World’s biggest airplane takes flight for the first time ever

Photo: Stratolaunch Systems

The world’s largest airplane took flight for the first time ever on Saturday morning. Built by rocket launch company Stratolaunch, the 500,000-pound plane with a 385-foot wingspan lifted off shortly after 10AM ET 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.

The 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.

Photo: Stratolaunch

“It was an emotional moment for me, personally, to watch this majestic bird take flight,” said Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd. The aircraft performed as expected, reaching a maximum speed of 175 miles per hour and a peak altitude of 15,000 feet.

“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.

Today’s flight comes just three months after Stratolaunch laid off “more than 50” employees and canceled 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 today’s 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.’’

Stratolaunch did not take questions during the press call and made no mention of what comes next for the aircraft.

The road to today’s 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.

Photo: Stratolaunch

With reporting from Loren Grush

Update April 13th 2:20PM ET: The article has been updated to reflect that the Stratolaunch plane safely landed after its inaugural flight with executive comments from a press call.

Comments

Hey people at Stratolaunch: How about an official video already! Come on. 4K 60fps please.

This has to be one of the busiest weeks in science in a long while

Such a shame Paul Allen isn’t here to see this.

Thank you Paul Allen. Without your vision, and financing, this would not have happened. Though what’s this on the Poo Bahs now wanting to cut back on expenditures?

Much like the Spruce Goose I doubt this project will ever recoup its cost in launch revenue…

I think that a turbofan engine is much more efficient than a rocket engine. For suitable payloads, I think this has the potential of significant savings.

It already has at least one Pegasus launch ordered. It’s being considered for launching the Dream Chaser. It would not be surprising if it became a candidate for launching the X-38 or its successor.

There are a number of good reasons for its existence, but one that simply can not be challenged is that Stratolauncher can fly above the weather: When a ground-launched rocket has to scrub for poor weather conditions, Stratolauncher can probably get the payload into orbit.

When it, to borrow a phrase, absolutely, positively has to be there, you want to be above the troposphere.

Almost every video on youtube of this over dubs the whole video with music. THESE are not aeronautics fans…anyone from Seattle knows 90% of the fun of watching jets fly is the sound, and feel right to your core. https://youtu.be/Hku8TH9NKfw

Why didn’t they do a loop or a victory roll?

Probably would’ve snapped in half.

Come in with the milk. Come in with the milk. Come in with the milk.

What is the carbon footprint of that monstrosity, and what is it projected to be if put into service?

A whole lot less than the booster rockets it replaces.

I love technical informative sciencey answers like that.

Perhaps if you can’t even search the info by yourself, the most adequate place to ask your question isn’t on a public comment section of a news article ?

Why don’t you contact people in charge of the research papers associated with the project ?

Perhaps if you understood the purpose of an open forum, you wouldn’t feel compelled to answer a question with questions unrelated to the OC. Yeah?

Perhaps if you understood the purpose of an open forum, you wouldn’t feel compelled to answer a question with questions that fail to answer the OC. Yeah?

Dreamwriter’s remark is spot on. Rockets are terribly inefficient and turbofan engines are much better. The reason is basic physics. I think the main advantage of this launch aircraft is that it uses much less fuel than the (booster or portion of a booster) rocket which it replaces. (So the booster might not be eliminated but the first rocket stage and required fuel could be much smaller.) Unless/until we can realize a space elevator, I think that (turbofan or jet propulsion) may be the best we can do to reduce the fuel required to launch into space from the earth’s surface.

There’s no way I’d ever set foot on that . It looks like it could break apart at any second.

that center spar with not hold over time.It will flex itself to destruction The only question is will it fail when the plane is carrying a rocket or when it is flying solo.It looks most like those early monstrosities created when flying was new ,like the Caproni Ca.60 Transaereo .

That was also my kneejerk reaction, but when you look at it photographed from the bottom the fuselages appear much smaller in proportion to the actual girth of the wings

… in which case the two halves land separately.

I’m pretty sure they thought of flex in the midsection before actually starting with this whole project, don’t you think?

Wait… You mean aerospace engineers could have thought of something before an internet commenter? What madness is this!

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