Are you fascinated by aviation and wondering what the different types of airplanes are and what they are used for? This post shares everything you need to know.
General aviation term covers a wide range of planes used purely for recreational purposes. General aviation consists of manly planes used to fly in good weather in mostly daylight conditions.
Single-engine piston aircraft are the most common aircraft found in general aviation. Single-engine piston aircraft offer the lowest cost per hour to allow pilots to learn to fly affordably.
Single-engine piston aircraft usually are very forgiving to fly, making them popular with flying schools. Although flying is expensive, single-engine piston aircraft have the lowest maintenance costs for any powered aircraft.
An example of a single-engine piston aircraft is the Cessna 152 or Piper Warrior PA-28. Single-engine piston planes can generally take off from grass airfields or relatively short runways, 400m or less, even in some cases.
Piston aircraft are typically limited to flying below 10,000feet unless they are pressurised and have the performance to climb to this level. It is rare to find single-engine piston aircraft flying above 15,000ft.
Microlights are a form of single-engine piston aircraft but are lighter, have lower take-off weights, and, as a result, need smaller engines. Microlights can be flown with recreational licences such as the Light Aircraft Pilot Licence, making them cheaper.
Microlights are a cost-effective way to fly single-engine piston aircraft. Microlights are available in flexi wing, fixed-wing or as a powered parachute.
Multi Engine piston
Multi-engine piston aircraft are also used in general aviation. Multi-engine piston aircraft offer the redundancy of having two engines instead of one.
Unlike a single-engine piston aircraft needing to make a forced landing if it experiences an engine failure, a multi-engine piston aircraft with an engine failure can find a suitable alternate airport to divert to.
Most multi-engine piston aircraft can fly quite happily on a single engine. Multi-engine piston aircraft are more expensive to purchase and run than single-engine piston aircraft due to increased complexity and having two engines to look after instead of 1.
Multi-engine piston aircraft can cruise faster and fly further distances than single-engine piston aircraft. Multi-engine piston aircraft can typically also carry more passengers and are rated to a higher take-off weight.
With multi-engine aircraft being larger, if flying multi-engine piston aircraft recreationally, you are not as restricted on how many passengers you can have onboard at a given time. An example of a multi-engine piston aircraft is the Cessna Seneca aircraft.
Mult engine piston aircraft are also used for advanced flight training. If training to become a professional pilot, you will need to complete a multi-engine instrument rating which needs to be completed in a twin-engine aircraft.
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If you want to experience flying upside down and pulling some ‘G’, why not try aerobatics through a trial flight. Alternatively, if you already hold a private pilot license, you can get converted to fly aerobatic aircraft and be taught to fly aerobatics solo.
Aerobatic aircraft typically have reinforced structures to allow the plane to withstand higher G loads.
Aside from the aircraft structure, aerobatic aircraft like the Extra 300L may include other aids to help make flying aerobatics easier, like canopies that allow greater visibility and wingtip devices that will enable more precise aerobatics to be flown.
Aerobatic aircraft are typically single, or two-seater aircraft and can withstand anywhere between +5g to +9g and can complete negative g manoeuvers.
Although most gliders do not have an engine, gliders are still considered aeroplanes. Gliders are either aero towed (towed by another aircraft), winch launch or self launched into the air.
For gliders to stay airborne, they need some form of lift. The lift may be through thermal, ridge, or mountain wave lift.
An experienced glider pilot can fly a glider for 300-500km non-stop, flying for 5 hours or more in the right conditions, relying on natural lift forms to keep flying. Gliding is one of the cheapest and purest forms of aviation.
Commercial jet aircraft
Turboprop commercial aircraft
On relatively short regional routes, turboprop aircraft play an essential role in allowing passengers to travel from A to B. Airlines like Flybe flew aircraft like the Dash 8.
Turboprop aircraft typically cruise between 20,000 to 25,000 ft and typically fly slightly slower – at around 300kts/ 345mph compared to typical jet aircraft that cruise around 450kts / 518mph.
