The world’s largest plane has just completed its first successful test flight.
This is the Scaled Composites Model 351 Stratolaunch, or just “Stratolaunch” for short. It’s built by Scaled Composites, a speciality aircraft engineering firm owned by Northrop Grumman, and build for Stratolaunch, a space delivery company. And by that, we mean a company that wants to start delivering satellites into space from the back of their enormous Stratolaunch cargo plane.
Or should we say middle? The Stratolaunch has a unique twin-fuselage design reminiscent of old World War II aircraft like the P-38 Lightning and the F-82 Twin Mustang. Since then, the twin-fuselage design has fallen out of favor, although it keeps popping up in proposals for extreme cargo-carrying aircraft until it eventually found a home in the Stratolaunch.
And make no mistake, the Stratolaunch is on the extreme end of aircraft engineering. With a wingspan of 385 feet and a maximum take-off weight of 1,300,000 lbs, the Stratolaunch is the biggest aircraft to ever leave the ground and still return. The previous record holder was the Spruce Goose of Howard Hughes fame, although we hope the Stratolaunch has a more successful career than the Spruce Goose.
The Stratolaunch is powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 turbofans and uses the landing gear of several 747s. In fact, Scaled Composites cannibalized three Boeing 747s in order to make the Stratolaunch. In between the two cockpits is a strengthened part of the wing that’s designed to carry rockets with a satellite payload, the maximum weight of which can be up to 250 tons.
So why all this to launch satellites into space? Can’t we already do that from the ground? Yes, absolutely, but there are several advantages to launch satellites from a high-flying plane. First and foremost, there’s less rocket fuel to burn. Second, you don’t need to create disposable booster rockets that drop to the ground and can’t be used again.
And third, and perhaps most importantly, you don’t need to wait in line at a spaceport for an opportunity to launch. Spaceports have busy schedules that often mean companies are waiting months or even years before their satellite can go into orbit. Stratolaunch will allow for more space launches, faster, and at a fraction of the price.
The first test flight of the Stratolaunch happened on Saturday, April 13th. The 2.5-hour flight too the Stratolaunch up to 17,000 feet and a gentle speed of 189 mph, although the Stratolaunch is expected to reach altitudes of 35,000 feet and a maximum speed of 530 mph.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the pilots sit in the right cockpit. The left cockpit is there, but it’s left unpressurized during flight.