Once militaries got a load of the airplane, they wasted no time in turning it into a gravity-defying war machine. The first dogfight took place in 1913, and that was the start of a long and illustrious journey. Over the decades, armed service planes have gone from fragile wooden structures to gargantuan feats of modern engineering. Take a look as we explore the high-flying leviathans that make up some of the world’s largest military aircraft.
25. Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI
Military planes made their big debut during World War I. In comparison to the planes that would do battle in the decades to come, these planes were nothing impressive. However, the German Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI turned a number of heads back in those good old days as it was one of the biggest wooden planes built at the time.
It was also the first aircraft to ever have a completely enclosed cockpit. Despite that jump in technology, almost every single one of them was wiped out during the war. Out of a fleet of 18, six crashed, four were shot down and two were taken out by technical difficulties.
24. Boeing B-29 Superfortress
Once the United States found its way into World War II, they knew they’d need a military plane that would strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. In 1943, they did just that by constructing the B-29 Superfortress. It was so good at helping rack up victories during the era, that it was brought back for battle during the Korean War.
The four engine plane was the most modern aircraft in the skies back in the 1940s. But that title didn’t come without a high price to pay. It was the most expensive weapons project for the United States during the decade. The design process alone was more pricey than even the Manhattan Project.
23. North American XB-70 Valkyrie
When the North American XB-70 Valkyrie hit the scene in the 1950s, it was like nothing that had ever been seen up to that point. The military plane was built for speed. With ease, it could hit Mach 3 and even surpass that speed while cruising for thousands of miles. It was also one of the first planes to climb to an elevation of 70,000 feet.
The sleek bomber was so advanced that it was thought to be an nearly indestructible force until the Soviets upped their missile game in the late ’50s and cast doubts on its practically mystical status. Coming at the height of the Cold War and Korean War, you can believe that the Soviets had a staunch eye on the Valkyrie.
22. Xian H-6 Bomber
Introduced by the Chinese at the tail end of the 1960s, the Xian H-6 Bomber was one of the most intimidating war planes of its time. According to current estimates, China still operates about 120 of the twin-engine jet bomber. Additionally, they’ve made quite a fortune selling these planes to countries like Iraq and Egypt.
While China used it mainly for war-game testing, Iraq used their supply of Xian H-6 Bombers during the Persian Gulf War. Unfortunately, they were all destroyed during the war and officially retired by the Middle Eastern country in 1991. Egypt retired their Xian H-6 Bombers in 2000.
21. Tu-154 Special Missions Aircraft
If the Tu-154 Special Missions Aircraft is flying through the sky, it’ll likely be mistaken for a regular passenger plane and that’s exactly what the Chinese government wanted. Originally developed by the Soviets, this military plane is now specifically for special missions. If the Chinese government spots any suspicious boats or aircraft around, they’ll send the Tu-154 to fly over them.
While its presence may look casual, the Tu-154 will actually take photos and capture any electromagnetic signals that are being broadcast from the location. It can almost be described as a flying ultrasound. If you catch this seemingly normal looking plane flying over you, chances are the Chinese government is interested in who you are.
20. Martin JRM Mars
While the Germans had the Blohm & Voss during World War II, the Americans had the Martin JRM. The four-engine seaplane was the biggest flying boat in the Allied forces. There were seven models made during the war and they did a heck of a job keeping enemies at bay.
Of the original seven, only four made it through the war. Once retired from the battlefield, they opened themselves up for civilian use. Given their ability to double as a boat and a plane, some were used as water bombers for local firehouses. As of 2019, they have all been taken out of commission.
19. Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules
Released in 1996, the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules was one of the top war machines of the decade. When a military plane has “Super Hercules” in its name, you know that it means business. While the military plane was introduced to the world by the American Air Force, it is now active in over 15 militaries across the world.
While many impressive planes from the 1990s have been retired, the Super Hercules is still manufactured today. The durable aircraft currently holds the record for being mass produced longer than any other plane in military history. Looks like this powerhouse is going to be on the runway for years to come.
