The Difference Between Heavy and Large Aircrafts

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Heavy Aircraft vs Large Aircraft: What's the Difference?

Airplanes are divided into different categories based on the weight of the aircraft. It's common to hear aircraft referred to as "large" or "heavy," but do you know the difference between the two? Here are the factors the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers when determining the weight category for different aircraft. 

The first thing to know is that the FAA defines aircraft (and their characteristics) differently for airplane operators than for air traffic controllers.

For example, the term "heavy" is used by air traffic controllers to determine separation minimums, speeds, climb rates and other various characteristics of aircraft. However, the same term has little meaning to pilots, except to denote that when an air traffic controller uses the word "heavy" in front of an airplane's callsign, the pilot should watch out for wake turbulence. 

Heavy vs Large vs Small Aircraft

Additionally, the term "large" with respect to aircraft means one thing to air traffic controllers and another thing to pilots.

A heavy aircraft, according to the FAA's Air Traffic Control Policy, Order JO 7110.65V, effective April 3, 2014, is one that is capable of taking off at a weight of 300,000 pounds or more.  The key word is capable - an aircraft can operate with less than 300,000 pounds during takeoff and still be classified as "heavy" under this air traffic control policy.  

A large aircraft is one with a maximum certified takeoff weight of more than 41,000 pounds and less than 300,000 pounds.

A small aircraft is one with a maximum certified takeoff weight of 41,000 pounds.


For pilots, the definition of a large aircraft is taken from the Code of Federal Regulations, CFR 1.1, which defines a large aircraft as aircraft with a maximum certificated takeoff weight of more than 12,500 pounds.

In contrast, a small aircraft is one with a maximum certificated takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds. So, why does that matter? 

One practical application of this term is to determine which airplane a pilot is certificated to fly, or a pilot's privileges and limitations for his or her particular pilot certificate. A pilot who possesses a Private Pilot Single-Engine Land pilot certificate, for example, is legally allowed to fly any single-engine aircraft except for large or turbo-powered airplanes, either of which require a specific type rating. All large aircraft (above 12,500 pounds) require a pilot to have a type rating specific to that airplane.