Despite the delays since it was announced back in 2011, is Scaled Composites’ Stratolaunch now the largest aircraft by wingspan to ever take flight?
By: Ringo Bones
Stratolaunch finally took its successful maiden flight back in Saturday, April 13, 2019 10:00 AM local time from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, which now makes it the world’s largest aircraft to ever take flight. Its 385-foor wingspan beats out Howard Hughes Spruce Goose by a significant margin and its primary purpose is to launch satellites into space at a much reduced cost than existing launch methods.
Originally designed by Silicon Valley billionaire Paul Allen and its construction was made possible by the Northrop Grumman subsidiary called Scaled Composites and the plane’s completion was first announced back in 2011. Unfortunately, Stratolaunch remained on the ground far beyond its originally planned first test flight date back in 2016. Paul Allen died near the end of 2018 of complications related to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though the project continued in his stead.
Despite being made almost entirely of carbon fiber material and related lightweight composites, Stratolaunch weighs in at 500,000 pounds. Much of it is due to the plane’s twin fuselage design and to further reduce costs, the plane uses six Pratt & Whitney jet engines similar to ones used on the iconic Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet and also the plane’s 28-wheel landing gear is also similar to the one used on the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet.
Only a handful of twin-fuselage planes have been developed in the past few decades and Stratolaunch will primarily be used for spaceflight – as in a satellite launch system for launching payloads into space. Even though it only attained a speed of 189 miles per hour during its maiden flight, the plane is still very capable of reaching 35,000 to 40,000 feet at such relatively low speeds because launching payloads into space at such heights provides significant rocket fuel savings compared to existing launch methods of using static rockets on ground-based launch pads.
Launching payloads at such altitude also minimizes complications from bad weather as the plane can simply fly over storm systems and further fuel savings can be made by flying Stratolaunch over the Earth’s equator and launch satellites there. The plane is capable of launching up to three of Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL rockets. Sadly, due to the aircraft’s rather “unique” shape, there are still delays on the plane’s certification by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, not to mention additional more test flights before it can start launching payloads off the planet. And Stratolaunch is also facing competition from Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit – a satellite launch system that’s based on a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft and due to Branson’s plane having a “more conventional profile” compared to Stratolaunch, Virgin Orbit could get FAA approval much sooner than the twin-fuselage Stratolaunch.
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