Because turboprop flight durations and distances are shorter, their lower cruise speed is not too much of a problem. Turboprop aircraft have the advantage of being able to operate in smaller regional airfields.
With their lower landing weights, turboprop aircraft need shorter runways than heavier jet aircraft. Turboprops have a gas turbine engine and are attached to a propeller through a gearbox. Turboprops also cost less to operate compared to jet aircraft.
Small passenger jet aircraft
Small passenger jet aircraft typically seat less than 50 passengers and have a take-off weight of less than 25 tonnes. Small passenger jets are sometimes described as regional jets. Examples of small passenger jets include the ERJ 135.
Small passenger jets typically serve shorter routes of between 1-2 hours that may not have demand for larger passenger jets but are of a sufficient distance to make it worthwhile having a jet service.
The lower take of weight of smaller passenger jets means that they can also operate out of shorter runways in regional airports where medium or larger passenger jets would struggle.
Small passenger jets typically cruise at around Mach 0.75-0.78 and can fly up to 41,000FT. Smaller passenger jets are mostly single-aisle aircraft having a 1 /2 seating configuration.
Medium passenger aircraft
Medium passenger jets seat up to 200 passengers. A good example of a medium passenger jet would be the Boeing 737-800 or the Airbus A320.
A medium passenger jet range is around 4,500nm, and they can fly on routes anywhere from 45-minute to 5 hours duration or longer. Medium passenger jets are used for short-haul travel.
Medium passenger jets may connect larger airport hubs like Heathrow to smaller airports.
Medium passenger aircraft like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 are popular with low-cost carriers because of their relatively low operating cost, range to reach various destinations, and aircraft versatility in-flight options.
A medium-sized aircraft could be deployed on a short route, e.g. London to Paris, but can also be used for longer range holiday routes, e.g. Copenhagen to Tenerife. Most medium passenger jets are typically single isle, i.e., a 3/3 seating configuration.
Large passenger jet aircraft
Large transport aircraft are used to fly transcontinental or trans-Atlantic/ transpacific carrying a relatively high load. Large passenger aircraft like the A350-1000 can have a maximum take-off weight of 319T and can fly 10+ hours non-stop.
Large passenger aircraft can seat between 275-375 passengers depending on the size in a 3 class seating configuration. Examples of large passenger jets include the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or Boeing 777-X.
Large passenger jet aircraft can carry a large amount of cargo in the belly hold (the space below the passenger seating compartment). Belly cargo often adds a lucrative revenue stream for the operator.
Larger passenger aircraft need longer runways and are typically restricted to major airports. Large passenger aircraft today are dominated by large twin-engined aircraft. As engine reliability has improved, large twin passenger aircraft can fly longer distances.
Aircraft like the 777-200LR or the A350-900ULR can fly for up to 20hours non-stop and can pretty much connect any two major airports on the planet subject to satisfying Extended Range Twin Engine Operational requirements.
Very large passenger aircraft (Jumbo/ super jumbo)
Very large passenger aircraft known as ‘double deckers’ or ‘super jumbo’ aircraft. Today’s two primary aircraft in commercial passenger operations are the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380.
The A380 has two double decks and can seat up to 800 passengers, although a typical 3 class configuration can accommodate around 550 passengers. The maximum take-off weight of the A380 is around 550tonnes.
The pioneer of the jumbo jet and also large passenger aircraft was the 747. The largest variant to date in passenger service is the 747-8i. The reason for the 747 and A380 was to maximise capacity on routes operating from large hubs that were slot constrained.
Some airports worldwide have reached maximum capacity, so it was impossible to operate more flights. Instead, the mindset is that existing slots and routes could be utilised with larger capacity aircraft to fly more passengers.
Supersonic commercial jet transport
Unfortunately no longer in service, Concorde offered supersonic jet transport at over twice the speed of sound (Mach 2).
