World’s largest plane completes first test flight

With the wingspan of 117 metres and two cockpits, the Stratolauncher might make access to space more convenient

After years of development and testing, the world’s largest plane has finally taken off to the skies.

On Saturday 13 April, the two-cockpit Stratolauncher successfully completed a test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. The flight took two and a half hours with the plane hitting the maximum altitude of five kilometres. It managed to reach a speed of 304 kph.

“We finally did it,” said Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s chief executive. “Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems.”

Stratolaunch was established by Microsoft’s co-founder Paul G. Allen in 2011. Allen wanted to develop an air-launch platform that would make access to space more convenient and reliable.

His idea was to create an aircraft able to reach nearly 11 km and then launch a satellite-bearing rocket into low-Earth orbit. The has also been the potential to use the aircraft for transporting people as well. Unfortunately, Allen passed away in October last year.

“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.

“The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”

The 117-metre wide Stratolauncher successfully completes its first flight — Stratolauncher World’s largest plane completes first test flight
The 117-metre-wide Stratolauncher successfully completes its first flight — Stratolauncher

Allen reportedly found the advantages of small satellites the plane could carry fascinating. He thought that air-launching rockets could help usher in a new era of spaceflight.

“The capabilities of these small satellites is something that’s really interesting and fascinating,” he said.

“Both for communications, where a lot of people are putting up constellations of satellites, and for monitoring the challenged health of the planet.”

Air launching as a major cost-reduction

With its unique process of launching rockets from the belly of a plane, the company hoped to reduce space missions costs in comparison to the standard vertical launch from a site.

"Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems" — Stratolauncher World’s largest plane completes first test flight
“Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems” — Stratolauncher

With twin fuselage, 28 wheels and six 747 jet engines, the 117-metre-wide Stratolauncher could carry as many as three rockets.

Stratolauncher is not the only player in the game of air launching. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has come up with a similar approach with its Virgin Orbit project.