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Flight of world's biggest aeroplane 'brings airline-style satellite launches closer'

Professional Engineering

The Stratolaunch in flight (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems Corporation)
The Stratolaunch in flight (Credit: Stratolaunch Systems Corporation)

Satellite operators are closer to flexible, “airline-style” launches than ever before thanks to the first successful flight of the world’s largest aeroplane, the aircraft’s developer has said.

Using six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines across a 117m wingspan – roughly the length of a football pitch – the Stratolaunch took flight at 6.58am on Saturday. Flying from the Mojave Air and Space Port, it reached a maximum speed of 304km/h and altitude of 5,182m during a two-and-a-half hour flight.

Pilot Evan Thomas evaluated the performance and handling of the distinctive dual-fuselage, all-composite aircraft, including “roll doublets, yawing manoeuvres, pushovers and pull-ups and steady heading side slips.”

“For the first part of the flight, we checked out the handling qualities of the aircraft… it flew very much like we had simulated and predicted, which is exactly what we want. We saw a few little things that were off nominal, but really for a first flight, it was spot on,” said Thomas.

He added: “The systems on the airplane ran like a watch. It is a very complex airplane – the propulsion, the pneumatic system, the hydraulics, they all ran perfectly which was great.”

Founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, Stratolaunch Systems Corporation hopes to provide easy access to space for science, research and technology purposes. The Stratolaunch aircraft will carry multiple launch vehicles weighing up to a total of 226,796kg under its reinforced centre, releasing them above cruise altitude before their rockets ignite and carry them to orbit.

“Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems,” said Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd. “We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today’s flight crew, our partners at Northrup Grumman’s Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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