In 1945, George Orwell wrote, “We were once told that the aeroplane had ‘abolished frontiers’; actually it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that frontiers have become definitely impassable.”
The aircraft on this list are amongst the biggest and most spectacular ever built. These 10 giant military planes are incredible feats of engineering, and their impact on people’s lives cannot be underestimated. This article includes such classic airplanes as World War Two’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the monstrous Cold War-era Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, and massive transport plane the Convair XC-99. But see for yourself.
10. Martin JRM Mars
Introduced in 1943, the Martin JRM Mars has the distinction of being the largest flying boat ever put into production. Although ordered as a patrol bomber just before WWII, the JRM Mars was converted into a transport aircraft when the United States Navy decided that it was no longer needed for its initial purpose.
Boasting a sizable 200-foot wingspan, this behemoth of the skies was stripped of its armor plating and offensive weapons for its new role. Unfortunately, by the time the first aircraft was delivered, it was 1945 and the war had nearly ended. As a result, the Navy cut its order from 20 planes to just six.
Of these half dozen, two were destroyed in accidents – although the four surviving planes continued to fly with the US Navy until 1956. The four aircraft were eventually sold in 1959, but they ended up operating well into the 21st century – as gigantic, flying fire extinguishers capable of dousing a four-acre area in a single trip. In fact, one of the planes is still under contract for use.
9. Messerschmitt ME 323
No one ever accused Nazi Germany of subtlety. Not content with designing one of world’s largest and worst tanks, the Panzer VIII Maus – which weighed 220 tons and was too heavy to cross normal bridges – and massive battleship the Bismarck, German engineers also created the biggest land-based transport plane of WWII.
Dubbed the “Giant,” the Messerschmitt ME 323 was a gigantic cargo plane that weighed 30 tons and could easily lift 130 men plus a huge amount of equipment, weaponry and vehicles. The aircraft was first flown in 1942 and proved to be an effective means of transport. However, it suffered similar setbacks to some fellow German military Goliaths: its enormous size and lack of speed made it an easy target.
The plane was used extensively to supply Rommel's Afrika Korps during the Mediterranean campaign. This huge aircraft was resilient to enemy fire, but unfortunately for the Germans, Allied air superiority resulted in all airplanes of its type being destroyed by the summer of 1944.
8. Blohm & Voss BV 238
The Germans also constructed the largest aircraft manufactured by any of the Axis powers during the entire WWII conflict. First flown in April 1944, the Blohm & Voss BV 238 was a massive floatplane bristling with machine guns that weighed an incredible 59 tons.
As a floatplane, or boat plane, the BV 238 was designed to land on water – which must have been an impressive sight to witness firsthand. The airplane’s enormous range and good performance could potentially have posed a threat to Allied forces, but the BV 238 never entered mass production.
In 1945, the only example ever built was sunk by an Allied strafing run while it was docked at lake Schaalsee in Germany. Had it gotten off the ground, so to speak, who knows what damage it could have done?
7. Boeing B-29 Superfortress
No list of oversized military aircraft would be complete without the B-29 Superfortress, which was one of the largest and most advanced planes to serve during WWII. Introduced in May 1944, this American heavy bomber was capable of delivering 10 tons of its deadly payload to unleash on targets – and at speeds and altitudes few interceptors were able to match.
The B-29 weighed a phenomenal 37 tons and was more advanced than its predecessor, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The Superfortress also had a fully pressurized cabin, which was necessary considering the altitudes it operated at – a maximum of 31,850 feet (40,000 feet, according to some sources). The B-29 was also equipped with computer-assisted machine gun turrets, making it probably the best-defended bomber of its time – and a true technological terror.
And terror it did indeed inflict, for this ultimate WWII aircraft will forever be remembered for its role in laying waste to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the atomic bombs it dropped in 1945.
6. Convair B-36 Peacemaker
The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was somewhat doomed from the beginning, because it was a piston-powered plane in an aerial landscape that was already beginning to be dominated by supersonic jets. Stretching to 230 feet, its wingspan was the longest of any warplane ever constructed, and it could carry even more bombs than its successor, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.
The B-36 was in operation from 1949 and was blessed with an impressive operating range together with a high flight ceiling. Ultimately, however, such attributes did not compensate for its deficiencies against modern air defenses. The B-36 was slow, clumsy and difficult to refuel, but it was also the only American bomber with truly global reach. A carrier of long-range weapons of mass destruction, it was nicknamed the “Peacemaker.”
