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Since we don't need a control tower for instrument landings I was wondering what else that is thought to be needed could be skipped. I know some small general aviation is done on grass runways and I was wondering what is the biggest airplane that does not need a paved runway? Examples of manufacturer-approved usage or regular (e.g. daily or weekly) usage are preferred.

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    $\begingroup$ A couple of questions to help clarify. Do you mean planes that are currently in production, or just historically? And when you "doesn't need a runway", what do you mean? Grass, dirt, aircraft carrier, water, rooftop? Also, it might be best to differentiate between military and civilian transport just because they are such different missions... Right now this question is...pretty broad. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Apr 14 '16 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ Does a metal runway count as paved? $\endgroup$ – J Walters Apr 14 '16 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ God this sounds like OP wants to smuggle cocaine or something! $\endgroup$ – k1308517 Apr 14 '16 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ Related: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/19313/… $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Apr 14 '16 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ The space shuttle. Any aircraft can land on an unpaved runway. In fact, a dirt runway makes the landing easier. Hard runways are used because they are easier to maintain, not because it makes the landing easier. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Apr 15 '16 at 0:47
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Military transports are designed to be operated from unpaved runways- by extension, any of these converted to civilian use can operate from unpaved runways.

For example, the Antonov Airlines operates a number of Antonov An-124 'Ruslan', which can and do operate from unpaved runways regularly. The Volga-Dnepr group specifically states:

Multi-leg landing gears equipped with 24 wheels allow to operate the aircraft on unpaved runways ...

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    $\begingroup$ Now only if somebody could find a definitive reference for An-225. Its 32 wheels certainly look like it should be able as well. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 14 '16 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec I'm not sure if it could. An-124 was developed as a military transport, while the 225 was designed to transport the Soviet shuttle. Anyway, I dont think the manufacturer or operator recommends its operation from unpaved strips. $\endgroup$ – aeroalias Apr 14 '16 at 5:28
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    $\begingroup$ Well, it probably wasn't design requirement for An-225, but the aircraft is a scaled-up version of An-124 and the gear is most likely the same, just with two extra legs on each side. If it has the same (low) pressure, it should be usable on unpaved strips. In the end the question is probably whether the operator (Antonov Airlines) would risk it if somebody came with the money and a good reason, or if they even ever did. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 14 '16 at 7:49
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The H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) should easily win this contest. That plane was ridiculously huge and, in fact, couldn't use a runway, rather it was a "flying boat" that took off from the the water. So I'd say it's the one...

Granted, if you mean a grass or gravel strip aeroalias is probably correct. The only other major planes that I know were designed to land on gravel were the early 737 and the 727. They both had special landing gear guards that keeps the front gear from kicking gravel into the engines and both have specific instructions for preparing the landing gear for touch down on gravel.

Here's the guard, if you were curious, on a 737:

737 nose gear with gravelkit guard
Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/capnmikesphotos/14891693505, Author: Mike Pearson

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    $\begingroup$ At 180t “loaded” weight (MTOW probably wasn't properly calculated as it was just a prototype) H-4 is tiny compared to An-124's 405t, though it had longer wing span. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 14 '16 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ Also, most the military transports were designed for grass or gravel strips, including C-5 and C-17, plus most civilian transports designed in the Soviet Union were too (and are often used for it, because airports in Siberia are generally unpaved). $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 14 '16 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ Another question would be how these things retract. $\endgroup$ – SMS von der Tann Apr 14 '16 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ In 1977, the famous Lufthansa 737–200 D-ABCE Landshut made a successful landing on sand even without a gravel kit. $\endgroup$ – Loong Apr 15 '16 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Loong Never said they were required, just helpful. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Apr 15 '16 at 16:01
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It's not quite as big as the Antonov An-124, but honorable mention would have to go to the Lockheed LC-130. It's designed to resupply scientific and military operations in polar regions, and so it has a dual wheel-and-ski landing gear setup that allows it to take off from and land on snow and ice.

enter image description here

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

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    $\begingroup$ They also fly the C-5 Galaxy there. It has about 5.4x the MTOW of the C-130. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 14 '16 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab: But does it have skis? $\endgroup$ – Michael Seifert Apr 15 '16 at 16:45
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These oldies seem worth mentioning...

If you loosen your definition of "airplane" to "the longest class of flying machine and the largest airship by envelope volume" you could think of a Hindenburg-class airship that was in regular commercial service.

They landed in fields field

They're more comparable in size to buildings or very large boats, rather than other airplanes size

Hindenburg in green compared to
Blue: The Pentagon building,
Pink: Queen Mary 2, ocean liner
Yellow: USS Enterprise, supercarrier
Dark blue: Yamato, WWII Japanese warship
Grey: Empire State Building
Red: Mont, a supertanker

Compared to other airplanes (Hindenburg in orange): planes


Or the Spruce Goose (* Not acutal Spruce). (Just noticed it mentioned in another answer, after posting this)

Originally designated HK-1 for the first aircraft built by Hughes-Kaiser, the giant was re-designated H-4 when Henry Kaiser withdrew from the project in 1944. Nevertheless, the press insisted on calling it the “Spruce Goose” despite the fact that the plane is made almost entirely of birch.

Apparently it is "the largest flying boat ever built and has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in history" at 320 ft 11 in (97.54 m). Not strictly a "regularly used" airplane, but

Hughes retained a full crew to maintain the mammoth plane in a climate-controlled hangar up until his death in 1976.

enter image description here

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Going off on another direction if ice counts as "unpaved", a Boeing 757 was landed in Antarctica in November 2015, the first commercial airliner to do that.

enter image description here

Source is from the link above.

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    $\begingroup$ While this might be the first time an airliner operated by an airline had landed there, it was not the first 757 to land there. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 14 '16 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ As @reirab notes, plenty of non-airline operated "airliner type" aircraft have been used in Antarctica. (I think the Australians currently use chartered A319s, for example.) Even restricting it only to commercial airlines, the US Navy hired a Pan Am Boeing 377 to fly to McMurdo as early as 1957(!). It became something of a press sensation as it had two female stewardesses on board... $\endgroup$ – Andrew Apr 14 '16 at 22:16
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Another option might be the Soviet Ekranoplan: these are aircraft that use the ground effect to fly just off a surface of water.

For example we might have the Lun-class (73m): MD-160 Ekranoplan

or the experimental Caspian Sea Monster (92m): Caspian Sea Monster

Sadly neither of these are flying any longer.

(source: Wikipedia Ground effect vehicle and Lun-class ekranoplan)

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    $\begingroup$ This kind of stretches the borders of "flying" somewhat. $\endgroup$ – SMS von der Tann Apr 15 '16 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ Lots of science fiction spaceships look tame in comparison - why haven't I seen these crazy things before? $\endgroup$ – Xen2050 Apr 17 '16 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ My gosh! can that first one even fly? That makes even the most weird aircraft pale in comparison. $\endgroup$ – dalearn Oct 11 '16 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @dalearn They used to ask that about helicopters as well. :-) $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 11 '16 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ "The MD-160, dubbed the "Caspian Sea Monster" by US Intelligence services, was indeed one of a kind. This massive 550-ton seaplane measured 240 feet long and 63 feet tall with a 144 foot wingspan—that's longer than the Spruce Goose and bigger than many modern commercial airliners. It was capable of carrying up to 137 tons (270,000 pounds) of troops and equipment—including as many as six nuclear missiles—at speeds up to 350 MPH as far as 1,080 nmi—albeit only 16 feet off the surface of the water." gizmodo.com/… $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads May 1 '18 at 19:59

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