Stratolaunch: world’s largest airplane took its first flight

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Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen didn’t live long enough to see the Stratolaunch, an absolute hulk of an aircraft, go on its maiden flight. He died in late 2018, and Stratolaunch took wing on Saturday.

In a release, Stratolaunch announced the historic milestone, which started off at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The massive plane cruised for 2.5 hours over the desert, reaching altitudes up to 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) with a max speed of 189 mph (304 km/h).

A short video shows the takeoff and a snippet of the flight.

Stratolaunch calls the plane “the world’s largest all-composite aircraft.” It isn’t just big to be big. It’s designed to use its belly to cradle other vehicles, which can then be launched to space.

If you were to set Stratolaunch on an American football field, its wings would reach across each end zone.

So go ahead an imagine this behemoth taking off and then releasing a rocket from underneath it to ferry a satellite into orbit. The reinforced center wing, which spans 385 feet (117 meters) can hold multiple launch vehicles weighing 500,000 pounds (226,796 kilograms).

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The pilots checked off an extensive to-do list that included performing flight-control maneuvers and simulated landing approach exercises. The airplane returned safely to the ground after the journey.

Allen founded Stratolaunch in 2011 with a vision for “airline-style access to space” as an alternative to ground-based space launch systems.

We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” said Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan Inc. and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust.

Rolling out a new world record

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This is the Stratolaunch. With a wingspan of 385 feet, this special plane is now the largest in the world. Don’t expect to see it at your local airport though; this craft has a more important purpose than transporting people.

Why is everyone talking about this plane? Take a closer look at it, and you’ll soon see for yourself…

Mark your calendars for a 2019 rocket launch

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On May 31, 2017, the Stratolaunch was towed out of its hangar to start ground testing. Its first takeoff is planned for later this year following further tests.

If all goes well, the Stratolaunch will perform its first rocket launch sometime in 2019.

Testing the engines for the first time

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On Sept. 19, 2017, the Stratolaunch successfully completed a series of important engine tests, with all six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines performing as expected.

Stratolaunch has passed all its tests with flying colors so far

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The Stratolaunch has also completed fuel testing in recent months, along with testing of its electrical, pneumatic and fire-detection systems.

Crews will continue to test the engines at even higher power levels in the months to follow as the Stratolaunch works toward its first taxi test.

This is one gigantic plane

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By the numbers, the Stratolaunch — code name “Roc” — is the largest plane ever built. Its wings measure 385 feet across, longer than a professional football field. Its twin fuselages are 238 feet long, while it’s tail height is 50 feet.

As such, it had to be constructed here at the Mojave Air and Space Port, inside a specially constructed 88,000-square-foot hangar.

The Stratolaunch concept

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The Stratolaunch has yet to make its maiden flight, but this concept photo shows what that might look like.

If you look between the two fuselages, you’ll see three rockets designed to launch into space.

A bicipital airplane

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No, you’re not seeing double — the Stratolaunch really is a two-headed airplane. But only the cockpit on the starboard (right when facing forward) fuselage is manned.

No one’s home on the port side, though

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The port side cockpit, meanwhile, is designed to stay empty and unpressurized.

How the Stratolaunch launches rockets

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This graphic shows the planned operation of the Stratolaunch. The plane first carries a rocket to an altitude of roughly 35,000 feet. The rocket then separates from the plane and engages its own engines to continue its climb.

It can launch up to 3 rockets per flight

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For its first launch in 2019, the Stratolaunch will carry a single Pegasus XL rocket, built by Orbital ATK. The craft is designed, however, to carry as many as three of these between its twin fuselages.

A plane this heavy needs lots of wheels

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With a max takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds (650 tons), the Stratolaunch needs a lot of support from its 28 wheels.

There are 12 main landing-gear wheels and two nose-gear wheels on each side.

This is what the Stratolaunch’s cockpit looks like

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This is the inside of a Boeing 747-400, showing you what the cockpit of the Stratolaunch looks like. The record-breaking plane is designed to operate under a three-person crew: the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.

The beginnings of the Stratolaunch

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Here’s a wide shot of the massive Stratolaunch Systems hangar from 2015. In this photo, you can take a barest-of-bones look at the early days of the plane’s construction.

Meet Paul Allen, the man behind the plane

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This is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan created Stratolaunch Systems on Dec. 13, 2011, to develop a new air-launch-to-orbit system that could revolutionize space transportation.

Fulfilling his life’s dream

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When you’re the sole financier of a plane, you’re allowed to climb this high for a photo op.

It is a big initial fixed investment to get this going,” Allen said when announcing the project in 2011. “But you have a certain number of dreams in your life that you want to fulfill, and this is a dream that I’m very excited about seeing come to fruition. ” Allen died in October 2018.

The first step toward flight

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Over the past few weeks, we have removed the fabrication infrastructure, including the three-story scaffolding surrounding the aircraft, and rested the aircraft’s full weight on its 28 wheels for the first time,” said Stratolaunch Systems CEO Jean Floyd. “This was a crucial step in preparing the aircraft for ground testing, engine runs, taxi tests and, ultimately, first flight.”

Monitoring the build progress

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Here, Allen and his team check the progress on the Stratolaunch prior to officially unveiling it.

The rear view

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Here’s a look at the rear of the Stratolaunch.

This plane needs a LOT of runways

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Because of its immense size and weight, the Stratolaunch needs 12,000 feet of the runway — nearly 2 miles’ worth — to take off.

A Stratolaunch class photo

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Allen and the Stratolaunch Systems team pose for a photo near one of the plane’s two tails.

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