Bigger and better. This seems to be the current trend in the aviation industry and it’s one that has once again been reinforced by the maiden test flight of the world’s largest airplane on April 13, 2019. The massive airplane, called Stratolaunch and nicknamed Roc, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.
Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, the American space transportation venture founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, is responsible for the breakthrough in aviation.
According to reports, the carrier aircraft reached a peak altitude of 17,000 feet and achieved a top speed of 189 miles per hour.
The flight lasted for 2 hours and 29 minutes. Stratolaunch took off at 6:58 A.M. (PDT) and landed at approximately 9:30 A.M. (PDT). The flight plan was 70 miles into the California desert before landing back in the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The carrier airplane is truly massive, and it’s essentially two airplanes stitched into one aircraft. The design features a dual fuselage with a cockpit in each one. The six Pratt & Whitney Turbofan engines give an awe-inspiring 340,500 pounds of thrust, and these were originally designed for use in Boeing 747s.
From its tip to its tail, Roc measures 238 feet while its wingspan measures 385 feet. At these measurements, it’s larger than the length of an American football field, and it’s nearly as large as the International Space Station, length-wise.
With such massive size comes massive weight, too. The carrier plane has a gross take-off weight of 1.3 million pounds.
The landing gear is composed of 28 wheels while the body is made largely of carbon fiber material. Most airplanes are made of aluminum.
The maiden test flight allowed the pilots to evaluate the carrier aircraft’s performance and handling. The crew conducted flight control maneuvers, simulated landing approach, speed calibration and flight control systems testing, among other standard aircraft testing exercises.
Evan Thomas, one of the pilots on the Stratolaunch said that, “The systems on the airplane ran like a watch.”
There have been prior tests including fueling tests conducted in May 2017 and taxi tests starting in December 2017.
Stratolaunch, the carrier aircraft, is one of three primary parts of the Stratolaunch Systems Corporation’s ambitious project. Built by Scaled Composites, it’s designed to carry rockets into space. The other two components are a launch vehicle and a mating and integration system.
The flight wasn’t officially announced by Stratolaunch Systems but photographers spotted it at the airport. This isn’t surprising as the company has been conducting several ground tests with Stratolaunch in recent months.
Aside from photographers, there were aviation enthusiasts in the large crowd of spectators during the Stratolaunch’s maiden test flight. While it wasn’t a huge crowd befitting the sheer size of Stratolaunch, it was a larger crowd than the ones seen in recent suborbital space flights at the airport.
Virgin Galactic, also a private spaceflight company, has also launched its own aircraft from the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Stratolaunch Systems Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jean Floyd said, “What a fantastic first flight.” She added that the flight advances the company’s mission in providing a “flexible alternative to ground-launched systems”. She also said that the company is proud of the flight crew, as well as its partners at the Mojave Air and Space Port and at Scaled Composites.
Jody Allen, the chairman of Vulcan Inc. and a trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, also said that the late founder “would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement”. Stratolaunch, she further added, is a remarkable achievement in engineering.
Even the spectators were impressed by Stratolaunch’s performance from their vantage point on the ground. Jack Beyer, an aerospace photographer, said that the aircraft “was actually effortlessly in the air” and he was surprised and astounded.
In December 13, 2011, Paul Allen announced his renewed partnership with Burt Rutan in the development of a radical approach in private space travel. The duo envisioned a giant twin-boom aircraft for launching a rocket and a space capsule with government and commercial payloads into orbit. Eventually, the aircraft can be used for putting paying passengers into orbit.
With the successful maiden test flight of Stratolaunch, the race into space in space tourism has just entered a new ferocity. The competitors of Stratolaunch Systems including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are likely now in a frenzy to step up their game.
The success of Stratolaunch’s first flight signals the way for manned flights, as planned by Stratolaunch Systems.
Even NASA has praised the successful flight. According to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science directorate, the flight is a “historic milestone” that’s about “going to the edge of space and beyond!”
Stratolaunch Systems actually took eight years in research and development of its carrier airplane. With its success now, it may well set the pace for the future of flying and of space travel.