We’d normally argue smaller and more powerful trumps size any day, but these giants of the sky are stunningly complex pieces of engineering that proves bigger is better. Being an aviator has to be one of the coolest jobs on the planet, more so if your job includes flying some of the most advanced aircraft in the world. Airliners are fine, but military hardware is where speed and adrenalin peak.
Airlines fly at 38,000 feet with speeds approaching 650 mph, comfort taking priority over thrills. In roughly the same size air-frame, you could be flying at tree-top level avoiding detection, or high-altitude surveillance sorties backed up with the latest in defensive/offensive tech, affording you an edge. Bigger, however, doesn’t just include military cargo planes, strategic bombers, fighters, helicopters along with some surprising unlikely giants past and present are bigger than you think.
9/9 Largest Fighter Jet – Tupolev Tu-28 / 128
Fighter jets typically make use of speed, agility, and size to achieve air superiority. Tupolev’s Tu-28/128 however bucks the trend. While it’s still a formidable interceptor capable of Mach 1.5 (1085 mph) in normal operational use, it’s not exactly agile with a +2.5 g limit.
Maneuverability and speed have been compromised by both weight and size. Fully loaded, this 96,000 lb 2-seater interceptor holds the record for both the heaviest and largest “fighter” ever deployed. In direct comparison with the F-15, it’s 33 feet longer and three times heavier. The Tu-28 is a giant.
8/9 Largest Piston Engined Bomber – B-36 Convair Peacemaker
Mainstay of the USAF strategic bombing wing, the B-52 is a familiar sight and name among aviation fans for its size and imposing presence. Even this giant of the skies has to play second fiddle to its predecessor, the B-26 Convair Peacemaker, marginally longer but an incredible 45 feet wider tip-to-tip.
By far the largest piston-engined bomber aircraft ever made, dwarfing the B-29 Superfortress in every area powered by six Pratt and Whitney R-4360-52 engines backed up by a further four GE J47 turbojets, giving a sustained cruise of 230 mph over ranges of 4000 miles with a payload of 72,000 lbs.
7/9 Largest Flying Boat – Blohm & Voss BV 238
Water and flight aren’t the best of travel companions at the best of times, but flying-boats do offer operators greater flexibility to operate from remote locations where runways are in short supply. While there was a glut of successful ’30s design that achieved resounding success, notably the Catalina PBY, others have been less impressive.
Weight and water drag are crucial factors, remember the ill-fated Howard Hughes Spruce Goose? Well, German aircraft manufacturer Blohm & Voss predated the H-4 by over a decade, facing the same issues. The B238, designed as a maritime water-born bomber, takes the title of the largest and heaviest Axis aircraft of WW2. Six Daimler-Benz V12 engines produced a combined 9360 hp tasked with powering this 192 ft span, 209,000 lbs leviathan to a cruising speed of 220 mph
6/9 Largest Jet Bomber – Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack
Faster than Rockwell’s B1 Lancer and considerably bigger and heavier than the venerable B52, Tupolev’s Tu-160 Blackjack is a potent cold-war survivor that on first appearances shares an uncanny underslung wing and engine configuration to Concorde. Only this Mach 2.3 variable geometry design packs an impressive 99,000 lb ordnance load.
First produced as far back as 1981 and continuing in production today, although actual numbers are remarkably low with a total 36 airframes, the Tu-160 fills a dwindling role with both Ukranian and Russian airforces. Measuring 177 ft nose to tail, Tupelov’s supersonic monster puts some larger transport aircraft to shame.
5/9 Largest Military Transport – Antonov An-124 Ruslan (Condor)
Only one heavy lift transport plane is bigger, heavier and more capable at shifting big loads, the much publicized AN-225 Mriya in effect an enlarged version of the Condor. Built to service Russia’s requirement for a multirole transport aircraft capable of both troop and mechanized armor transport with maximum payload of 430 troops or 330,000 lbs of cargo.The AN-225 by comparison topped out at 550,000 lbs.
Losing out on length to the C5 Galaxy by a mere 7 feet, the Condor regaining its size advantage in the import wingspan fight 240 vs 222 ft giving the Antonov a higher 886,000 lbs maximum take-off weight, with four Progress D-18T engines producing a combined 204,000 lbs of thrust.
4/9 Largest Carrier Deployed Aircraft – C-130 Hercules
Think carrier-born flight operations, and images of Top Gun inspired fighters springs to mind. Even then, the F-14 Tomcat was a big beast of a fighter to operate on the confined deck of a carrier. However, it’s not the largest aircraft ever to make use of the US Navy’s flat-tops, that honor goes to the C-130 Hercules.
Originally designed to operate from remote airfields where space is often a rare luxury, the C-130 Hercules is a short take-off and landing star thanks to a high power to lift ratio that bizarrely makes carrier landing surprisingly easy. A high wing configuration, four Allison T-56 engines with reversible blades proved stopping and starting a 132 ft wide 150,000 lb aircraft was just another day in office for the USN.
3/9 Largest Transport Helicopter – Mil Mi 26 Halo
Think big transport helicopters and the unique whop-whop soundtrack of the Chinook’s twin rotor instantly springs to mind, but if you need to recover a something bigger, say a down CH-47, then you need something much bigger. Enter the Mil Mi-26 Halo, the world’s biggest and most powerful military helicopter.
Fully loaded with 90 troops or 44,00 lbs of cargo, the Halo is not far short of a small-mid sized airliner, which, if called upon, it can lift in an underslung capacity. Nose to tail measuring 131 ft with a main rotor diameter only marginally smaller at 105 with power coming from twin Progress D-136 turbo shafts producing 22,800 hp.
2/9 Largest Biplane – Zeppelin Staaken R.VI
Taking a generational step back or two, during WW1, aircraft were a far cry from modern designs. Fabric skins over skeletal frames and wire stringers, separating man from both the elements and gravity. Engines too were still in their infancy, Zeppelins Staaken R.VI making use of just four Mercedes six-cylinder engines putting out a combined 980 hp, less than you get from a modern supercar.
Despite its 100+ years heritage, the Staaken is bigger than you might think, tip-to-tip measuring 146 feet with an all up weight of 26,00 lbs of which 4409 lbs are munitions. Unlike modern aircraft where computers monitor and control everything, the Staaken’s 10-man crew included two mechanics, one inside each engine pod.
1/9 Largest Spy Plane(s) – Lockheed SR-71 / Lockheed U-2
Taking sneakiness to another level, specialized spy planes always come in black, and most famously originate from Lockheed’s “Skunkworks” facility deep inside Area 51 or not, depending on theories. Both the US and SR-71 are the largest in one area or another. The SR-71 Blackbird designed for speed holds the record for length of 108 feet, its slower U2 relative for wingspan at 101 feet.
Neither are huge figures compared to the heavy lifters or strategic bombers, but given the role specifics of flying over hostile territory, smaller is definitely preferable, both designs relying on high-altitude operations for safety.