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Stalking world's biggest planes makes for photos that say 'wow'

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Fri June 21, 2013
NASA's Super Guppy hauls giant cargo ranging from smaller airplanes to components destined for the International Space Station. Click through the gallery for more images of big planes. NASA's Super Guppy hauls giant cargo ranging from smaller airplanes to components destined for the International Space Station. Click through the gallery for more images of big planes.
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NASA's Super Guppy
Inside the Super Guppy
World's largest plane: Antonov Mriya
Boeing's 747 Dreamlifter
The Pentagon's 'air freight terminal'
The giants of Dover
C-5: Wheels up
Skyking of military hauling
Cargo hold
C-17 Globemaster III
The Globemaster cockpit
Largest passenger airplane
Longest passenger aircraft
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many of the world's biggest planes may be flying near your hometown
  • Look for the C-5 Galaxy, C-5M Super Galaxy, Airbus A380, 747 Dreamlifter and Antonov An-225
  • Boeing boasts that its factory near Seattle is by volume the world's biggest building
  • Aviation enthusiasts, geeks and photographers still marvel at how giant planes fly

(CNN) -- The big stuff moves us.

And for many folks who appreciate the world's biggest airplanes -- that statement is true both figuratively and literally.

For 23 years at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, aircraft mechanic John Taylor left his sweat and elbow grease on dozens of C-5 Galaxies -- one of the largest military aircraft on Earth.

"Even though I was on the aircraft every night, I just marveled at how the thing got off the ground," Taylor said. His wife didn't quite get it. She would ask him why he worked on C-5s all week, and then chose to spend precious weekends taking pictures of the huge planes.

"It's kind of in your blood," he explained.

The gigantic C-5s make Dover an awe-inspiring destination for aviation enthusiasts -- for sure -- but even among non-enthusiasts, big planes turn heads. The Galaxy and its successor, the Super Galaxy, are among dozens of giant aircraft models that may soar high and loud above your hometown -- prompting comments like, "What is THAT?" or "That's what I call a big plane."

They have names like the Jumbo Jet, the Mriya, the Dreamlifter and the Super Guppy.

Last year, CNN's story detailing some of the world's mind-blowing aviation destinations got a response so strong that we're doing it again. This year, we found out where to stalk and photograph some of the biggest airplanes on the planet.

One of the largest military aircraft

Now retired from the military, Taylor helps run Dover's Air Mobility Command Museum, where he answers questions about the C-5.

A few interesting tidbits:

It can fly eight school buses from Delaware to Turkey nonstop without refueling.

It's six stories tall.

Counting wings, it is wider than the White House.

When it's loaded to maximum weight, it weighs more than two Statues of Liberty.

Get this: On their historic flight, the Wright brothers flew their airplane 120 feet. The cargo hold of the C-5 measures 23 feet longer.

Whenever one of these giant planes sets up for takeoff at the end of a runway, that's the cue for aviation geeks to park their cars along the fence line and whip out their phones or other camera devices. Check out the Galaxy's distinctive whine from its four General Electric TF-39 engines.

Plane spotting aviation enthusiasts trot the globe capturing stunning photos of aircraft like this one from the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Maho Beach is world famous for its low flying aircraft. "If you like airplanes, Maho is like the cherry on top" of a beautiful beach vacation, says Justin Schlechter, a 747 pilot who's visited Maho several times. Plane spotting aviation enthusiasts trot the globe capturing stunning photos of aircraft like this one from the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Maho Beach is world famous for its low flying aircraft. "If you like airplanes, Maho is like the cherry on top" of a beautiful beach vacation, says Justin Schlechter, a 747 pilot who's visited Maho several times.
Capturing the wonder of human flight
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Eye-popping plane spotter pix Eye-popping plane spotter pix

"Taking pictures outside Air Force bases can be touchy," says amateur aviation photographer Paul Carter. But it's not against the law, he says. "If you can convince the authorities that you know the rules and understand them," they'll usually let you take photos.

He says it's well worth it. "Just watching something as big as a C-5 move so slowly and gracefully as it takes off still thrills me," says Carter, who's been photographing airplanes since 1982.