The unique design of Concorde, with its engines having afterburner/ reheat, meant the acceleration on take-off is as close an experience as you could get to flying being in a fighter jet.
Concorde cruised at between 50000-60000 ft, and at those altitudes, there was very little by the way of weather to worry about with winds being relatively steady, so routes were rarely varied on a day to day basis.
Concorde could fly from London or Paris to New York in just over 3 hours. To minimise noise pollution and damage caused by the supersonic boom, Concorde could only fly at supersonic speeds over oceans (mainly operating trans-Atlantic routes).
Concorde was an engineering marvel with many technologies needing to be developed for supersonic flight above Mach 2. The Concordes airframe would head up to over 130degress Celcius.
The expansion of the airframe due to aerodynamic heating at those speeds meant a conventional cable/ pully flight control system would not work. Concorde needed fly by wire controls which were developed as part of the Concorde program.
The shockwaves caused during supersonic flight meant that as not to disrupt the airflow going into the engines, the airflow needed to be shockwave free before entry into the engines.
Devices were added to vary the air intake geometry to ensure that the airflow into the engines was shockwave free on entry.
The fatal air crash on Air France Concorde flight AF4590 that occurred in Paris on 25th July 2000 highlighted a weakness in Concorde – specifically the vulnerability of the fuel tanks to rupture in the even of a tire burst.
With Concorde grounded after the crash, modifications would need to be made to the landing gear and fuel tanks reinforced to ensure that such a crash would not happen again.
On the day Concorde was carrying out its return to service flight with modifications made, the terrorist attacks happened on 9/11 2001. Many of the Concorde regular passengers were killed in the Twin towers in the attacks.
Confidence would vanish from air travel across the globe because of terror attacks, and with that, Concorde would struggle with weak passenger loads. Soon after, Air France would retire its Concordes for economic reasons.
With British Airways unable to afford the maintenance bill of Concode on its own (maintenance and airworthiness costs were previously shared with Air France), the economics of keeping Concorde flying with weak demand became too much for British Airways.
British Airways decided to retire its Concorde fleet in 2003. There has not been a supersonic passenger aircraft to replay Concorde as yet.
The Boom supersonic aircraft development is ongoing. Boom has an order from United Airlines for 15 supersonic transport, and it is hoped for supersonic flights to take place in 2026.
The Boom supersonic aircraft are targeting a range of 4,250nm and be able to fly at Mach 1.7
Cargo aircraft occupy an essential role in global supply and logistics. Cargo aircraft allow relatively heavy loads to be flown over large distances at high speeds.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has deemed that some materials are too dangerous to carry as cargo on regular passenger aircraft. Cargo aircraft are not subject to these restrictions so that they can transport otherwise forbidden items.
Certain cargo is perishable such as food and lives stock. Cargo aircraft can transport items with a short shelf-life where temperature control is necessary, e.g. fruits, vegetables and flowers.
The most popular cargo aircraft in service is the Boeing 747-400 freighter. The 747-400F can carry 128.5 tonnes of cargo. Some 747 freighters also have an opening door at the nose, allowing oversized items to be quickly loaded onto the aircraft.
With the larger revenues generated by cargo transportation, it usually is viable for Cargo operators to operate older aircraft for longer.
Many passenger services are retired from passenger service and are often sold to cargo operators who can extract many years of successful use from the plane.
Other popular forms of cargo aircraft include 747-8F (replacement to earlier generation 747 freighters), Boeing 777 freighter and MD-11 freighters.
Small private jet aircraft
Small private jets like the Embraer Phenom E300 are examples of small private jets. Small private jets allow for a range of up to 3,500miles. Some small private jets can be flown by a single pilot (single crew).
Single crew private jets are an excellent recreational tool for wealthy people wanting to own and fly a private jet themselves without the expense of having to pay for a crew.
Smaller private jets have similar performance to larger jets, i.e. having a cruise Mach number greater than Mach 0.75 and being able to cruise above 40,000ft.
