Giant double fuselage aircraft, the Stratolaunch, has become airborne. Making its maiden flight on April 13, 2019, it also broke the record, which was in place for the last 72 years, along the way.

The aircraft flew for 2.5 hours over the Mojave Desert (California, United States), reaching a top speed of 189 mph. “The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want the first flight to be. And for the most part, the airplane flew as predicted which is again exactly what we want,” Scaled Composites test pilot, Evan Thomas, described the first flight. “We saw a few little things that were off nominal, but really for a first flight, it was spot on”.

Breaking a record

Stratolaunch has the largest wingspan of any plane, stretching 385 feet (117 meters). In comparison, a commercial plane with wings so wide that they were made folding just so that the plane could fit into hangars, the Boeing 777X, is 235 feet (71.8 meters) wide (and that is extended wingspan).

Thus with its maiden flight, Stratolaunch also broke the record that remained intact for the previous 72 years and became the largest flying aircraft by measured wingspan. From November 2, 1947, until April 13, 2019, the title belonged to the Spruce Goose ‒ A WWII-era, U.S.-built eight-engine H4 Hercules wooden flying boat. With a wingspan of 98 meters, the behemoth had made only one flight, taking off to an altitude of 70 feet. During the one minute flight, the Spruce Goose covered a little more than one mile (1.6 km) distance.

Built for Stratolaunch Systems by the U.S. aerospace company Scaled Composites, the Stratolaunch has an operational range of 1,000 nm (1,852 km); a maximum takeoff weight of 650 tons (589,670 kg); and a payload capacity of over 500,000 lbs (226,796 kg), all enabled by its all-composite structure.

The Stratolaunch is 238 feet (73 meters) long and has a tail height of 50 feet (15 meters). It is powered by six Pratt & Whitney (PW4056) turbofan engines, used on Boeing 747s, and can undergo mission times totaling 10 hours.

The Stratolaunch program

The Stratolaunch program is a new air launch system that will use its aircraft as a fully reusable, mobile launch platform. The air launch system will allow lowering fuel costs by ferrying payload rockets to high altitudes before launching them into the low Earth orbit. One of the main advantages is that it will be capable of deploying launch vehicles to multiple orbits and inclinations on a single mission.

In total, the company will use four different vehicles to launch satellites: the Pegasus rocket, capable of carrying small payloads into the low Earth orbit; a Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) with a payload capacity of 7,500 lbs (3,400 kg); a much heavier Medium Launch Vehicle - Heavy with a payload capacity of 13,200 lbs (6,000kg); and the Stratolaunch space plane. The family of launch vehicles is scheduled to begin regular service to orbit in 2020.