Planes can fly as high as their manufacturers certify them. The plane manufacturers determine the highest altitude, and each plane can fly up to that service ceiling. During the phase of flight testing, the manufacturer tests out the service ceiling to ensure the safety of engines, airframes, and other onboard systems.
Generally, the altitude of a plane is dependent on the airliner type. For example, wide-body airliners like Airbus A380 or Boeing 777 can fly as high as 43,000 feet. Similarly, narrow-body airliners like Airbus A220 and Boeing 757 have service ceilings of over 40,000 feet. Fighter aircraft like F-15 Eagle can go up to 65,000 feet. Likewise, light and ultralight aircraft can fly at a low altitude of 14,000 feet.
Let’s elaborate on all these points and try to map out how high planes fly.
Did You Know?
When planes go high they consume lesser fuel than flying at low altitudes. At higher altitudes, the air gets thinner, which leads to less fuel consumption (fuel economy). Airplanes fly faster at higher altitudes because of lower air density and drag.
How High Planes Fly | A Comparison of Different Types of Airliners
Let’s discuss how high several airliners fly.
Also called twin-aisle aircraft, wide-body airliners consist of two aisles per cabin. As the name indicates, wide-body airliners are big aircraft that can carry a vast number of passengers. These planes usually operate on medium to long-haul flights. They can carry up to 850 passengers.
These aircraft have two or more cabins (one for Economy and one or more for Business, Premium Economy, or First Class).
Now, let’s answer how high these planes fly. We need to look at examples of some famous wide-body aircraft.
The first wide-body aircraft, Boeing 747, was introduced in 1970. The aircraft is a four-engine or quad jet. The plane has a service ceiling of 45,100 feet. Similarly, Boeing 777, a twinjet or twin-engines wide-body aircraft, is certified to fly as high as 43,100 feet.
Narrow-body airliners are single-aisle aircraft that typically operate for domestic or short international flights. Since they have narrow bodies, they can carry fewer passengers. A narrow-body aircraft can typically carry a maximum of 300 passengers.
Now let’s answer this question, how high do these planes fly? We will look at examples of some renowned narrow-body airliners from Airbus and Boeing.
Boeing 707 is the first narrow-body four-engine commercial jetliner. It commenced its operations in 1957. Boeing 707 flew for the last time in 2013. The aircraft could fly at a maximum altitude of 42,000 feet.
Some other popular narrow-body airliners from Boeing are: the Boeing 757 with a certified service ceiling of 42,000 feet, and the Boeing 737 certified to fly up to 41,000 feet above sea level. Similarly, Airbus A220 has a service ceiling of 41,000 feet, and Airbus A320 has a service ceiling of 39,800 feet.
As the name indicates, fighter aircraft is meant to fight air-to-air battles with enemies to defend or attack for aerial domination. Generally, they are fixed-wing, single-seated, and single-engine aircraft. 5th Generation Fighter Jets are the most advanced fighter aircraft because of their advanced machines, high manoeuvrability, advanced sensors, latest avionics, and data links.
5th Gen Fighter Jets are considerably expensive; therefore, most nations work with 4th Gen Fighter Jets. Powerful countries, like the USA, China, Russia, India, Turkey, Sweden, and Japan have Gen 5 Fighter Jets in their National programs.
The USA designed one of the most lethal fighter jets, the F-22 Raptor, that can fly at a maximum altitude of 60,000 feet above sea level. Other famous Gen 4 Fighter Jets are the F-15 Eagle which has a service ceiling of 65,000 feet, and F-16 can fly to a maximum of 50,000 feet.
Business jets, also known as private jets, usually transport a small group of people. Generally, they are for corporate or business purposes, hence the name business jets. They can also perform special tasks; for example, evacuating people, parcel deliveries, transporting public personnel and government officials, or even showing off the extravagant lives of celebrities.
Private jets are incredibly hazardous to the environment. They emit more carbon dioxide (up to 14 times more) than commercial airplanes. Let’s not delve into environmental and sustainability issues, and try to figure out how high these planes fly.
To answer this question, let’s look into the product portfolio of Gulfstream Aerospace.
The celebrated Gulfstream G550 is a long-range business plane that can fly as high as 51,000 feet. It is a renowned private jet. Our good old buddy, Elon Musk has two of these private jets. Funnily, Elon Musk is a champion of sustainability and clean energy matters and yet owns the most carbon-producing vehicles in the world.
Another one from Gulfstream is G650. It is the fastest and largest business jet plane and can fly to a maximum altitude of 51,000 feet above sea level.
As the name indicates, light aircraft are light because they weigh less (maximum gross takeoff weight of 12,500 lbs or less). Generally, people use such aircraft for sightseeing, photography, surveying, marketing purposes, freight transport, and other personal purposes.
The most famous one, still in use, is Cessna 172. This OG light aircraft first flew back in the 50s and still is in operation. Cessna 172 has a service ceiling of 14,000 feet. Another one, Cirrus SR22, has a service ceiling of 25,000 feet.
These are lightweight 1 or 2 seats aircraft with fixed wings. Every country has its own definition of what kind of planes fall into the ultralight category. For example, in the USA, an ultralight aircraft is one that is less than 254 pounds (when powered) with a capacity of only 5 U.S gallons of fuel.
The pilots of ultralight aircraft do not even need a license to fly them. Generally, they are used for sporting or recreational activities.
Want to know how high these planes fly?
Thunder Gull is a popular tricycle-geared, cantilevered high-wing ultralight aircraft that has a service ceiling of 14,000 feet.
To Sum It Up
This article is for people who love the systems, technology, and power of planes.
Here, we tried to find the answer to how high planes fly. We learned that the maximum altitude of an airplane depends upon its manufacturer certificate, which they determine by looking into many factors significant for the engine and systems of the plane.