Nothing catches the eye quite like a massive helicopter slicing through the air, heading swiftly on an important mission. But what if said helicopter were carrying a tank or an airplane? From the illustrious and long-serving Boeing CH-47 Chinook to the hulking, super-powerful Mil Mi-26, many of the following 10 helicopters have played major roles in combat missions as well as civilian assignments around the world. This article includes sky cranes, payload record-breakers and a fascinating tiltrotor vehicle that blurs the lines between helicopter and airplane. Even one of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes’ machines made the cut.
10. Aérospatiale SA 321G Super Frelon
Defunct French aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale developed the Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon in cooperation with Fiat in Italy and Sikorsky Aircraft in the United States. The aircraft, which has an empty weight of 15,130 pounds (6,863 kilograms), was introduced in 1966 and is described as a three-engine “hornet.” Aérospatiale produced three military versions of the hulking aircraft, which is capable of transporting heavy loads.
Designed for the French Navy, the SA 321G (pictured above) was built to carry four homing torpedoes and was equipped for anti-submarine warfare. The SA 321H version was armed with anti-ship missiles, while the SA 321Ga was intended as a military transport and utility vehicle, also for the French Navy.
The helicopter is just over 75 feet (23 meters) long, with a rotor diameter of 62 feet (18.9 meters), and is able to carry up to 27 passengers in addition to its five crewmembers. This beast of the skies has been used in France, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Libya and South Africa and is still in use as a military helicopter in China, where the locally produced version is known as the Z-8.
9. Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe
Weighing 19,800 pounds (8,980 kilograms), the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe is a monster. This gigantic twin-engine sky crane was created by American aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft for the US Army, and it boasts a maximum takeoff weight of 47,000 pounds (21,000 kilograms), a rotor diameter of 72 feet (nearly 22 meters) and a total length of 88-and-a-half feet (nearly 27 meters).
The CH-54 was deployed to great effect during the Vietnam War, where it was used to recover downed aircraft. In fact, according to Combataircraft.com, this powerful machine rescued 380 aircraft during the conflict, salvaging $210 million in costs.
Sikorsky Aircraft began working on sky crane helicopters in 1958, but the CH-54 contains a modular design first imagined in 1947 by influential US Army Lieutenant General James Gavin. This adaptable module system contributed greatly to the success of the aircraft. One of the CH-54’s great advantages is that it can hover over an object and haul it up without needing to touch down.
Due to slimmed-down budgets, the CH-54 Tarhe wasn’t updated and was eventually replaced by the Boeing CH-47 Chinook. However, the civilian version of the CH-54, better known as the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, is still in use today as a firefighting and heavy-lifting helicopter.
8. Boeing CH-47 Chinook
Boeing Vertol introduced the CH-47 Chinook helicopter (now made by Boeing Rotorcraft Systems) in 1962, although it made its first flight on September 21, 1961. It is a twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter with tandem rotors that weighs 23,400 pounds (10,185 kilograms) and is capable of flying at speeds of up to 196 mph (315 km/h). Its versatility and power have made it a staple military aircraft for resupplying battlefields, carrying troops, supplies, artillery and ammunition. The craft is 98 feet and 10 inches long (30.1 meters) and can carry up to 55 troops, or cargo loads as heavy as 28,000 pounds (12,700 kilograms).
The CH-47 Chinook was used during the Vietnam War, the 1970s Iran-Iraq war, the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the UK, the 1990 to 1991 Persian Gulf War, and in the more recent Global War On Terrorism. It is one of only a small number of aircraft designed in the 1960s that is still used and in production. Over 1,179 of these behemoths have been made since the CH-47’s introduction, and it has been bought by 16 different nations.
7. Kellett-Hughes XH-17
On October 23, 1952, the Kellett-Hughes XH-17 “Flying Crane” was flown for the first time. It had an astonishing rotor diameter of 134 feet (41 meters) and weighed 28,563 pounds (12,956 kilograms). This gigantic helicopter could lift 10,284 pounds (4,665 kilograms) – which was quite remarkable for its day.
Several innovative solutions were needed to allow the helicopter to function properly. Two customized General Electric J35 turbojet engines positioned on either side of the aircraft sent compressed air up through the hollow rotor blades to four tip burners that injected and burned fuel.
In fact, the main problem faced by this remarkably gangly helicopter was its fuel consumption, which limited its flying range to a mere 40 miles (64 kilometers), well under the US Army’s 99-mile (160-kilometer) tactical prerequisites. Another unique feature of the XH-17 was that it was the first helicopter ever built by billionaire Howard Hughes’ company Hughes Aircraft.
6. Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey
The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is the first military-grade tiltrotor aircraft – meaning it produces both lift and propulsion using rotors fixed to revolving engine pods. The Osprey was developed in partnership between Bell Helicopter and Boeing Helicopters, who were contracted to create the aircraft in 1983, and it weighs 33,140 pounds (15,032 kilograms).
Because the Osprey is such a groundbreaking aircraft, a lot of testing and development went into it, and it was only flown for the first time on March 19, 1989 and introduced on June 13, 2007. The benefit of tiltrotor aircraft is that they offer vertical takeoff and landing like a helicopter but also boast the speed of an airplane.