Related: #Avgeeks: The new warriors on terror

If Dover is too far away, try spotting C-5s at their other stations: Travis Air Force Base, California; Lackland Air Forc Base, Texas; Martinsburg, West Virginia; Memphis, Tennessee; and Westover Air Reserve Base, near Springfield, Massachusetts.

It's all big in Everett

At its facilities north of Seattle in Everett, Washington, Boeing clearly likes things big. It boasts the world's biggest building, the world's longest passenger airplane and the plane with the largest cargo hold --- all against the backdrop of one of America's highest peaks: Mount Rainier.

If you rank the world's buildings by volume, Boeing's Everett assembly facility is No. 1, says Sandy Ward, who helps run the Future of Flight Museum Aviation Center and Boeing Tour.

The sprawling 98-acre factory serves as a giant birthing room for some of Boeing's most iconic children -- the family of sevens.

Boeing builds two 747-8s each month at the company\'s massive assembly facility outside Seattle.
Boeing builds two 747-8s each month at the company's massive assembly facility outside Seattle.

"You've got 747s, 767s, Triple 7s, and 787s all under one roof -- along with around 42,000 workers," says Ward. Measuring 250 feet, one of these sevens holds the title of world's longest passenger aircraft: -- Boeing's 747-8 Intercontinental.

There's nothing quite like the Everett facility in all of North America, the aircraft maker says. Each year, about 230,000 visitors experience the rare chance to see humongous pieces of aluminum and light-weight carbon composite transformed into speedy, sleek airliners. Watch huge wings join with plane fuselages. See workers attach powerful jet engines that will soon push the wings through the air.

Boeing's factory tour has developed an almost mythical status among aviation geeks. It's a must-see destination, like Disney parks are for many families. Actually, the factory is bigger than Disneyland, says Ward. The theme park could fit inside Boeing's factory -- and there would still be 12 acres available for covered parking.

Surprisingly, touring the titanic structure takes only about 90 minutes.

Adjacent to the factory, visitors can get all touchy feely about aviation at the Future of Flight Museum. Run your hands along the smooth surface of the 747's giant vertical tail. Sit behind the yoke in a cockpit of a classic 727 and play with its full array of instrumentation.

What else is big in Everett? In a word: Dreamlifter.

If the name sounds a lot like Boeing's new light-weight fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner, that's because the Dreamlifter is Dreamliner's Big Daddy.

It's phat. And it's fat. Dreamlifter is a 747 with a cargo hold custom enlarged to carry huge parts for the 787. At 65,000 cubic feet, Boeing says Dreamlifter's cargo hold is -- by volume -- the largest in the world. Compare that to the C-5's cargo hold at 31,000 cubic feet.

So -- in addition to Everett -- where can we track down the Dreamlifter? It's been seen in Nagoya, Japan; Italy and Boeing's other 787 plant in Charleston, South Carolina.

Boeing's testing ground

Everett visitors can find Dreamlifter at the airport right next door to the Boeing factory. Paine Field Airport serves as Boeing's testing ground for its new planes -- offering endless photo opportunities that draw aircraft fans from around the world.

Paine Field is actually set up for the aviation enthusiast.
Paul Carter, aviation enthusiast and photographer

"Boeing gets it," says Carter, who makes the four-hour drive from his Vancouver, Washington, home more than twice a year. Sometimes, he brings his grandkids along, ages 7 and 4. "Paine Field is actually set up for the aviation enthusiast."

On the northwest corner of the airport, Boeing's "Strato Deck" offers a vantage point with the spectacular Cascade Mountains popping up in the background. Audio from airport ground control is piped in so visitors can get real-time information about which planes are about to take off.

For other viewing options, Carter offers this tip: go to the north end of the airport in the afternoon. Generally, shooting from outside the fence line is OK, as long as you don't hang out for too long. Police "just don't like loitering," warns Carter. "They get a little grumpy about that."

The airport welcomes thousands every May for Aviation Day, when new machines take flight along with World War II-era planes and other vintage aircraft.

Paine Field is a plane geek's candy store all year round -- offering sweet photo op treats like airliners with colorful new paint schemes. In addition to Dreamlifter, other big cargo air freighters such as the Antonov An-124 often can be seen rumbling down the runways.

