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Cargo giants: which aircraft can carry the most freight?

Some cargo jets have a greater capacity than others when it comes to carrying unusually large or heavy goods. AeroTime investigates these cargo giants to determine which aircraft can carry the most freight.

10. Aero Spacelines Super Guppy

Some of the enormous freight loads flown by larger cargo aircraft are space-bound vehicles and components.

The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy is one such freighter that can carry these larger goods. This wide-body cargo aircraft is famous for its crucial role in the Apollo program and became the first and only plane in the world to fly Apollo IV rockets and other components in 1965. The Super Guppy was also widely used for flying spaceship components for NASA’s space missions.

Most recently, in November 2019, the Super Guppy was involved in transportation on the Orion spacecraft from Mansfield Lahm Airport (MFD) in the United States.

Operated by four crew members, the freighter is powered by four Allison 501-D22C turboprop engines, which allows it to develop a maximum thrust rate of 7,100 horsepower of each engine. The four-bladed turboprop can cruise at speed of 410 km/h (250 mph) and can reach a maximum speed of 460 km/h (290 mph) while flying as far as 3,211 kilometers without refueling.

Regarding cargo capacity, the Super Guppy can carry as much as 24,000 kilograms (54,000 lbs) of freight with a maximum takeoff weight of around 77,000 kilograms (170,000 lbs).

Since its introduction, only five aircraft have been built in two variants. To date, only a single Super Guppy remains in service with NASA. Another has already been scrapped, and three are on display for curious aviation enthusiasts to admire in the US, France, and Germany.

9. Airbus A400M Atlas

Another large cargo aircraft is the A400m Atlas, which was introduced by Airbus in 2013. The aircraft is a popular option for cargo operations in Malaysia and eight European countries, including Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Tukey, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Four Europrop TP400-D6 turboprop engines provide the cargo jet with thrust equal to 11,000 horsepower. The aircraft can also fly as much as 37,000 kilograms (81,600 lbs) of freight and can carry 166 equipped troops as well as 66 stretchers accompanied by 25 medical personnel.

Atlas is not a leader among its competitors. But the aircraft still beats the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Transall C-160 in terms of its increased airlift capacity and range. The A400M was originally built to replace these two older freight transport aircraft.

Operated by three or four crew members, including two pilots (with an optional third) and a loadmaster, the jet is capable of reaching around 781 kilometers per hour (485 mph) speed with a range of 3,300 kilometers flying with a maximum load.

As for the A400M design, around 30% of its airframe is made of composite materials. For instance, its 42.4 meter-long (139 ft) span wing is made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic components.

As of May 2021, there were 100 Airbus A400M Atlas produced for freight operations.

8. Airbus A300-600ST / Beluga

There is no doubt that the ‘white whale of the skies’, the Airbus A300-600ST (Super Transporter), is one of the rarest and adored planes for plane spotters. Commonly known as Beluga, because it resembles the white Arctic whale, the super-sized transporter jet features one of the most voluminous cargo holds of any civil or military aircraft currently in operation.

The A300-600ST can be praised for its spacious cargo hold, which equals 1,500 cubic meters (53,000 cubic ft), allowing the plane to carry as much as 47,000 kg (103,617 lbs) of oversized freight. The freighter is typically used for the air transportation of chemical tanks, various aircraft parts, and space rocket components. For instance, it is capable of flying a fuselage section of an Airbus A350 wide-body plane, wings of the Airbus A340 aircraft, as many as 36 cars, up to 671 passengers, or seven elephants.

Beluga can be considered indispensable when transporting fragments of other aircraft. However, carrying certain freight, such as parts of the Airbus A380 superjumbo, is unattainable for this huge cargo airliner.

The white whale is powered by two General Electric CF6-80C2A8 turbofan engines, each generating a thrust of 58,000 lbs, and can attain a maximum speed of 864 kilometers per hour (537 mph) with a range of up to 4,600 kilometers without the need to refuel.

Flown by only two flight crew members, the Airbus A300-600ST retains the same flight deck as the A310 medium-to-long-range wide-body or the A300-600 mid-size wide-body aircraft, from which the white whale was modified to carry outsize cargo.

The aircraft has twice made aviation history. In 1997, the aircraft set a world record for flying the most voluminous payload by plane when the freighter carried a chemical tank for a merchant's vessel from Clermont-Ferrand (CFE) to Le Havre (LEH) in France. Then, in 2003, the cargo jet was awarded once again after it flew the farthest charter flight to date, during which Beluga carried two NHI NH90 helicopters and one Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter from Marseille (MRS), France to Melbourne (MEL), Australia. At the time, Airbus received a task to fly helicopters for the Aviation Airshow, which, excluding stops for refueling, was completed within 25 hours.

Since 1994, when the aircraft took to the skies for its maiden flight, the A300-600ST has played a key role in its manufacturer’s Airbus production distribution and assembly network.

The manufacturer has built only five units of the type and has already begun to phase in new-generation BelugaXL versions, which, in the future, will replace all five A300-600STs currently in service.

7. Airbus BelugaXL

The BelugaXL, the latest addition to Airbus’ transportation portfolio, was introduced in early-2020, as a promising replacement for its predecessor, the BelugaST.

In 2013, the five existing BelugaSTs were incapable of coping with Airbus production growth. So, the manufacturer began evaluating other freighters to ensure an uninterrupted logistics chain. However, none of the potential aircraft, including the Antonov An-124, the Antonov An-225, Boeing C-17 or Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, and the A400M, suited Airbus plans. Subsequently, the company spent around €1 billion to modify its existing A330-200 Freighter.