18. Kawanishi H8K
As World War II was wrapping, the Kawanishi H8K was the go-to military plane for the Japanese. The aircraft was specifically built to go long distances. When it came to solo trips across the ocean, the Kawanishi H8K was the plane to fly. However, none of them ever got a chance to make it over the Pacific.
Throughout the last years of the war, these planes were primarily used by the Japanese Navy for maritime patrol. Amid the battlefields of WW2, Americans nicknamed the plane “Emily.” If any soldiers radioed in saying the word “Emily,” everyone knew they were referencing the Kawanishi H8K.
17. Kalinin K-7
Amidst all the experimental military planes out there at the time of its launch, the Kalinin K-7 stood alone. Constructed by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen back then. Equipped with twin booms, six engines, a load of cannons and machine gun turrets, the airborne behemoth was ready for war. Incidentally, the gigantic structure would never live to be seen by foreign eyes.
Despite its impressive appearance, the Kalinin K-7’s design was extremely flawed. When taken for a brief flight test, the flying fortress vibrated aggressively. In an effort to patch up the problem, engineers added two additional engines to the structure. The add-ons did little to help the plane, as its second test flight resulted in a tragic crash.
16. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
Out of all the acclaimed military planes, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress has to be one of the most famous. The aircraft even had a band named after them! Popular ’80s music aside, the U.S. Air Force first introduced this war plane back in the 1950s. The major advantages that it presented had everything to do with its carrying capabilities and fuel efficiency.
The B-52 Stratofortress was capable of carrying 70,000 pounds of weapons and was able to fly 8,800 miles before refueling. The bomber was originally meant to carry nuclear weapons during the height of the Cold War. Even though fears of impending nuclear war have largely died down between Russia and America, there are still 50 operational B-52 Stratofortresses.
15. Antonov An-22 “Antei”
For decades, the Antonov An-22 set the standard for military cargo planes. Since its 1966 release by the Soviet Union, it has held the title of largest turboprop aircraft to ever hit the skies. While some would assume that its massive size would lead for shakey landings and slow journeys, the plane is actually remarkably agile.
One main facet of its allure is that it’s able to transport a bulk of missiles with little risk. Never has it suffered from a mid-flight explosion due to highly-sensitive cargo. It’s also equipped with 12 wheels, which leave for a very smooth landing.
14. Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker
While the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker doesn’t exactly see much battle action, it is the plane that keeps the action going. Its primary function is aerial refueling. For many decades, the KC-97 Stratofreighter was the go-to plane for jets needing to refuel on the go. Then the military came up with this upgrade.
The Boeing KC-135 holds the title for being the American Air Force’s first jet-powered refueling tanker. The plane came to fame during the Vietnam War and continued its service during Operation Desert Storm. Without this massive flying fueler, it would have been a lot harder to get American fighter jets overseas.
13. Blohm & Voss BV 238
The first half of the 20th century brought about a lot of experimental aircraft. While most of them were impressive sights, they’d usually come across as completely impractical. In 1944, the German army introduced us to the mammoth Blohm & Voss BV 238. While it did manage to fly, it was often described as a flying boat and not a military plane.
The Blohm and Voss was extremely bulky and weighed 120,769 pounds. The size and the resources it took to create the structure prevented any further models from ever being built. Despite its lack of impact while operational, it would go down in history as the largest aircraft ever produced by the Axis powers in World War II.
12. Douglas XB-19
The Douglas XB-19 hit the height of its fame during World War II. While it wasn’t the U.S. Air Force’s most modern military plane at the time, it was their biggest and perhaps most intimidating. However, the plane would not past the test of time. Amid technological advancements following the Second World War, the Douglas XB-19 was retired in 1946.
The 1940s saw the United States produce an array of new bombs. Some of them were extremely oversized and couldn’t be fitted to the average military plane. That’s where the Douglas XB-19 came in. The aircraft was big enough to carry even the most massive of weapons with ease.
