maximum range is not quite as long. The “Condor” is powered by a Lotarev D-18 engine
Part of the ingenuity of the AN-124 Ruslan is its double fuselage, similar to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. The rear cargo door on the lower fuselage can open and close in-flight without affecting the structural integrity of the plane. An oleo strut suspension has been calibrated on the plane’s 24 wheels to allow for landing on difficult terrains and to allow for simpler front loading. An overhead crane is also included onboard and capable of lifting up to 30 tons of cargo.
11. Antonov AN-225 Mriya
The heaviest aircraft that has ever been built is the Antonov AN-225 Mriya. Originally designed to shuttle the Soviet spaceship “Buran,” the AN-225 was designed and built by the Antonov Design Bureau in 1980s Ukrainian SSR. The Mriya is currently used as a strategic heavy lift cargo transport.
At 710 tons, it is the heaviest aircraft ever created. The AN-225 Mriya holds the record for total payload airlifted at 559,580, in addition to holding the record for a single-item payload at 418,830 pounds. Its estimated capacity tops out at 640 tons (1,280,000 pounds).
The wingspan of the AN-225 is also the longest of any plane currently flying through the skies at 290 feet. To power this behemoth are six Ivchenko Progress Lotarev D-18T three-shaft turbofan engines.
12. Boeing KC-10 Extender
While the Air Force is waiting for the new Boeing KC46 Pegasus, the KC-10 will have to make do. As the tanker aircraft with the largest fuel capacity in the world, the Air Force should be fine while it waits. The KC-10 Extender beats the future Pegasus on fuel capacity by 70 tons. Its total fuel capacity is 175 tons (52,250 gallons) of fuel.
The Stratolaunch comes with an asterisk, as it has yet to take off to the skies yet. However, the scale of this plane is unlike any other. The Stratolaunch features the longest wingspan of any plane in the world at 385 feet. If the plane were to land at the 50-yard line of a football field, each of its wings would extend through the goalposts an extra 12.5 feet.
The purpose of the Stratolaunch is to bring rockets up into the Earth’s stratosphere and then launch them into space. This deployment of rockets would be beneficial over the typical rocket launch, as less fuel is needed to launch the rockets up through Earth’s gravity well.