This massive hybrid aircraft is capable of carrying up to 32 troops, a maximum of 20,000 pounds (9,070 kilograms) of internal cargo and 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms) of external cargo. It’s 57 feet and four inches (17.5 meters) long and can travel at a maximum speed of 316 mph (509 km/h) at sea level.
On September 28, 2005, the Pentagon officially certified the V-22 Osprey and planned to build 458 of the machines – the majority of them for the US Marine Corps. On April 22, 2013, the US approved a deal to wholesale the V-22 Osprey to the Israel Air Force.
5. Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion
The Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion is a heavy-lifting and cargo-carrying leviathan of a machine. Weighing 33,226 pounds (15,071 kilograms), it uses a watertight steel, titanium and light alloy fuselage and was introduced in 1981. Although its design was developed from the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion, the CH-53E Super Stallion is much more powerful than its predecessor. It has three engines, a seven-bladed main rotor and an in-flight refueling system, and it can support three machine guns. Staggeringly, it has a maximum takeoff weight of 73,500 pounds (33,300 kilograms).
According to Sikorsky.com, the Super Stallion is the only helicopter capable of lifting a 155mm Howitzer gun along with its crew and ammunition. It is the most powerful helicopter used by the United States Armed Force and, along with the MH-53E Sea Dragon variant, is the largest helicopter in the West. The US Marine Corps uses this giant of the skies for amphibious assault and heavy equipment transport, while it aids the US Navy in recovering aircraft and vertical deliveries.
4. Mil Mi-6
Developed by Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, the Mi-6 took its first flight on September 5, 1957 and was introduced two years later. With a length of 108 feet and 10 inches (33.18 meters) and weighing 60,055 pounds (27,240 kg), this is one huge helicopter – in fact, the world’s largest for a while. Remarkably, despite its size, in its day it was also the fastest helicopter on the planet and it broke several records.
This Russian heavyweight could reach a top speed of 186 mph (300 km/h), carry 90 passengers or 70 airborne troops, and had a range of 385 miles (620 kilometers). Its measurements: 32 feet and four inches (9.86 meters) tall and with a rotor diameter of 114 feet and 10 inches (35 meters). The Mi-6 was also capable of carrying up to 26,400 pounds (12,000 kilograms) of internal cargo, prior to its retirement in 2002.
3. Mil Mi-10
The Mil Mi-10 looks a bit like a giant dragonfly. This huge helicopter is another sky crane and is capable of carrying 33,070 pounds (15,000 kilograms) on a platform, or 17,635 pounds (8,000 kilograms) using a sling. Weighing 60,185 pounds (27,300 kilograms), the colossal Mi-10 has a rotor diameter of nearly 115 feet (35 meters) and is 32 feet and two inches (9.8 meters) tall. Now that’s big.
Manufactured by Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, this enormous “insect” was first flown in 1960 and was introduced in 1963. The Russian Aircraft Museum estimates that around 55 Mi-10s and Mi-10Ks (the “short-legged” version) were produced between 1960 and 1977. As a result, the choppers are quite rare today and are most likely to be spotted in Siberia, where several of them are still listed with carriers. Still, the Armed Forces History Museum website says that the chances of spotting one are “minimal.”
2. Mil Mi-26
The Mil Mi-26 is another colossal chopper manufactured by Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, and it’s not only the biggest helicopter ever to be put into production; it’s also the most powerful. It weighs 62,170 pounds (28,200 kilograms) and can lift an astounding 44,090 pounds (20,000 kilograms). And this capacity has been put to good use over the years.
In October 1999, the Mi-26 was used to transport a woolly mammoth preserved in a 25-ton (50,000-pound) ice block from Siberia to a lab in Khatanga, Taymyr, where scientists planned to study and potentially clone the animal. In 2002, a civilian Mi-26 was also used to rescue two downed US Army MH-47E Chinook helicopters in Afghanistan.
The aircraft is 131 feet and four inches (40 meters) long when its rotors are turning. It has an eight-bladed rotor system, which is 105 feet (32 meters) in diameter, and can travel at a top speed of 183 mph (295 km/h). Although the Mi-26 was flown for the first time on December 14, 1977, it wasn’t introduced until 1983. It is still used by the Russian, Ukrainian and Indian air forces, as well as by Russian airline Aeroflot.
1. Mil V-12
Although our final entry was never put into production, this list wouldn’t be complete without the behemoth that is the Mil V-12. Again a product of the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, the helicopter is absolutely gigantic. It’s an incredible 121 feet and four inches (37 meters) long and weighs 213,850 pounds (97,000 kilograms) when loaded. But its size isn’t the only reason for its standing.
On August 6, 1969, the V-12 lifted 88,636 pounds (44,205 kilograms) 7,398 feet (2,255 meters) into the air to set a new world record. Its designers also won the Sikorsky Prize for unmatched accomplishments in the field of helicopter technology.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Air Force chose not to accept the V-12 due to the fact that most of its heavy-lifting needs were already being fulfilled by the cheaper Mi-6 (and subsequently the Mi-26). Moreover, the aircraft’s ability to quickly deploy ballistic also become redundant at this point. That said, in 1980 Bill Gunston hypothesized in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Commercial Aircraft that the helicopter’s development was abandoned due to technical problems. Notwithstanding, it’s a true aviation goliath.