This question What are the least powerful airplanes that ever flew? made me wonder what the most powerful manned airplanes are that ever flew. There are two sensible categories, I suppose:

  1. Most thrust overall.
  2. Best thrust-to-weight ratio.

EDIT in response to a comment by @ratchet freak:

Answers including rocket-powered aircraft are welcome, although I'm also interested in other propulsion systems. However, I'd like to exclude rockets by requiring the craft in question to be able to at least land on, if not start from a runway.

EDIT 2 in response to a comment by @Robin Bennett:

I'd like to restrict this to reusable craft, in the sense that they should be fine to go again with not much more than a refuel. So I guess that excludes the Space Shuttle.

  • $\begingroup$ do rocket engines count? what about unmanned? $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Feb 14 '20 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak Good points. In the spirit of the original question, I would exclude unmanned aircraft. Rocket engines are a little tougher. At what point does something stop being an aircraft and become a rocket? $\endgroup$ – user35915 Feb 14 '20 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ @PerlDuck it has only two engines, it won't be it. $\endgroup$ – Antzi Feb 14 '20 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ Does the space shuttle count? (12GW, 20,000kN, 3:1 thrust-to-weight) $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Feb 14 '20 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ Air Force One when it is The Air Force One. With thousands of jets, thousands of nukes, hundred of subs and dunno how many troops it is definitely most powerful aircraft. $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Feb 16 '20 at 2:09

Most thrust overall?

Well the most powerful aviation gas turbine to date is the GE90-115B, producing a whopping 115,000 lbs of thrust per engine at maximum static thrust settings.

Overall the aircraft with the greatest thrust to date has been the StratoLaunch. With 6 PW5406 engines, each rated at 56,000 lbs of thrust, this gives it the highest takeoff thrust at slightly over 340,000 lbs. For production aircraft, it’s the A380. With 4 84,000 lb thrust class Trent 900s, it gave the jet a massive 336,000 lbs of thrust on takeoff. This beats out even the AN-225 Myria, with its 6 Progress 6DT engines rated at 51,600 lbs each.

The most powerful turboprop still goes to the old dog - The Tu95 Bear. With four Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines, each rated at 15,000 shp, no other turbopropeller came close.

The honor for the highest powered piston driven aircraft goes to the Hughes H-4 Hercules. The ‘Spruce Goose’ was driven by 8 Pratt & Whitney R-4350 Wasp Major engines at 3000 bhp, giving it 24,000 bhp at full throttle. This is also a sobering demonstration of the huge power to weight advantage of gas turbines over reciprocating engines. Consider that the Tu-95 mentioned above has half the number of engines yet still packs 2.5x the power of the Spruce Goose at full throttle.

The gas turbine powered airplane with highest thrust to weight ratio that I ever heard of was a stripped down Su-27 used by the Soviets in the 1980s for setting time to climb records, similar to the F-15 Streak Eagle program. The plane had a thrust to weight ratio of nearly 2:1 and had to be held back by steel cables during run up to full power as its own brakes were insufficient to restrain it.

But the X-15 beat them all. With a gross weight of 27,000 lbs and a Reaction Motors XLR99 Rocket Engine to give it a push at 70,000 lbs of thrust, it claimed a thrust to weight ratio of nearly 2.6:1!

Who knows? Maybe there’s an Aurora driver at Area 51 reading this right now who’s getting quite a chuckle out of it as he knows something I don’t!

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    $\begingroup$ No it should be Streak Eagle. Look it up $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Feb 14 '20 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure the X-15 meets the "re-usable" criteria. After each flight, they had to go find the lower tail fin and stick it back on. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 14 '20 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ "... has been the A380"? She is still operative, isn't she? Or did you try to make the answer future-proof -- given the A380 will go out of service in a decade or so? ;-) $\endgroup$ – PerlDuck Feb 15 '20 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Roman: Link to the F-15 "Streak Eagle" at the Air Force Museum. It looks pretty plain-Jane compared to modern F-15's. :-) $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Feb 15 '20 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ The F-15E Strike Eagle was a production multi-role fighter which was never used in time to climb records as was the Streak Eagle. It’s something entirely separate. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Feb 15 '20 at 20:31

I've just discovered the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch:

(Image by Robert Sullivan)

According to Wikipedia its six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 deliver 56,750 lbf/252.4 kN of thrust each, which gives it a total thrust of 340,500 lbs/1514.4 kN.


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