Unfortunately for the B-36, the introduction of fast jets like the Soviet MiG-15 interceptor meant that the bomber had to be limited to night missions, and towards the end of its lifetime, it was extremely vulnerable once inside Soviet airspace. The fleet was phased out and replaced by jet-powered airplanes of similar size in the mid-1950s.
5. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
In Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy Dr. Strangelove, B-52 commander Major T.J. Kong muses that his crew must “have some pretty strong feelings about nuclear combat.” Interestingly, B-52 patrols were actually used by the US to prevent “mutually assured destruction,” in this case referring to the military powers on both sides of the Cold War wiping each other out with their nuclear arsenals. The plane’s brutally ugly aesthetics seem to reflect its mission profile perfectly.
First flown in 1952, this Cold War aircraft measures a staggering 159 feet in length. The Stratofortress can also carry massive quantities of arms – from nuclear weapons to anti-ship missiles – and its days aren’t over yet.
The B-52 has been one of the US military’s tools for “spreading democracy” for over 60 years. And the plane's rugged design, good performance and low operating costs have ensured that it continues to see service today.
4. Convair XC-99
This transport version of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker was a prototype that first flew in 1946 as a gigantic cargo carrier. The Convair XC-99 was capable of bearing over 50 tons, or 400 troops, in its 182-foot-long frame, making it the biggest land-based piston-powered transport plane of all time.
Despite the XC-99’s impressive statistics, it was decided that the US Army did not require such a massive, long-range transport plane. According to reports, high-ranking Air Force personnel were not interested in investing time and money into high-maintenance propeller aircraft. The prototype was the only example constructed, and it was mostly used to transport parts and other provisions for the B-36 bomber in the Korean War.
The lone Convair XC-99 remained in service for 11 years, until it was decommissioned in 1957. A restoration project was planned for the gargantuan aircraft, but it is thought that the large amounts of corrosion it is suffering from may make this too difficult.
3. Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy has served the US Air Force since it first flew in 1968. Measuring 247 feet in length, the C-5 weighs an immense 190 tons and has a wingspan that stretches for almost 223 feet.
The C-5 had what might be called a troubled development. Indeed, it was described by one aviation historian as “one of the worst-run programs, ever, in its early years.” This Lockheed giant was beset by major technical and then mechanical problems in the late 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, the improved C-5M Super Galaxy model was designed, which will keep the plane in service until at least 2040.
The C-5 is capable of transporting practically any kind of army equipment, including hefty items like Apache helicopters – up to six of them. It has also taken part in various conflicts, among them Vietnam and the Gulf War. What’s more, its work in the field may not be done, as there are still 36 of the airplanes operational.
2. Tupolev Tu-160
The Russian military has rarely been averse to battering through a problem with sheer brute force, and the gigantic Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber is an excellent example of this philosophy in design. First flown in 1981, the Tu-160 boasts a heavier takeoff weight – over 300 tons – than any other military plane in service, excluding transports. It also has the most powerful engines yet installed in a combat airplane plus a top speed of Mach 2.3.
Overall, the Tupolev is a truly awe-inspiring piece of technology, and despite its sleek, Concorde-like silhouette, it’s a genuine heavy-hitter. It can carry over 44 tons of munitions, including the option of six air-launched Raduga Kh-55 cruise missiles.
The Tupolev Tu-160 was the final strategic bomber the USSR produced. That said, it is still being manufactured on a limited basis, and there are no less than 16 of the planes in service today.
1. Antonov An-225 Mriya
Designed for “strategic airlift” and first flown in December 1988, the Antonov An-225 Mriya is the largest and heaviest plane ever constructed. This gigantic hauler weighs a monumental 705 tons and can carry at least 275 tons of cargo – which is more than the Statue of Liberty weighs. The Mriya is also over 275 feet long, while its wings span a distance of 290 feet.
The huge aircraft was originally designed to carry the Buran space shuttle. However, when the Soviet Union split apart in 1991, the program was shelved, and in 1994 the An-225 was put into storage. Yet this wasn’t the end of the story. The plane was re-engined in the late ‘90s, re-certified in 2001 and flew its first commercial flight in January 2002.
Today, the airplane continues to set records, including hauling the largest single piece of cargo ever transported by air: four battle tanks weighing in at nearly 280 tons. Even the US has occasionally hired the An-225 for military transport. Size, it seems, does matter.