Superjumbo sightings

When these planes take flight or touch the ground they stop conversations. Fingers point upward. Many who never studied aeronautics suddenly remember: This is all a mystery. It looks like magic. How the heck does that thing fly?

Last year, the world's largest passenger airliner -- the Superjumbo Airbus A380 -- marked five years in service. Seating 525 passengers in a three-class configuration -- the A380 exceeds the 747-8 by 58 seats.

The four-engine airliner isn't too difficult to spot, if you're near its six destination airports in the U.S.: Washington's Dulles, New York's JFK, San Francisco, Los Angeles' LAX, Houston Intercontinental and Miami International.

At JFK, NYCAviation.com founder Phil Derner likes nearby Howard Beach for watching A380 departures from runway 31L. From this vantage point, he can see the Superjumbo make a big lumbering turn as it climbs. He can also hear its engines building up power and get a nice profile view while the plane banks 180 degrees.

"A century ago, aircraft were literally not much more than motorized kites," said Derner. "Now this thing comes along weighing in at a staggering 1.2 million pounds? It doesn't take an enthusiast to think that's badass."

Related: Airbus A380 turns five

World's largest airplane

Wanna get an eyeful of airplane? Track down the Antonov An-225 "Mriya," -- the Russian word for Dream.

This six-engine bad boy is a one-of-a-kind cargo jet often described as the world's largest airplane.

Built in the 1980s, Mriya was meant to shoulder a Soviet space shuttle. If you stood it up on its nose, it would be about as tall as a 27-story building.

Somehow, engineers figured out how to outfit it with six giant jet engines and 290-foot wings ... and well, it's kind of a building that flies.

These days, some of its cargo includes huge equipment for oil drilling operations all over the world. It's been spotted in places as widespread as Ireland, Moses Lake, Washington; and Houston, Texas. Take a look at this jaw-dropping video of Mriya coming in for a landing last May at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. It may leave you speechless.

Sometimes these big planes come outfitted with a little bit of humor. Consider NASA's Super Guppy: a huge cargo aircraft that's just plain funny looking. Instead of jets, this thing relies on four turbo-propeller engines that allow it to reach 230 mph at low altitudes.

The airplane loads and unloads through its nose, which opens up with the help of giant hinges on its left side. The Super Guppy is based near Houston at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, but it's been recently spotted at Houston's Hobby Airport and at Seattle's Boeing Field and elsewhere.

We can't ignore the Hercules H-4 Flying Boat (aka "The Spruce Goose") -- described as "the largest airplane ever built" -- which flew just once for about 60 seconds at an altitude of 70 feet traveling a little more than a mile.

The 320-foot wingspan of the all-wooden plane eclipses anything flying today. Could it fly again? It never completed certification test flights. We'll never know if the brainchild of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes could have become a useful, viable working aircraft. More than 65 years after that famous flight, you can still see it on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

Full circle

Back at Dover Air Force Base, Air Mobility Command Museum deputy director John Taylor had big news to share. No museum anywhere has ever obtained a C-5 to put on permanent display. Until now.

It's our obligation to preserve these planes for future generations.
John Taylor, Air Force Air Mobility Command Museum

"We're going to get the first C-5," Taylor said, barely able to contain his excitement. "It will be the crown jewel of the museum when it arrives. We will be only museum in the world to have a C-5 on display."

He wasn't talking about just any C-5. This plane's tail reads 9014, an aircraft Taylor helped keep flying decades ago when he was a mechanic.

The plane is set to arrive some time in October, and Taylor expects it to be on public display about a month later. Eventually -- perhaps as soon as next spring -- visitors will be able to board the C-5 and perhaps sit in the cockpit.

"We want to allow visitors to get on board this aircraft, to touch this aircraft, to experience the size of it," said Taylor. "That's what we're all about. It's our obligation to preserve these planes for future generations."

Although Taylor insisted it wasn't planned, a novelist couldn't have written a better full-circle ending.

After all this time, C-5 No. 9014 will return to the former airman who for years cared for this majestic, gravity-defying giant.

As Taylor put it, "We're awful lucky that it happened that way."

Have you experienced some of the world's biggest aircraft? Share your stories with us in the comments section below.

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