Air Transportation: The Best, and Most Numerous


October 16, 2005: Transport aircraft get little glory, but are probably as important - if not more so - than fighters and bombers. These planes are not fast, pretty, or high-flying. However, what they do have is the ability to carry a lot of cargo over a relatively long distance. There are several planes currently in service, and some emerging planes that will be carrying loads for the world. Which of these transport planes are the best?

Russia has built four major transports in widespread service. The first is the An-12 Cub, which has four turboprop engines, has a range of 3600 kilometers, and a top speed of 640 kilometers per hour. It can carry a hundred troops. It is in service with 16 countries. Over 900 were built, with production ending in 1973 after a first flight in 1961. Some versions of the An-12 have a "stinger" with two 23-millimeter cannon in a tail turret.

Another Russian transport is the Il-76 Candid. This is comparable to the C-141 Starlifter. It has four turbofan engines, a top speed of 850 kilometers per hour, and a range of 3800 kilometers. This plane is still in production, and a new version, the Il-76MF, has a 21.6-foot extension. It can carry up to 225 troops, 128 paratroopers, or three air assault vehicles (like the BMD). Like the An-12, some versions of the Il-76 have a "stinger" in the form of a twin 23mm cannon in a tail turret. A variant of the Il-76, the Il-78 Midas, is fitted out as a tanker.

The third is the An-22 Cock. This is a plane with four turboprops, like the An-12. It has a top speed of 740 kilometers per hour, a range of 10,950 kilometers, and can carry 88 tons. This plane is not a passenger carrier (only 29 passengers are carried). It usually carries armored vehicles and cargo. The An-22 is in service with Russia, which has roughly 40 units in use.

The fourth is the An-124 Condor. This is the largest cargo plane in military service. It has a range of 16,500 kilometers, and a top speed of 865 kilometers per hour. Like the An-22, it does not primarily carry passengers. Instead, it carries outsized cargo.

The Ukraine is developing a cargo plane of its own. The An-70 is a turboprop transport with a top speed of 800 kilometers, a range of 8,000 kilometers and the ability to carry 47 tons of cargo or 300 personnel. It is intended as a replacement for the An-12.

Airbus is building a transport as well. The A400M is currently under development. It has a top speed of 779 kilometers per hour, a range of 7,500 kilometers, and can carry 27.5 tons. Like the Il-76, it is slated to have a tanker variant. Seven European nations are planning to buy 180 aircraft total.

The United States has a few transports as well. Perhaps the most ubiquitous transport in the world is the C-130 Hercules. The main version of the C-130 in service is the C-130H. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. The latest version, the C-130J, has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C-130H, and can carry 20 tons of cargo. The C-130 has been in service of over 50 countries.

The C-17A Globemaster is the mainstay of the Air Mobility Command, This plane has a top speed of 804 kilometers per hour, a range of 8,700 kilometers, can carry 86 tons (or 102 troops), including such loads like the M1 Abrams and the M2 Bradley. It can also be refueled while carrying its cargo. This plane is also able to land on rough strips. In essence, it can land anywhere a C-130 can.

The last of the major transports in US service is the C-5 Galaxy. The C-5 can carry 130 tons of cargo 5,480 kilometers. The C-5 has a top speed on 919 kilometers per hour, and like the C-17, can be refueled in mid-air by tankers. These planes are often used for outsize cargo. Two C-5s have been modified by removing their passenger decks. They have been designated C-5C, and while officially, they are slated for use in support of the Space Shuttle, they are often thought to have been used as a means of transporting prototypes to place like Groom Lake for testing.

Which of these is the best? In terms of service record, the C-130 makes a very strong claim to this - and historically, it has earned a place among legendary transports like the C-47. That said, the best of these planes is probably the C-17, which has only been in service for a decade. This is a plane that will be around for a long time, and will be a legend among others. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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