11. Tupolev Tu-160
The Tupolev Tu-160 was the Soviet Union’s answer to America’s Valkyrie. The Russian Air Force presented the world with this military plane back in 1987 and it is their heaviest combat aircraft to date. This supersonic Jet is also one of the last military planes the Soviet Union ever designed.
What makes sets this strategic bomber apart is its ability to reach the speed of Mach 2. Back in the ’80s, such a heavy plane reaching that speed was almost unheard of. Today, the plane is still considered a work of art. It’s been over three decades since its inception and it’s still considered one of the best military planes in the world.
10. Convair B-36 Peacemaker
The Convair B-36 Peacemaker wasn’t exactly going into battle with the hopes of spreading peace among its enemies, it was there to fight. In commission between 1948 and 1959, the B-36 was a strategic bomber that was America’s go-to aircraft during the Korean War era.
Despite being a military craft, it was used mainly for the purposes of nuclear testing. It was often under the command of the USAF Strategic Air Command, who’d use to plane to move nuclear bombs from one location to another. It didn’t exactly see a lot battles, but it was on of the most popular planes of its time.
9. McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet
The McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet has been Canada’s main fighter jet for over three decades. While it might not be a huge and intimidating ship in the sky, it can pack a punch that’ll match any gigantic military plane. The weapon that makes this jet a powerhouse is its Vulcan gun, which can let loose 6,000 rounds per minute.
When this terror bird isn’t firing rounds, it can also drop bombs on land targets. This military plane also has the speed to match its power. It can reach a speed of mach 1.8 and climb upward 50,000 feet per minute. Furthermore, the Hornet has been upgraded several times throughout the years, so we can only expect it to get more powerful.
8. Ilyushin II-76
The Ilyushin II-76 was originally set to be just another commercial freighter. However, tense times would destine the plane for military use. The Cold War was still in full swing back in 1971 when the Soviet army released the Ilyushin and decided to turn the freighter into a military plane.
The reason behind its popularity had to do with its ability to carry entire military vehicles and tons of heavy machinery. Despite being almost 50 years old, the plane is still heavily used today. In fact, there are currently 1,000 Ilyushins used by the Russian, Ukrainian, Indian and Libyan governments.
7. Airbus A400M Atlas
The Airbus A400M Atlas really displays just how amazing a cargo plane can be. The European military plane was specifically designed to make older transport aircraft irrelevant. While it was officially constructed in 2007, the plane first entered service for the French Air Force in 2013.
While it isn’t the largest cargo plane to ever lift from the tarmac, the Atlas certainly classifies as one of the best. One of its major upsides is that it can be refueled while in the air. Respected militaries from around the world have quickly bought these planes. As of 2019, the Airbus A400m Atlas is the most used cargo plane on the planet.
6. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
Between 1967 and 1997, American aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas manufactured a handful of amazing military planes. Of those, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is the most intimidating. However, it’s not a battle plane, just one of the biggest military cargo planes in the United States.
Despite being built in the 1980s, this plane still remains extremely popular with the United States Air Force. They currently have 260 of these planes on active duty. One of the reasons for its popularity is likely its massive size. The colossal Boeing C-17 Globemaster III comes with a whopping 170-foot wingspan and can carry up to 80 tons of equipment.
5. Convair XC-99
If a plane’s worth was dependant on a sleek designs and vibrant colors, then the bulky Convair XC-99 probably wouldn’t rank very high. Luckily, appearance isn’t the litmus test here. While this heavy cargo aircraft wasn’t the easiest on the eyes, it was one of the biggest planes ever made and one of the oldest.
The Convair first took to the skies in 1947 and retired in 1957. Today, it’s still in the history books for being the largest piston-engine, cargo plane ever built. It had double cargo decks that were able to seat 400 soldiers in full combat gear. While the cargo plane has been out of commission for over 60 years, it can still be seen at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
4. Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
Engineers seemingly outdid themselves when they first constructed the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. The majestic plane may look sturdy, but looks can be deceiving. When the plane first hit the runways in 1968, it came with a slew of technical difficulties. One of the more common problems had to do with the wings cracking. This alone resulted in weight limitations.
Weight limitation on a cargo plane is definitely something that would sway other militaries from purchasing the aircraft. As of today, the technical difficulties have been solved and you can find 131 of these Lockheed planes in circulation all over the world.
3. Antonov An-124
The Antonov An-124 has made a name for itself in commercial aviation in addition to the military. It first came to the tarmac in the 1980s when it was constructed by the Antonov Design Bureau in the Soviet Union. While you wouldn’t have seen these outside of the USSR back in the ’80s, there are now over 50 of them around the world.
The first models of these strategic airlift quad-jets were used as cargo planes. However, these weren’t your normal run of the mill cargo planes. For 30 years, they were the heaviest cargo planes in the world. The aircraft was eventually surpassed by the Boeing 747-8F and the Antonov An-225.
2. Hughes HK-1 Hercules
Sometimes millions of dollars get poured into a military plane and it never even makes it off the tarmac. This was the case with the HK-1. Despite its impressive appearance, the massive World War II era plane never even made it past the prototype stage. The HK-1 only took to the skies twice since being built and one of those flights only saw it travel 70 feet.
American business magnate and aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes heavily invested in the 400,000 pound aircraft. It’s been reported that he took $18 million out of his own wallet and put it towards the HK-1. Sadly, time was not on this cargo plane’s side and it ultimately served only as an inspiration for greater planes. Today, the HK-1 is sitting at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon.
1. Antonov An-225 Mriya
Hitting runways in 1988, the Antonov An-225 Mriya was one of the last gargantuan military planes produced by the Soviet Union. It is known as the largest and heaviest plane in the world. Despite the military plane being over three decades old, it is still being put to use by the Russian military. Even more interesting, for decades there was only one aircraft of this type in service.
In 2011, it was reportedly announced that’s the second-even An-225 could be produced within three years with the right funding. The freight plane isn’t just big, but also very able. It currently holds the world record for carrying cargo that weighed 559,577 pounds. When it isn’t moving goods, the Antonov An-225 Mriya sometimes makes appearances at air shows.
Honorary Mention: KC-10 Extender
Since its introduction in 1980, the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender aircraft has been holding strong and is still in service to this day. This monstrous plane was actually developed to be an aerial refueling tanker and has been used by the United States Air Force along with the Royal Netherlands Air Force to refuel planes midair.
Because of its specific use, the KC-10 Extender needed to be big enough to hold a whole lot of fuel – 197,800 liters to be exact. The gigantic military plane has a wingspan of 50 meters and can fly 7,032 kilometers at 996 kilometers per hour.
Honorary Mention: A330 MRTT
With a wingspan of 60 meters, the Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft is hard to miss on this list of largest military planes. Like many on this list, the A330’s main purpose is for aerial refueling. The first A330 was developed in 2007 and introduced officially in 2011. Today, it is still in use.
Apparently this refueling tanker is a hot commodity, and has been requested for use by the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Air Force, Royal Saudi Air Force, French Air Force, United Arab Emirates Air Force, Republic of Singapore Air Force, and a few others. It is so high in demand that its big size, we assume, must match its big ego.
Honorary Mention: Xi’an Y-20
Holding the title as one of the largest military planes ever created in China, the Xi’an Y-20 aircraft was developed in 2006 for transport purposes. With a wingspan of 45 meters and weighing in at 100,000 kilograms, it is not hard to believe that the Xi’an Y-20 aircraft flew its way onto this list.
The Xi’an Y-20 stands out among other military aircrafts for having a bit of a wide fuselage. The distinct shape gave way for its more common nickname, Chubby Girl, by the Chinese who built it. But this Chubby Girl can carry a lot, with a maximum takeoff weight of 220,000 kilograms – or 485,017 pounds.