The plus side of smaller private jets is that they can operate from smaller airfields, with some even flying from grass strips. Small private jets can carry up to 8 people, and most have basic catering facilities with a toilet on board.
Medium private jet
Medium private jets are amongst the most desirable in the world. Medium size private jets like the Gulfstream 650ER can fly non stop between most places globally.
The comfort and luxury onboard most medium private jets include separate areas: sitting area, dining area, lounging area and even a private cabin with its toilet.
Luxury private jets are fitted with most modern cons you would expect: full galley to prepare meals, onboard wifi, satellite phones and full media entertainment systems.
Medium private jets can sit between 10-18people depending on the configuration and layout. Private jets like the Global 6000 or the Falcon 7x can include a separate crew rest area for long-range trips.
Large private jet
Large private jets are generally medium and large commercial aircraft that have been converted into luxury business jets. Examples include any aircraft for the Boeing business jet rage – 737 BBJ, 747BBJ or even the 777BBJ.
Some owners may purchase standard configuration passenger aircraft and convert them into large private jets. Large private jets are the pinnacle of luxury.
Large private jets are fitted with amenities, including independent living spaces: lounge, dining room, bedroom and even cinema!
Most large private jets have their own showers. Large private jets are purchased by the wealthy, heads of states or companies looking for their people to maximise the time they have available whilst travelling to do what they need to and have total privacy.
For the ultra-wealthy and leaders of this world, having a space to rest, sleep, entertain or do their work whilst travelling is key. Luxury private jets are not usually required to carry large passenger loads and cargo. Hence, they can comfortably carry extra fuel to extend their range to fly longer distances.
Economy is not always the main priority for owners of private jets, and because they can carry more fuel, they are also able to fly faster than their optimum long-range cruise speeds.
Turboprop private jet aircraft
Corporations and individuals use private turboprop aircraft to get around where long-distance travel is not necessary, and the length of the journey may be relatively short.
Turboprop private aircraft like the Super King Air offer a private cabin but may not have some of the luxuries available on the larger private jets. Not having higher levels of luxury is not usually a show stopper are distances are not that long.
Turboprop aircraft usually have a cruise speed of around 300kts top speed and cruise between 20,000- 25,000ft.
Turboprop private aircraft with lower landing weights cost less in landing fees and maintenance and can land at smaller airfields, which may be more convenient for their owners.
The military require aircraft to carry out their reconnaissance missions ideally undetected or out of reach from surface to air missiles. Satellites carry out most of the reconnaissance missions, but planes still do a good amount of high-level reconnaissance missions.
The militaries around the world use different types of aircraft for reconnaissance missions. Examples of reconnaissance aircraft include the legendary SR-71 plane that could fly at Mach 3 and cruise at 70,000 feet.
The defence mechanism of the SR71 aircraft was to fly high enough to be out of range from surface to air missiles and outrun enemy intercepting aircraft. In recent times unmanned aerial vehicles like the Reaper drone have been carrying out surveillance.
Unlike conventional aircraft, drones can remain on station monitoring targets over a long period of time. Another example of a reconnaissance aircraft is the U2 spy plane.
Most modern military aircraft with a strike capability also have a high-resolution camera pod option to carry out surveillance on enemy positions as part of regular missions.
Not all reconnaissance aircraft are used for war purposes. Reconnaissance aircraft are also utilised to monitor other activities like verifying the disarmament of heavy/nuclear weapons in peace negotiation.
Other activities like trafficking (drug and human) can also be monitored from reconnaissance aircraft.
Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft
The Airbourne Early Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACS) act as a battle control flying station. Its advanced radars and sensors allow various assets to be managed from the air with military commanders supervising missions.
AWACS aircraft also provide an early warning platform to potential attacks. Through secure datalink positions, the picture being seen by the AWACS aircraft can be relayed to other aircraft assets without needing them to use their radars.
