Stratolaunch Plane Flies For the Second Time Ever

On April 29th of last week, Stratolaunch, the world’s largest plane by wingspan, flew for its second time ever. The Stratolaunch plane took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 10:28 AM and stayed in the air for 3 hours and 14 minutes before returning. It reached a maximum altitude of 14,000 feet and a top speed of 199 mph, which was 3000 feet less, but 10 mph faster than the aircraft’s performance during the first time it ever flew. In a statement, the company that operated the Stratolaunch said that the test was “extremely successful” and that they did not notice anything unusual. Making an enormous aircraft with two fuselages fly is a challenging task since a lot of stress is exerted on the structure of the plane. The Stratolaunch accomplished this without difficulty in its test flight, and it demonstrated that it could fly safely.

Purpose of the Flight

The Stratolaunch’s recent test flight was aimed to check the performance of the plane after its modifications during the 2 years it was on the ground. During that time, the Stratolaunch received improved aircraft instrumentation, a more advanced flight control system, and most importantly, an environmental system that allowed the cabin to be pressurized. The pressurization system would allow pilots to fly the Stratolaunch at higher altitudes and work in a more comfortable environment. The flight tested the Stratolaunch’s ability to handle the pressurized cabin and its new safety features from the upgraded flight systems. The most exciting part of the test flight saw how the Stratolaunch would handle landing in a crosswind. The gigantic plane touched down on one side of its landing gear before the other side settled down a few seconds later.

Vulcan selling Stratolaunch world's largest airplane for $400 million
Credit: CNBC

Significance of Flight

This new test flight of the Stratolaunch plane signals an important insight into the company that owns the plane. Back when the Startolaunch company was created, its goal was to send satellites and rockets into orbit by launching them off the plane. However, in 2018, the founder of the company, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, died 1 year before the plane ever took flight. Without jurisdiction and management from the founder, Stratolaunch collapsed. However, the company still wanted to get the plane off the ground for one time before they ceased operations. Stratolaunch managed to preserve some of their employees and flew the plane once in April of 2019 before putting their company, including the aircraft, up for sale at $400 million. Then in October of 2019, Stratolaunch was acquired by Cerberus Capital Management, and it was announced in December of 2019 that the company focus would be shifted to launching hypersonic vehicles (vehicles that travel faster than 5 times the speed of sound) rather than launching satellites. This new test flight means that the Stratolaunch company is back in operations again.

Stratolaunch Abandons Launch Vehicle Program for World's Largest Airplane |  Space

About the Stratolaunch Plane

The Stratolaunch, registered as N351SL, is a mother ship aircraft designed to mount a smaller vehicle on its wing. It features a double fuselage so a vehicle can fit in the middle of the aircraft. The right fuselage houses the cockpit and flight control systems, and the left fuselage contains the data collection systems and storage areas. With 2 fuselages and enough room to accommodate a vehicle in the middle, the length of the Stratolaunch’s wing measures 385 feet, the length of nearly 2 Boeing 747s. Due to its large size, the Stratolaunch plane is nicknamed “Roc” after the legendary bird in Middle Eastern mythology. Many of the components of the Stratolaunch are also adopted from the 747. The enormous plane is powered by 6 Boeing 747 engines, and a significant portion of the aircraft systems and parts on the Stratolaunch is directly taken from a donor 747, such as the landing gear and avionics. Currently, the Stratolaunch is being developed to carry hypersonic vehicles that it will launch in the air once completed. The Stratolaunch company is also working its own hypersonic jet called the Talon-A that will attach to the Stratolaunch, but it will be a few years until that flight actually happens since the Stratolaunch needs to be tested in solo flights first to see if it is capable of carrying the Talon-A.

Stratolaunch "Roc" close to flying again - Air Data News (Airway)
Credit: Airway

Overall, the Stratolaunch is being tested to see if it can fly safely and if it is capable of supporting a vehicle on its wing. The second flight of the Stratolaunch is a great indicator that the company is making progress towards their new goal of launching hypersonic vehicles. With this new flight, the Stratolaunch company is one step closer to reaching its goal. Although the first test of the Stratolaunch carrying another vehicle won’t be anytime soon, it is an ambitious goal to look forward to. When the project is finally completed, the Stratolaunch will provide great contributions to technology in the future. 

ATK To Supply Stratolaunch Rocket Stages - SpaceNews
Credit: SpaceNews


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