Longest Range Aircraft


The record for the longest distance ever flown by a plane without refueling was set by pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager aboard the experimental plane Voyager. After landing at Edwards Air Force Base on 23 December 1986, the Voyager had covered an official distance of 21,712.71 nm (40,212.14 km) as documented by the FAI. The only other aircraft to approach this record has been the Global Flyer that completed the first solo non-stop flight around the world on 3 March 2005. During this flight, renowned aviation record setter Steve Fossett traveled an official distance of 19,923.3 nm (36,898.04 km).

Voyager non-stop distance record holder
Voyager non-stop distance record holder

However, these two planes are obviously not typical. More practical long-range aircraft like commercial airliners or military bombers and transports cannot fly such long distances without stopping or refueling along the way. Long range used to belong primarily to the military, and today's bombers typically have an unrefueled range around 6,000 nm (11,110 km). Probably the longest-ranged bomber ever built is the Tu-95 that can travel over 8,000 nm (14,815 km) non-stop.

Tu-95 long range bomber
Tu-95 long range bomber

However, the military's reliance on in-flight refueling has largely eliminated the motivation to increase unrefueled range further. This area of performance has instead become dominated by the commercial industry. Airlines, in particular, increasingly desire to fly non-stop between distant pairs of cities on opposite sides of the Earth, such as New York to Singapore.

In recent years, the battle for long-range has been fought out by Airbus and Boeing, the world's primary manufacturers of commercial aircraft. The two planes that have been at the center of the struggle to date are the Airbus A340 and the Boeing 777. Airbus unveiled its long-range A340-500 in 2002. This model seats about 300 in a typical layout and has a range of 8,665 nm (16,050 km).

Airbus A340-500 airliner
Airbus A340-500 airliner

Boeing responded by developing an even longer range variant of the 777 called the 777-200LR Worldliner. The 777-200LR is said to have an unrefueled range of 9,420 nm (17,445 km), but the plane is not due to enter service until January 2006.

The battle for long-range appears to be ongoing as both Airbus and Boeing continue developing new aircraft to go even farther. Boeing in particular is making extensive use of composite materials, advanced construction techniques, and fuel efficient engines aboard the new 787. The goal of these advanced efficient technologies is to achieve a maximum range close to 10,000 nm (18,520 km) carrying passengers and cargo.

Boeing 777-200LR airliner
Boeing 777-200LR airliner

Until then, the record for the longest distance flown by a commercial jet is held by another extended range variant of the 777 called the 777-200ER. During a test flight from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 2 April 1997, a 777-200ER carrying a full load of fuel but no passengers traveled a distance of 10,823.37 nm (20,044.93 km).

OH-6 Cayuse light helicopter of the US Army
OH-6 Cayuse light helicopter of the US Army

Helicopters by their nature tend to be much less efficient long-range vehicles than fixed-wing aircraft. As a result, the record for maximum range is far lower and there has been little effort to break it for decades. The current official record belongs to Robert Ferry who flew a prototype YOH-6 Cayuse on a cross-country flight from California to Florida on 6 April 1966. The distance covered on the journey was 1,923.08 nm (3,561.55 km).
- answer by Joe Yoon, 22 May 2005

UPDATE!

A test version of the 777-200LR set a new record for the longest nonstop commercial flight on 10 November 2005. The plane flew a record distance of 11,664 nm (21,601 km) from Hong Kong to London. The 777 flew east over the United States traveling more than halfway around the world. The flight, lasting 22 hours and 42 minutes, was witnessed by a representative from the National Aeronautics Association who verified the record attempt, and the plane was met in London by representatives of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Boeing 777-200LR receiving a water cannon salute in London
Boeing 777-200LR receiving a water cannon salute in London

It is interesting to note that the record broken by the 777 on this attempt was not the one set by the 777-200ER described in the main article. This flight instead broke a 747-400 distance record of 9,200 nm (17,040 km) set in 1989. The subtle differences between these records are explained in the following quote from the Boeing 777-200LR Flight Test Journal.

"In 1997 a Boeing 777-200ER set a distance record of 10,823 nautical miles on a flight from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur. That's equal to half-way around the world at the equator. Even though the 200LR's flight exceeds that distance, the 200ER's record still stands unbroken. How can that be? This is where the official rules and regulations of setting aviation flight records come into play. Records are categorized by method of propulsion - jet engine, turbo-prop or piston - and by weight. The 777-200ER and -200LR are in different weight categories, which explains how they both can claim distance records. So which record did the -200LR break today? It was a 9,200 nautical mile non-stop flight from London to Sydney by a 747-400 in 1989."
You can read more about the 777 and its latest long-range record at the official site of the Boeing 777-200LR Worldliner.
- answer by Greg Alexander, 12 November 2005


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