BBC Future

Aviation giants: Ten super-sized planes from history

About the author

Stephen Dowling is BBC Future's associate editor.

Twitter: @sjdowling

He also blogs about analogue photography: Zorkiphoto


  • Biplane behemoth
    The biggest plane of World War I was the Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI. Made of wood, each plane required a ground crew of 50. (Copyright: San Diego Air and Space Museum)
  • Boat with wings
    Another German giant was the Dornier Do X, a flying boat powered by 12 engines which could carry up to 100 passengers. It weighed a massive 56 tonnes. (Copyright: Bundesarchiv)
  • Super-sized Soviet
    Tupolev's ANT-20 was a propaganda tool, an airliner with a radio station, cinema and photo lab - and a huge engine above the fuselage to help it fly. (Copyright: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Iconic bomber
    One of World War II's biggest aircraft, Boeing's B-29 Superfortress dropped atomic bombs on Japan and ushered in a new age of giant, long-range bombers. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Millionaire's folly
    Eccentric industrialist Howard Hughes' H-4 Hercules has the largest wingspan of any plane; but the giant 'Spruce Goose' flew only a handful of times. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Cold War giant
    The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was the world's first intercontinental bomber, and needed a mix of propellers and jet engines to get its vast bulk airborne. (Copyright: Clemens Vaster)
  • Jet veteran
    Boeing's enormous B-52 Stratofortress remains one of the biggest jet aircraft ever made, only getting into the air thanks to eight powerful engines. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Russian record-breaker
    The world's heaviest combat aircraft, Tupolev's Tu-160 has a maximum take-off weight of some 275 tonnes; it's the biggest swing-wing plane ever made. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Outsized airliner
    While the Boeing 747 was the first to be referred to as a Jumbo Jet, Airbus’ A380 is even bigger – it can carry 850 people. Can airliners get any bigger? (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Titanic transport
    The biggest aircraft ever built, Antonov’s An-225 is a six-engined monster 84m long and capable of carrying nearly 250 tonnes of freight. (Copyright: Getty Images)
Aircraft designers have always been striving to build bigger and bigger planes – and some of their creations have tested man’s ability to fly to the very limit.

Since the dawn of flight, the desire to build bigger and bigger aircraft has been a constant – and resulted in a string of ever-increasing craft pushing the limits of technology.

World War I saw designers create aviation’s first giants – multi-engined bombers that flew hundreds of miles beyond the front. Between the wars, flying boats like the Dornier Do X and airliners like the USSR’s ANT-20 reached sizes undreamed of only decades before. The latter, weighing over 50 tonnes at takeoff and with a wingspan of 207 feet (63 metres), had its own printing press, movie theatre and photo lab.

The advent of the jet engine allowed aircraft to become bigger and heavier – resulting in planes like the Airbus A380, a double-decker capable of carrying more than 850 people into the air, and the Antonov An-225 transport, a freighter which can haul 250 tonnes of cargo into the air and is longer than the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

Here is our selection of some of aviation’s biggest giants.

(Convair B-36 picture from Clemens Vasters on Flickr)

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