Airplanes represent an extraordinary feat of engineering in the modern era. Within just a little over a century, humans have advanced from barely managing to stay airborne for a few seconds to transport hundreds of people around the globe. Some of these immense aircraft even have the capacity to carry trains, although they are not exactly suitable as carry-on items.
Aircraft manufacturers continue to push the boundaries of design, constantly striving to enhance efficiency and speed. This progress enables passengers to travel the world faster and in greater comfort than ever before.
Now, we invite you to stow away your luggage as we embark on a journey through the largest airplanes, ranked by wingspan, currently in the air. We sincerely thank you for choosing to fly with BBC Science Focus.
Boeing Dreamliner – 60.12m
Introduced in 2011, the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner is one of the swiftest commercial aircraft, reaching maximum propulsion speeds of 944 km/h. In 2019, a 787-8 unofficially achieved an astonishing speed of 1289 km/h, aided by the jet stream.
With its ingenious wing design and state-of-the-art engines, the Dreamliner boasts a 20% higher efficiency compared to its predecessor, the Boeing 767. Notably, this aircraft features the largest cabin windows among all commercial jets, offering passengers even in the middle seats a glimpse of the horizon.
Airbus A340-500 – 63.45m
Although the A340-500 is considered relatively old in terms of commercial jets, it boasts an impressive range of 14,484 km. This capability allowed it to fly non-stop from London to Perth, Australia, on a single tank of fuel.
However, due to its inefficiency and the emergence of more modern aircraft, the A340-500 is gradually being phased out of service worldwide.
Boeing 747 Dreamlifter – 64.44m
Primarily designed as a wide-bodied cargo plane, the Boeing 747 Dreamlifter serves the purpose of transporting components of another plane, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, from factories to final assembly plants. Nonetheless, due to its immense size and versatility, this freighter has enjoyed an extended service life.
Only four Dreamlifters have been manufactured so far, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, these planes gained recognition for their role in transporting medical supplies across the globe.
Lockheed C5 Galaxy – 67.89m
Initially designed for the transportation of components for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Lockheed C5 Galaxy is a wide-bodied cargo plane. Nevertheless, its colossal size and adaptability have contributed to its enduring service life.
To this day, only four Dreamlifters have been built, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, these planes became synonymous with the global transport of medical supplies.
Lockheed C5 Galaxy – 67.89m
The Lockheed C5 Galaxy is a military transport plane that has been in service with the US Air Force since 1969. Updated engines and systems ensure that a version of this plane will remain in service until 2040, marking an impressively long and illustrious career.
However, in many aspects, the C5 is starting to reveal its age. Pilots and operators widely acknowledge its notorious fuel inefficiency and reliability concerns. Nevertheless, its enormous cargo hold can accommodate tanks and other significant military equipment, enabling their transport to any location worldwide.
Boeing 747-8 – 68.45m
The venerable Boeing 747 continues to thrive after over 50 years of service, and the 747-8 variant stands as the largest version to date. It held the title of the longest airliner in the world for a decade until the advent of the Boeing 777X.
Although displaying signs of aging in certain aspects, the 747 can still provide comfortable air travel for 467 passengers around the globe. Moreover, it remains one of the most successful and recognizable planes in the skies.
Boeing 777X – 71.75m (during flight)
Similar to the 747, the Boeing 777X retains its status after over 50 years of service, and the 777-8 variant represents the largest iteration. For a decade, it held the title of the world’s longest airliner until it was succeeded by the Boeing 777X.
Despite showing signs of aging in certain areas, the 747 can still ensure comfortable journeys for 467 passengers across the world. Additionally, it stands as one of the most successful and renowned aircraft in operation today.
Boeing 777X – 71.75m (during flight)
Expected to commence service in 2025, the new Boeing 777-9 and its freight counterpart, the 777-8, present truly impressive aircraft. They feature cutting-edge aviation technology, including more fuel-efficient engines and wider bodies to accommodate increased cabin space.
Furthermore, the folding wingtips enable the wingspan to expand from 64.85m to 71.75m during flight, propelling this aircraft further up our list.
Antonov An-124 – 73.3m
The Antonov AN-124 currently holds the title of the heaviest operational cargo plane, having transported cargo worldwide for nearly 40 years. Despite its dated design, it continues to play a crucial role in aid missions, such as providing support to earthquake victims in Syria and Turkey in March 2023.
With a wider wingspan resembling the Lockheed C5 Galaxy, the AN-124 can accommodate 17% more payload, as well as up to 88 passengers when necessary.
Airbus A380-800 – 79.75m
The A380-800 stands as the world’s largest passenger plane, capable of carrying up to 853 people on holiday, although the average number of passengers is typically around 600.
In 2008, it became the first commercial airliner to utilize synthetic liquid fuel, conducting successful tests. Additionally, in March 2022, the A380 underwent a three-hour flight test using 100% sustainable aviation fuel.
Production of the A380 ceased after the construction of 251 aircraft, with no plans for a successor to this giant of the skies.
Antonov An-225 – 88.4m
The world’s largest transport plane was in service until its destruction during the Battle of Antonov Airport amid the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Until that point, it held the title of the heaviest plane ever built, boasting a maximum take-off weight of 640 tonnes.
Originally, only one aircraft was completed, but plans were announced to finish constructing a partially-built second version of the plane, indicating the potential return of this colossal aircraft to the skies.
Scaled Composites Stratolaunch – 117m
With a wingspan of 117m, the Stratolaunch currently holds the record for the largest plane ever flown. To provide some context, the average length of a soccer field measures around 105m.
Equipped with six engines, this plane can reach an altitude of 10,668m (35,000ft) and carries orbital rockets to the edge of space. Its twin-fuselage design houses the cockpit and flight crew in the right fuselage, while the left fuselage remains uncrewed and contains the flight data systems.