Stratolaunch – A giant first test flight at Mojave
April 27, 2019
Saying Stratolaunch, the aircraft with a 385-foot wingspan, is huge is an understatement! I was between some hangars, behind the flightline fence and saw the chase plane take off, shortly thereafter I heard the six jet engines roaring with take-off power and getting closer, as it lifted from runway 30. All of a sudden I saw a gigantic shadow and as this colossal airplane became visible, I gasped – it literally took my breath away! She was climbing into the Mojave skies so gracefully. What a magnificent sight to behold! I heard people cheering, whistling and clapping their hands. So thankful I was able to witness another "First Test Flight" at Mojave!
This was posted on Scaled Composites Facebook page: "Stratolaunch, Scaled Model 351, takes to the skies! It's been an exciting day for the Scaled team as the world's largest wingspan aircraft completed its maiden flight."
From Stratolaunch Systems Corporation's press release of April 13, "Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, founded by Paul G. Allen, today successfully completed the first flight of the world's largest all-composite aircraft, the Stratolaunch. With a dual fuselage design and wingspan greater than the length of an American football field, the Stratolaunch aircraft took flight at 0658 PDT from the Mojave Air and Spaceport. Achieving a maximum speed of 189 miles per hour, the plane flew for 2.5 hours over the Mojave Desert at altitudes up to 17,000 feet. As part of the initial flight, the pilots evaluated aircraft performance and handling qualities before landing successfully back at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
"'What a fantastic first flight,' said Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch. 'Today's flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems. We are incredibly proud of the Stratolaunch team, today's flight crew, our partners at Northrop Grumman's Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port.'"
The test team, including, Pilot Evan Thomas, Co-Pilot Chris 'Duff' Guarente and Jake Riley, conducted standard aircraft testing exercises. In the Cessna Citation business jet chase plane were Zach Reeder, Clint Nichols and Sean Willis.
I think it is always interesting to know where the wonderful test pilots at Mojave Air and Spaceport gained their flight experience. The Stratolaunch was piloted by Evan Thomas, a test pilot at Scaled Composites. He was a career pilot with the U.S. Air Force and held a variety of impressive positions during his 28 years of service.
Thomas flew F-16s and was Vice Wing Commander of the 46th Test Wing, as well as Director of Operations with the NATO Combined Air Operations Centre 5. Before coming to Scaled Composites, he served as Senior Test Pilot at Calspan Corporation for seven years.
In a Stratolaunch press release, Thomas said, "I honestly could not have hoped for more on a first flight, especially of an airplane of this complexity and this uniqueness."
"It's been a great day for the team and really this flight could not have happened without their tireless efforts," said Thomas.
During the seventh annual Mojave Experimental Fly-In, people were constantly looking skyward, then someone would shout, "There they are!" In unison everyone looked up and pointed, "Look how big Stratolaunch is! Where's the chase plane?" The chase plane looked like a spec next to the magnificently large aircraft.
Many folks had hand-held radios and were listening to transmissions between the chase plane and Stratolaunch. I recognized Zach Reeder's calm pilot voice as the Stratolaunch performed different flight control maneuvers. They were calibrating speed and testing the flight control systems. They went as high as 15,000 feet to do some of the flight test work.
Excitement filled the air when someone yelled, "They're going to do a flyby down runway 30!" Up came the cameras with the huge zoom lenses and out came the smart phones. It was such a special feeling to be there witnessing this magnificent first test flight. It gave everyone present a sense of having a part in something really big and they all knew they were watching history being made.
According to the Scaled Composites website, the Stratolaunch aircraft is a mobile launch platform that will enable airline-style access to space that is convenient, affordable and routine. The reinforced center wing can support multiple launch vehicles, weighing up to a total of 500,000-pounds (250 tons).
Microsoft Co-Founder Paul G. Allen, who was devoted to space endeavors and founded and funded the Stratolaunch project, passed away last October at age 65, from complications related to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and wasn't there to witness the historic first flight.
Floyd made a sincere comment in their press release after the flight. She said, "Even though he wasn't there today, as the plane lifted gracefully from the runway, I did whisper a 'thank you' to Paul for allowing me to be a part of this remarkable achievement." She thanked the entire team of workers, pilots, ground crew at Scaled Composites, Northrop Grumman and the support of Mojave Air and Spaceport and Edwards Air Force Base.
Dick Rutan, no stranger to making first flights himself, was part of the crowd in the Stratolaunch reserved VIP section watching the takeoff and observing every detail of the flight. He was on the phone with his brother Burt Rutan, famed aircraft designer and Scaled Composites founder, from take-off to touchdown. Burt was at home in Idaho and had encouraged Allen to form the company.
"Burt was monitoring the flight on his computer and had the test cards," said Dick. "He knew what the test points were and he was really excited."
"We weren't allowed to take photos in the reserved section," said Dick. "But in only minutes after the take-off, the internet and Twitter was alive with pictures and videos."
By 2022, the company hopes to use the twin-fuselage, six-engined, aircraft to launch satellite-bearing rockets into space.
All in all another fabulous day at Mojave Air and Spaceport, a place to celebrate the exciting aviation history, extraordinary present aerospace adventures and share in the space age future!