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Airbus A400M Atlas transport aircraft of the Royal Air Force. Its first flight was in December 2009.
Airbus A400M Atlas transport aircraft of the Royal Air Force. Its first flight was in December 2009.

Military transport aircraft or military cargo aircraft are used to airlift troops and military equipment to support military operations. Transport aircraft can be used for both strategic and tactical missions, and are often diverted to civil emergency relief missions.


A Douglas C-47 Skytrain in 1944, derived from the Douglas DC-3
A Douglas C-47 Skytrain in 1944, derived from the Douglas DC-3

Fixed-wing transport aeroplanes are defined in terms of their range capability as strategic airlift or tactical airlift to reflect the needs of the land forces which they most often support. These roughly correspond to the commercial flight length distinctions: Eurocontrol defines short-haul routes as shorter than 1,500 km (810 nmi), long-haul routes as longer than 4,000 km (2,200 nmi) and medium-haul between.[1]

A 1970s Ilyushin-Il-76 airlifter designed for both strategic and tactical military operations
A 1970s Ilyushin-Il-76 airlifter designed for both strategic and tactical military operations

The military glider is an unpowered tactical air transport which has been used in some campaigns to transport troops and/or equipment to the battle front.

Rotary wing

Kazakh Mi-17 helicopter
Kazakh Mi-17 helicopter
Sikorsky CH-53
Sikorsky CH-53
CH-54B carrying an M551 Sheridan tank
CH-54B carrying an M551 Sheridan tank

Military transport helicopters are used in places where the use of conventional aircraft is impossible. For example, the military transport helicopter is the primary transport asset of US Marines deploying from LHDs and LHA. The landing possibilities of helicopters are almost unlimited, and where landing is impossible, for example densely packed jungle, the ability of the helicopter to hover allows troops to deploy by abseiling and roping.

Transport helicopters are operated in assault, medium and heavy classes. Air assault helicopters are usually the smallest of the transport types, and designed to move an infantry squad or section and their equipment. Helicopters in the assault role are generally armed for self-protection both in transit and for suppression of the landing zone. This armament may be in the form of door gunners, or the modification of the helicopter with stub wings and pylons to carry missiles and rocket pods. For example, the Sikorsky S-70, fitted with the ESSM (External Stores Support System), and the Hip E variant of the Mil Mi-8 can carry as much disposable armament as some dedicated attack helicopters.

Medium transport helicopters are generally capable of moving up to a platoon of infantry, or transporting towed artillery or light vehicles either internally or as underslung roles. Unlike the assault helicopter they are usually not expected to land directly in a contested landing zone, but are used to reinforce and resupply landing zones taken by the initial assault wave. Examples include the unarmed versions of the Mil Mi-8, Super Puma, CH-46 Sea Knight, and NH90.

Heavy lift helicopters are the largest and most capable of the transport types, currently limited in service to the CH-53 Sea Stallion and related CH-53E Super Stallion, CH-47 Chinook, Mil Mi-26, and Aérospatiale Super Frelon. Capable of lifting up to 80 troops and moving small Armoured fighting vehicles (usually as slung loads but also internally), these helicopters operate in the tactical transport role in much the same way as small fixed wing turboprop air-lifters. The lower speed, range and increased fuel consumption of helicopters are more than compensated by their ability to operate virtually anywhere.

Payload comparison of military transport aircraft

Payload comparison of military transport aircraft[2][3][4][5]
Country Aircraft Payload (t) Length of cargo hold Width of cargo hold Height of cargo hold
Soviet Union An-124 150 36 metres (118 ft) 6.4 metres (21 ft) 4.4 metres (14 ft)
United States C-5M 129.274 37 metres (121 ft) 5.8 metres (19 ft) 4.1 metres (13 ft)
United States C-17 77.5 26.83 metres (88.0 ft) 5.49 metres (18.0 ft) 3.76 metres (12.3 ft)
China Y-20 66 20 metres (66 ft) 4 metres (13 ft) 4 metres (13 ft)
Russia Il-76MD-90A 60 24.54 metres (80.5 ft) 3.45 metres (11.3 ft) 3.4 metres (11 ft)
Ukraine An-70 47 19.1 metres (63 ft) 4 metres (13 ft) 4.1 metres (13 ft)
France Airbus A330 MRTT 45
Spain A400M 37 17.71 metres (58.1 ft) 4 metres (13 ft) 3.85 metres (12.6 ft)[rear section:4 metres (13 ft)]
Japan C-2 36 16 metres (52 ft) 4 metres (13 ft) 4 metres (13 ft)
Brazil C-390 26 18.5 metres (61 ft) 3.00 metres (9.84 ft) 3.04 metres (10.0 ft)
China Y-9 25 (30 max) 16.2 metres (53 ft) 3.20 metres (10.5 ft) 2.35 metres (7.7 ft)
United States C-130J 19.8 12.5 metres (41 ft) 3.05 metres (10.0 ft) 2.75 metres (9.0 ft)

See also


  1. ^ "Study into the impact of the global economic crisis on airframe utilisation" (PDF). Eurocontrol. January 2011. p. 21.
  2. ^ Comparison of military transport aircraft
  3. ^ Caro capacity of military transport aircraft
  4. ^ Lockheed C-5 data Archived May 16, 2017, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^

Further reading