In a world where the U.S. military employs massive cargo aircraft like the C-5 Super Galaxy, big is a word that can be attributed to a whole lot of airplanes. With an internal storage capacity that could feasibly transport not one, but two M1 Abrams battle tanks, the C-5 Super Galaxy is an engineering marvel. Now, the recently-flown Stratolaunch aircraft absolutely dwarfs it, with a wingspan that’s more than 160 feet bigger than the cargo-carrying legend C-5.
The Stratolaunch’s massive wingspan stretches further than 383 feet, making it significantly longer than a football field and helping to earn the aircraft the distinguished title of not only the largest aircraft in the world, beating out big-bodied competition in service to the U.S. and Russian air forces by a significant margin, but the largest aircraft ever built. Last week, this massive feat of engineering took to the sky for the first time, making a historic step toward what promises to be a historic future.
While most large-scale aircraft are built to carry cargo from one destination on the Earth’s surface to another, the Stratolaunch has a different mission ahead of it: the dual-fuselage aircraft was purpose-built to carry rockets up to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where it will launch them into orbit like missiles. The rockets designed to be carried aloft by the Stratolaunch will theoretically serve as a cheaper alternative to ground-based launches for certain types of cargo destined for low Earth orbit. One company that has already signed on for this approach is Northrop Grumman, which plans to launch its Pegasus XL rockets from aboard the Stratolaunch aircraft.
Of course, before any rockets can be launched, the massive air frame has to prove that it can fly — and that’s just what it did on Saturday morning.
— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) April 13, 2019
“The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want a first flight to be,” said test pilot Evan Thomas. “It flew very much like we had simulated and like we predicted.”
The aircraft first took to the skies at approximately 6:58 a.m. local time and remained airborne for two and a half hours, giving Thomas ample opportunity to test the aircraft’s basic functions with a particular focus on the plane’s handling. During the test flight, he reached a maximum altitude of 17,000 feet and a top speed of 189 miles per hour.