Which Aircraft Can Carry The Heaviest Load?

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With so many airlines looking to cash in on the lucrative cargo trade, many have begun to consider transforming passenger aircraft into freighters. But which aircraft can carry the most weight, and which passenger aircraft, if converted, would make the best cargo transport?

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Is the Boeing 747-8F the best cargo plane flying in the sky? Photo: Getty Images

Why do airlines want to fly cargo?

There are two primary reasons why airlines want to fly more cargo.

The first is that, right now, only cargo flights are allowed in and out of most countries to maintain a worldwide quarantine. And since airlines are in the business of flying, operating cargo flights is one of the only means of actually earning revenue.

A second reason why cargo is lucrative is that cargo operators are willing to pay much higher for transport than passengers. Cargo won’t be shopping around for a cheaper deal and is happy to pay for a higher premium to get to its destination sooner.

Plus the costs are much lower. Cargo doesn’t require any services, no entertainment, heat, or food; a saving that is passed on to the airlines.

Which aircraft can carry the ‘most’ cargo?

Now that is a dangerously worded question because you need to consider the difference between cargo weight and cargo volume. Not all cargo weights the same, and different densities will greatly influence your answer.

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If we were to consider cargo capacity in terms of volume, then the Airbus A380 is the perfect candidate. Not only does it have three decks (one cargo and two for passengers), but it can also fly long range. However, there is a problem; the A380 aircraft itself is very heavy, and you will run out of engine thrust to take off before you max out the internal storage space. So unless your transporting balloons or feathers, the A380 is not the best transport.

Airbus did propose a freighter version of the A380; the A380F. Photo: Getty Images

Which aircraft can carry the heaviest load?

To really see which aircraft perform best as freighter operators, we need to consider the weight they are able to shift.

The winner, in this case, would be the colossal Antonov An-225 Mriya. Initially designed to carry the Soviet version of the space shuttle, it is now used regularly by heavy industries to transport drills, equipment, and engines. Even Boeing has employed a smaller An-125 to transport its GE9X engine back and forth for repairs. 

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It is a misnomer to state an exact maximum carrying capacity of the An-225, as its six engines are so powerful that they never been put to the test. But some sources suggest it can ‘only’ carry up to 640,000 kg (1,410,958 lb).

But it is not practical. Why? Because when the An-225 carries 200 tonnes of weight, it can only fly 2,500 nautical miles. That’s less range than a Boeing 737. This means it is not a good aircraft for most cargo operations, despite being able to carry the most.

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The aircraft is designed for the heaviest loads. Photo: Antanov Airlines

Which aircraft is the best for airlines?

The best aircraft for airlines is in the middle, a sort of Goldilocks aircraft. One that is big enough and powerful enough to carry plenty of cargo, but isn’t so heavy that the aircraft can’t fly far.

Possible contenders include the Boeing 747 (which was turned into a freighter), the Boeing 777 (another popular cargo transport), and the Airbus A330. For smaller operations, Boeing also offered the 767 for cargo.

Interestingly, there have been no cargo Airbus A350s built yet, but Airbus has tried to get some airlines to buy into the idea. Perhaps the current environment will stimulate this demand now. Boeing also has yet to offer the Boeing 787 platform as a cargo carrier (at least until they are finished making 767s), but that hasn’t stopped airlines using the type for cargo only routes. 

What do you think? Which aircraft do you think is best for cargo? Let us know in the comments.

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