World’s biggest airplane takes flight for the first time
APRIL 13, 2019 will remain a landmark date in aviation history as the world’s largest airplane took flight for the first time ever on the morning that day. Built by rocket launch company Stratolaunch, the 226796-kilogram plane with a 117.34-meter wingspan lifted off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.
It was a critical first test flight for the aircraft, designed to launch rockets into orbit from the air. The inaugural flight lasted for 150 minutes, according to the company, after which the plane safely landed.
Dual-fuselage Stratolaunch is designed to fly to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where it can drop rockets that ignite their engines and boost themselves into orbit around the planet. There is no rocket on this particular flight. But the company has already signed at least one customer, Northrop Grumman, which plans to use Stratolaunch to send its Pegasus XL rocket into space.
Maximum speed 281.6352 km
Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said, “It was an emotional moment for me, personally, to watch this majestic bird take flight”. The aircraft performed as expected, reaching a maximum speed of 281.6352 kilometers per hour and a peak altitude of 4.572 kilometers.
“The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want a first flight to be,” said test pilot Evan Thomas.
During the first phase of the flight, Stratolaunch tested the airplane’s handling qualities. “It flew very much like we had simulated and like we predicted,” he said. According to Stratolaunch, the plane’s systems “ran like a watch” and that the aircraft landed “on the mark” after a few low passes.
The flight came just three months after Stratolaunch laid off “more than 50” employees and cancelled efforts to develop its own rockets. Originally, the company had planned to build a whole suite of rockets, including a spaceplane. The change in plans was reportedly sparked by the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who started Stratolaunch in 2011.
Allen’s name came up frequently during press call “Without a doubt, he would have been exceptionally proud to see his aircraft take flight,” said Floyd. “Even though he wasn’t there today, I did whisper a ‘thank you.’’
The road to the launch involved a number of incremental tests over the last few years, including the initial rollout and an engine test in 2017, and a number of taxis down the runway in Mojave at various speeds.
The giant aircraft’s wingspan stretches beyond the length of two Olympic swimming pools and has undertaken its maiden flight in the US. The six-engine Stratolaunch jet is designed to carry as many as three satellite-laden rockets under its wings, which stretch about 117 meters.
Remarkable engineering achievement
Founded by the late Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, Stratolaunch is vying to be a contender in the market for air-launching small satellites.“We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” Chair of Vulcan Inc. and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, Jody Allen said. “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”
Stratolaunch aircraft first emerged from its Mojave hangar in 2017 and underwent ground tests, including taxiing and rolling down a runway at near-takeoff speeds.
The jet is powered by the same type of engines used by Boeing 747s and is designed to take off at a maximum weight 589,676 kilograms.
It features twin fuselages — sort of the aeroplane equivalent of a catamaran — that span 72.5 meters long.
Other aeroplanes exceed it in length from nose to tail, including the six-engine Antonov AN 225 cargo plane, which is 84 meters long, and the Boeing 747-8, which is about 76.3 meters long.
The previous world wingspan record holder was Howard Hughes’ World War II-era eight-engine H-4 Hercules flying boat — nicknamed the Spruce Goose.
Its wings stretch about 97.5-meters and can still be seen today at an aviation museum in Oregon.
Competing with the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership), Stratolaunch is aiming to become the mobile launch platform for private firms wanting to put satellites into orbit.
They include the Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) for payloads of up to 3,400 kg. The MLV is now in development, with testing slated for 2022.
Advanced in-orbit capabilities
Completing the trio of MLVs is the MLV Reusable, described by Stratolaunch as a “fully reusable space plane that enables advanced in-orbit capabilities and cargo return.” Currently in the design stage, the initial version will focus on cargo launches, with a later version modified for transporting crew.
Finally, there’s the diminutive Pegasus, which has already achieved more than 30 successful launches with another carrier and can deliver payloads of up to a modest 370 kg. Stratolaunch wants to put Pegasus into service using its own system in 2020.
Similar in some ways to Virgin Galactic’s launch system that uses an aircraft to get its secondary rocket-powered vehicle to a higher altitude rather than launching it from the ground, Stratolaunch’s gargantuan plane will fly the launch vehicles to the stratosphere before releasing them to complete their satellite-deployment mission.
Easy as booking an airline flight
Floyd added: “Whatever the payload, whatever the orbit, getting your satellite into space will soon be as easy as booking an airline flight.”
The launch services market is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years, so Stratolaunch will be keen to stay on track with its 2022 target to have any chance of securing a meaningful chunk of the market.
Stratolaunch says that using its huge airplane and collection of launch vehicles will make space “accessible, affordable, and routine.”