Whist fighter aircraft have radars of their own, sharing data to and from the various assets allows both the AWACS to have a better overall picture and assess threats.
The data flow is two way, so assets working in conjunction with the AWACs aircraft can also enjoy improved situational awareness. AWACS aircraft can be deployed for search and rescue missions and ensure illegal flights are not taking place in the air.
Fighter jets (air to air or air to ground)
Fighter jets form the main attack option for any airforce. Fighter jets are used to gain air superiority in an attack situation and defend a given country’s airspace from potential threats or unauthorised aircraft reaching a given area.
Fighter jets have an air to air capability using missiles like the AMRAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile) or conventional guns as attack or self-defence options.
Fighter jets (for self-defence) may also have electronic countermeasures to jam enemy radars and missiles. The final defence of the fighter jet comes from chaff and flares. Chaff and flares are used to confuse missiles of where their target is.
The idea of flares is to create an overwhelming heat signature to fool this missile into thinking that the flares are the exhaust of a jet fighter. Chaff clutters the radar picture of a missile seeking head to confuse the missile guidance system into locking onto the chaff rather than the aircraft.
Vertical Short Take Off and Landing Aircraft
Vertical short take-off and landing aircraft are used in the military to operate from locations where it is impossible to have a full-length runway. VSTOL aircraft can operate from aircraft carriers without a catapult and cable arrest system.
Examples of VSTOL aircraft include the V22 osprey – used as a military transport or the Harrier aircraft used by the US Marines.
Refuelling aircraft extend the range and on-station time of other air assets with air to air refuelling capability. Air to air refuelling tankers operates on a boom or basket system.
Boom type is where the receiving aircraft flies to a designated position in relation to the tanker. The refuelling operator then ‘flies’ the boom into the refuelling opening on the receiving plane and starts refuelling.
The basket method of refuelling is where the receiving aircraft flies its fuel drogue into the fuelling basket being trailed from the refuelling aircraft.
The benefit of the basket method of refuelling is that unlike the boom method of refuelling, multiple aircraft can be refuelled simultaneously using the basket method as the tanker aircraft can trail multiple refuelling hoses.
Water bombers are used for fighting. Water bombers can deliver a large volume of water over a large area in a short space of time in what could be challenging to reach places. Examples of water bombers include the DC-10 converted and a Canadair CL-415.
Water is carried in the belly of specially converted aircraft before being delivered to the relevant target area. If the plane has an amphibious capability, water bombers can refuel from close to access water sources such as lakes.
Medical evauaction aircraft
Medical evacuation aircraft play an essential role in repatriating and allowing injured or severely sick people to be transported to specialist medical facilities or be transported back home after being injured on holiday.
Medical evacuation aircraft can be turboprops such as King air or small passenger jets converted to allow a patient on a stretcher and a doctor with medical equipment in the cabin.
Medical aircraft on a medical evacuation are usually given priority against other traffic by air traffic control and provided with as direct a routings as possible.
Seaplanes allow the transport of people in places that are difficult to reach but are accessible by water. Seaplanes are fitted with floats to enable them to take off and land on water.
Crop dusters allow large areas of farmland to be treated relatively quickly. Aircraft such as the single-seater Piper PA-25 Pawnee are modified to include a storage tank and spray nozzles on the wing to spray the given substance onto fields.
Crop dusters can quickly spay a large farm area with fluids such as pesticides or fertiliser. Crop dusting does have its dangers. For one, crop dusting needs to be carried out at a low level to accurately apply the product in the area required.
The need to fly at a low level carries more risk from low-level hazards such as power, train or telephone wires. If the aircraft suffers an engine failure, the pilot does not have much time to react and find a suitable place to carry out an emergency landing.
Please leave a comment in the section below if you have any questions on the different types of planes!
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 pilot with around 2,000 hours flying in Europe. He holds a masters degree in Aerospace Engineering and is a chartered engineer and a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.