Size Matters

How big an aircraft can you build? Well, it depends. It depends on what kind of aircraft you're talking about, i.e. airplane, glider (including parasails and hang gliders), balloon (including blimps and airships) or helicopter) and how you define big. (weight? wingspan? volume? payload?)

First, a little perspective. The Wright Brothers Wright Flyer, the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft that flew in 1903, had a wingspan of 40'4", a length of 21'6", and weighed 605 lbs.

Size of airplanes grew rapidly after that, spurred, of course, by the use of airplanes in World War I. Still, for the first 50 or so years, the wingspan of airplanes rarely got bigger than about 100' (e.g., WWII bombers, such as the Liberator, at 110' or the German Condor at 107').

But wingspan is not the only way to measure 'size'! Airships - or lighter-than-air aircraft - can become quite large. The German LZ-129, aka the Hindenburg, was 776' long! This machine was so big that the crew would often venture out on top of the beast while in flight to sunbathe! And the Hindenburg, that crashed in 1937, remains the largest airship - and, depending on which dimension you choose, arguably the largest aircraft ever built. (The length of the Wright Brothers first powered flight was only 865'!)

The nearest thing to a large airship now flying, the British Airlander 10, is a hybrid machine that includes a large gasbag inside a huge airfoil, powered by several diesel engines. It is 302' long, 143' wide, and a volume of 3,640,000 cubic feet. It is often acclaimed today as the largest aircraft flying.

The last half of the twentieth century saw huge leaps in size and performance as a result, in large part, of revolutionary new lightweight high strength materials, including new metal alloys and, most strikingly, composites. That brings us to what most consider the largest airplane in service today, the Antonov-225 with a takeoff weight of 705 tons and the longest wingspan (at 290') and the largest airliner, the Airbus 380-800 with a maximum takeoff weight of 617 tons and a wingspan of 262'.

But if you want to consider weight, it takes rockets to get really, really big. The space shuttle, which could be called a powered glider, tips the scales at 2,200 tons at liftoff. The Saturn V (the rocket that took men to the moon) takes top honors with a liftoff weight of 2,520 tons!!

Finally . . . soon to fly will be the Stratolaunch, the largest all-composite aircraft built, with a wingspan of 385' will take to the air to launch rockets carrying low-earth orbit satellites! But that's another story in and of itself!