With its six engines, twin fuselage, and the world’s longest wingspan, the giant Stratolaunch jet took off from a California runway on Saturday as it embarked on its maiden flight.
The Stratolaunch was the brainchild of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and could one day be used as part of a cost-effective system for getting satellites into space.
The aircraft’s 28 wheels left the ground for the very first time at 6:58 a.m. PT from the Mojave Air and Space Port about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. It stayed in the skies over the Mojave Desert for 2.5 hours, achieving a maximum speed of 189 mph (143 kmh) at altitudes of up to 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).
During the outing, the Stratolaunch’s test pilots evaluated its performance and handling before bringing the plane safely back to base. Pilot Evan Thomas of Scaled Composites, which built the Stratolaunch, described the aircraft’s maiden flight as “fantastic,” according to the Associated Press (AP).
“The airplane very nicely, smoothly rotated and really just lifted off the ground,” Thomas said after touching down. “It definitely was ready to fly and wanted to fly and climbed out quickly.”
The Stratolaunch features a record-breaking 385-foot (117 meters) wingspan — greater than the length of a football field. It’s long, too, and at 250 feet (76.3 meters) slightly surpasses the length of the world’s largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380.
“We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” Jody Allen, chair of Stratolaunch Systems parent Vulcan Inc. and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, said in a release, adding, “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”
In comments reported by the AP following the Stratolaunch’s successful outing on Saturday, Jean Floyd, chief executive of Stratolaunch Systems, said: “It was an emotional moment for me, to personally watch this majestic bird take flight, to see Paul Allen’s dream come to life in front of my very eyes.”
Paul Allen, who died in 2018 aged 65, founded Stratolaunch Systems in 2011 to create a mobile launch platform for airline-style access to space that’s both convenient and affordable. The aircraft’s reinforced center wing can support multiple satellite-carrying launch vehicles, weighing up to a total of 500,000 pounds. The plan is for the Stratolaunch to carry the launch vehicles to an altitude of 35,000 feet (about 10,700 meters) before releasing them. The vehicles’ rocket engines would then fire up and transport the satellites into space for deployment.
If you’re impressed by the sheer enormity of the Stratolaunch, then perhaps you’d like to check out this Digital Trends piece highlighting some more of the world’s largest aircraft.