Honorary Mention: A310 MRTT
During the time of its original development, the Airbus 310 MRTT aircraft was meant to be used solely for transport reasons. But that is no longer the case. Now, the MRTT, which stands for Multi Role Tanker Transport, is mainly used as an aerial refueling tanker, but can still be used for both transport and fueling purposes.
Without anything in the aircraft, this hefty airplane weighs up to 251,325 pounds. And even with all of that weight, it is built to hold much more, with a maximum takeoff weight of about 361,550 pounds. That’s a whole lot of cargo for one plane.
Honorary Mention: Kawasaki XC-2
Developed in Japan and primarily used by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, the Kawasaki C-2 is a high speed military transport aircraft that packs a lot of punch. Compared to the older Kawasaki C-1, the new C-2 can carry four times more items for transport. And in a military operation, four times more capacity can mean the difference between life and death.
In total, the Kawasaki C-2 aircraft can hold a maximum takeoff weight of 311,734 pounds and can reach maximum speeds of 570 miles per hour. It has been reported that New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates have both tried to get their hands on one of these big aircrafts, but it will certainly cost them. These can cost $120 million.
Honorary Mention: Antonov An-70
The Antonov An-70 military aircraft is so big that it can actually transport military vehicles all over the world. The gigantic aircraft was originally developed in Kiev, Ukraine, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the development of the Antonov An-70 became a joint mission between Ukraine and Russia.
The Antonov An-70 took its first flight back in 1994. While the development of the aircraft has been a success, attempts to start producing the aircraft for regular use have stalled. So far, the program has cost about $5 billion. And if the aircraft ever does get produced, it could cost militaries $50 million to get their hands on one.
Honorary Mention: Shaanxi Y-9
Just around 2001 the Chinese military decided that their Shaanxi Y-8 airplanes were just not big enough. Now, enter the Shaanxi Y-9 aircraft, basically just a stretch out, expanded version of the successful Y-8 flyers. Still, it was not until 9 years later, in November 2010, that the first Y-9 aircrafts took flight.
Like many on this list of huge military airplanes, the Shaanxi Y-9 aircraft is a transport airplane. But this one can travel 404 miles per hour and can weigh up to 86,000 pounds when it is empty. At its maximum takeoff weight, these “medium sized” aircrafts can hold 170,000 pounds. Doesn’t sound too “medium” to us.
Honorary Mention: HAV Airlander 10
Anyone who happens to see a Hybrid Air Vehicle HAV 304/Airlander 10 (or just HAV Airlander 10 for short) might assume that they are getting a look at a blimp. In actuality, this unique aircraft is half helium airship and half motorized, engine driven airplane, and 100% goofy looking.
But the story behind the HAV 304/Airlander 10 is in some parts a sad one. This colossal aircraft had gone through many of the proper certifications to get its design off the ground, so to speak, but then came loose from where it was parked due to high winds. When that happened, the testing came to a halt. By we may see production of the HAV Airlander 10 very soon.
Honorary Mention: Scales Composites Model 351 Stratolaunch
It comes as no surprise that an aircraft that basically looks like two planes in one made it onto this list of largest military aircrafts. And this aircraft looks just about as cool as the job that it was built to perform.
The Scaled Composites Stratolaunch was developed to carry rockets into the air in order to launch them. Those rockets, by the way, can weigh up to 550,000 pounds. While it is still in the development stages, the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch has the longest wingspan ever at 385 feet, or 117 meters, and has a 1,300,000 maximum takeoff weight.
Honorary Mention: Messerschmitt ME 323
Known as the Flying Whale by some and the Giant by others, the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant was introduced for World War II. And while it was a huge aircraft, it did not receive an equally large tenure. The Flying Whale was introduced in 1943 and retired just a year later in 1944.
At the time of World War II, the Messerschmitt Me 323 was the largest transport aircraft to be used by anyone on the war. By today’s standards, and compared to many of the other aircrafts on this list, this plane had a wingspan of 55 meters and an empty weight of 60,252 pounds.
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