19
$\begingroup$

I'm not sure if this belongs here or on the drone site.

What is the largest aircraft (not spacecraft) that has completed an entire flight, including takeoff and no- or minimal-damage landing, either on autopilot or by remote control (or a combination of the two), with no person on board the aircraft controlling it?

I'm interested in the largest by any measure (mass, wingspan, length).

$\endgroup$
4
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What exactly do you mean by "largest"? Mass, wingspan, length, ...? $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ Need to define "completed" I think - does that require a no-damage landing? $\endgroup$
    – MikeB
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeBrockington yes, I was thinking of a no-damage landing, so a crash test isn't quite what I was thinking of. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 14:59
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ A ‘good’ landing has been defined as a landing after which most parts of the aircraft are still where they’re supposed to be. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 16:07

4 Answers 4

38
$\begingroup$

Depending if you go by wingspan or mass, that would either be a Boeing 720 flown by remote control for a full-up crash test (investigating how jet fuel fires start in a crash), the (slightly longer, similar span) 727-200 used in a similar test in 2012, or the Soviet Buran spacecraft orbiter, which flew a single orbital flight (boosted by the Energia core rocket, since their version had no high-thrust rocket engines of its own) completely under remote or computer control (uncrewed).

$\endgroup$
13
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't really call those a "takeoff and landing." OP also specified not spacecraft. +1 though. Those are probably the biggest remotely controlled things that flew. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 17:12
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW The 720 was actually flown a number of times on remote with pilots aboard to verify control could be maintained -- though I don't believe they attempted a landing with remote control. Also, Buran could be and was on at least one occasion flown from the one airport to another with the aid of "strap-on" jet engines -- though that wasn't done by remote/computer control, in my eyes, that makes Buran an aircraft with orbital capability rather than "just" a spacecraft. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ I’m surprised modern airplanes are not tested with remote control first. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 8:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Michael It's a LOT harder to land something that big from a distance of a couple miles, and put it on a runway, than it is to do it from inside the cockpit. Ask anyone who flies both R/C and full size, R/C is harder. Given the cost of modern aircraft prototypes (billion dollars and up-up-up), they'll fly first with pilots for a long time yet unless designed from ground up as RPV or autonomous. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 11:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Michael Plane 'testing' is mostly done in simulators and with CFD. When you get pilots in the plane for the first time, they don't just take off and do a circuit and hope it lands. They taxi, they fast taxi, they rotate, none of this risky leaving the ground yet, all to prove the results of the CFD and simulators. It's quite well proved by the time you first get fresh air under the tires. The rest of the speed/altitude envelope is explored in similar incremental fashion. $\endgroup$
    – Neil_UK
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 6:50
26
$\begingroup$

Following along on the wingspan idea, the Helios had a 247 foot wingspan.

enter image description here

$\endgroup$
12
$\begingroup$

If you go by wingspan, I nominate the Boeing Condor: At 205 ft (62 m) it is in the class of the Boeing 777-300ER or the A340-600, but at less than 10 tons take-off mass it is a minnow compared to them or the Buran. Its length of 20 m puts it a shade ahead of the flying wings by Paul McCready.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Condor:

In 1989, the Condor set the world piston-powered aircraft altitude record of 67,028 ft (20,430 m) and was the first aircraft to fly a fully automated flight from takeoff to landing and also setting an unofficial endurance world record in 1988 by flying continuously for more than 50 hours

Since you ask for the largest aircraft, my money is on the Condor.

$\endgroup$
8
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ One or more of the solar "airsats" likely has a larger span than Condor -- and Solar Impulse 2, with "the span of a 747" is in process of conversion to fly autonomously -- at least report, they still carried a pilot for takeoff and landing, but expect to eliminate that need soon. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ Not as big, so not an answer, but it's worth mentioning that the GlobalHawk (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_Grumman_RQ-4_Global_Hawk) is production UAV with 130.9 ft wingspan. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ I had to read that 4 times to see that it wasn't designed by "Paul McCartney". I thought "went from a Beatle to an aircraft designer? Wow!" $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 12:53
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan -- seems natural enough after he was in Wings. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 17:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon - "they still carried a pilot for takeoff and landing" - ok, I get how the pilot can get off the plane so the thing can fly itself, but how does one get back on to take over for the landing? $\endgroup$
    – davidbak
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 19:34
5
$\begingroup$

I would suggest the Zeppelin LZ 24 "L3" of the Imperial German Navy. It had a length of 158m and a volume of 22,470 m3.

Zeppelin LZ 24

Now admittedly it was not intentionally flown without a pilot on board. On 17 February 1915 L3 was escorting a German ship heading for Africa, but after an engine failure compounded by strong headwinds and lack of fuel the captain was forced to put it down on the island of Fanø, Denmark (just north of the then current border with Germany)

The wind was so strong it blew the airship, now unmanned but with engines still running, out to sea.

Eventually it crashed (but so did the Boeing 720 mentioned elsewhere!). Kapitänleutnant Hans Fritz and his crew were detained for the rest of the war. This airship had the distinction of participating in the first air raid on England on 19 January 1915, killing two residents of Great Yarmouth.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Fits the header, but not the actual text, of original question -- $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 22:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .