Who Really Has The Largest Aircraft?

We were all glued to our screens for a moment a few weeks ago, watching the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch dual-fuselage space launch platform aircraft make its first flight. The six-engined aircraft represents an impressive technical feat by any standard, and with a wingspan of 385 ft (117 m) and payload weight of 550,000 lb (250 t), is touted as the largest ever flown.

Our own Brian Benchoff took a look at the possibility of hauling more mundane cargo as an alternative (and possibly more popular) use of its lifting capabilities. And in doing so mentioned that “by most measure that matter” this is the largest aircraft ever built. There are several contenders for the title of largest aircraft that depend upon different statistics, so which one really is the largest? Sometimes it’s not as clear as you’d think, but finding out leads us into a fascinating review of some unusual aeronautical engineering.

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The Stratolaunch Is Flying, But Can It Do Cargo?

The world’s largest aircraft is flying. Stratolaunch took to the skies in test flights leading up to its main mission to take rockets up to 20,000 feet on the first stage of their flight to space. But the Stratolaunch is a remarkable aircraft, a one-of-a-kind, and unlike anything ever built before. It can lift a massive 250 tons into the air, and it can bring it back down again.

By most measures that matter, the Stratolaunch is the largest aircraft ever flown. It has the largest wingspan of any aircraft, and it has the largest cargo capacity of any aircraft. In an industry that is grasping at interesting and novel approaches to spaceflight like rockoons and a small satellite launcher from a company whose CTO is still a junior in college, the Stratolaunch makes unexpected sense; this is a launch platform above the clouds, that can deliver a rocket to orbit, on time.

But the Stratolaunch is much more than that. This is an aircraft whose simple existence deserves respect. And, like others of its kind, the Antonov AN-225, the Spruce Goose, there is only one. Even if it never launches a rocket, the Stratolaunch will live on by the simple nature of its unique capabilities. But what are those capabilities? Is it possible for the Stratolaunch to serve as a cargo plane? The answer is more interesting than you think.

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