The newcomer entered the air cargo market providing 30% more cargo capacity than the older BelugaST. With a cargo hold volume of 2,209 cubic meters (78,000 cu ft), the Beluga XL can carry 50,500 kilograms (111,333 lbs) of freight up to 4,000 kilometer-long distances. Two Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofan engines each provide the cargo jet with 71,000 lbs of thrust.

The colossal Beluga XL possesses a distinctive fuselage design due to the lowered cockpit and a specific cargo bay structure. Its aft section is based on the A330-300, while the forward is based on the A330-200 owing to the center of gravity, and the reinforced floor and structure are derived from the A330-200 Freighter. Compared to the BelugaST, the fuselage of the XL is 6.9 m (23 ft) longer and 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) wider.

Airbus launched BelugaXL operations in January 2020, with the expectation that a total of six new freighters would be in service by the end of 2023.

6. Boeing C-17 Globemaster III

First deployed in 1991, and in production until 2015, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is famous for its cargo systems. Boeing designed the aircraft to replace some duties of its predecessors, such as the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. The Globemaster III is commonly used to perform strategic airlift missions, including medical evacuation, as well as transporting troops and freight across the world.

The T-tailed aircraft is designed to carry large or heavy non-palletized outsize cargo totaling 76,657 kilograms (169,000 lbs). It has a sufficiently large cross-section to carry large wheeled and tracked vehicles, tanks, helicopters, artillery, and weapons. The aircraft is capable of flying heavy freight, such as the 1 M1 Abrams tank, which is the main battle tank of the US Army, three Strykers, or six M1117 Armored Security Vehicles.

Powered by four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan engines, each amassing 40,440 lbs of thrust, the aircraft is widely used by operators across Australia, Canada, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Its engine option allows the plane to reach a cruising speed of 830 kilometers per hour (520 mph) while flying as much as 4,480 kilometers without refueling.

Crewed by two pilots and a loadmaster, the Globemaster III is most notable for its design. Its propulsive lift system allows the aircraft to achieve safe landings on short runways. According to Boeing, the plane is capable of landing a full payload in less than 3,000 ft. In addition, the propulsive lift system, which uses the engine exhaust to generate lift, allows the aircraft to fly a steep approach at a relatively low landing speed.

During the past three decades, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III has experienced regular use. It has also broken 14 records, including its payload-to-altitude ratio. Most recently, in August 2021, the US Air Force transported 823 Afghanistan citizens from Kabul during a humanitarian mission, which established another record number of people carried by the aircraft.

Throughout its production history, Boeing has built 279 aircraft of this type.

5. Antonov An-22 Antei

First introduced in 1967 as the first wide-body military transport aircraft for the Soviet Air Force, the Antonov An-22 Antei currently holds the title of the world’s largest turboprop aircraft. Originally known as the An-20, the aircraft was built to increase the Soviet Airborn Troops' capabilities to transport infantry fighting vehicles, BMD-1.

To accomplish such a task, the manufacturer installed four of the most powerful turboprop engines at the time. The Kuznetsov NK-12MA turboprop engines have two large, four-bladed, 6.2-meter (20 ft) high-speed contra-rotating propellers, each powering the aircraft with a maximum thrust of 15,001 horsepower. The selected engine option allows the freighter to reach a maximum cruise speed of 460 mph for a maximum range of 10,950 kilometers when its payload reaches 45,000 kilograms (99,208 lbs).

So, why does the An-22 deserve to be included in our list celebrating the largest cargo aircraft? Its enormous cargo hold capacity. The turboprop is capable of flying 80,000 kilograms (176,370 lbs) of freight as a maximum payload alongside a maximum of 29 passengers on board. The manufacturer completed the Soviet Air Force’s task and built the cargo hold capable of accommodating four BMD-1s, which is three more than its predecessor, the An-12, could carry.

Antonov mounted 12 wheels, six on each side and in the middle of the An-22 fuselage, and fitted the aircraft with rugged landing gear. This ensured that the aircraft was capable of takeoff and landing from austere, unpaved, and short airstrips.

The freighter’s specific design allows the rear cargo door to remain open while in flight in order to deploy paratroopers.

While production of the Antei ended in 1975 with the final 66th aircraft delivery to the Soviet Air Force, three turboprops are still airworthy.

4. Boeing 747 Dreamlifter

The Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, or the Large Cargo Freighter (LCF), is a combination of two aircraft, the ever-versatile Boeing 747-400 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which continues to satisfy plane spotters and cargo operators alike.

The history of the Dreamlifter, the world’s longest cargo aircraft, began in 2003 when the manufacturer realised that it needed to find a more time-efficient way to transport parts and components for the assembly of its 787 Dreamliner. Due to the length of time required to transport the Dreamliner’s parts by land or sea to the United States, air transportation seemed to be the most appropriate choice. Some of the Boeing 787 jet parts, such as wings, were too large for standard sea shipping containers. But the Boeing 747-400F freighter, Antonov An-124, and Antonov An-225, the available freighters, were also too small. So, Boeing developed a new aircraft dedicated to oversize freight transportation.

However, the manufacturer chose not to develop a completely new freighter. Instead, it converted four already existing passenger 747-400s, also known as the Queen of the Skies. During the conversion, Boeing made multiple changes to the 747-400 fuselage to ensure it was capable of carrying the outsize cargo and, to simplify the cargo loading process, installed a large swing tail door so freight could be loaded through the rear door.