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 FAA weighs (pun intended) when determining the weight category for each aircraft. 

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

For example, the term "heavy" is used by air traffic controllers to determine separation minimums, speeds, climb rates and other various characteristics of aircraft, and the same term has little meaning to pilots, except to understand that when an air traffic controller says the word "heavy" in front of an airplane's callsign, they should watch out for wake turbulence. In addition, 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 here is capable - an aircraft can operate with less than 300,000 pounds during take off 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 and less than 300,000 pounds.

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



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 an 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 or less. 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 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 or 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.