by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
After many days of waiting for high winds and bad weather to clear, the colossal six-engined carrier aircraft Stratolaunch, with an enormous wingspan lifted off gracefully from Runway 30 at Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:30 a.m., April 29, 2021, just as it had done two years ago on April 13.
Airport personnel and fans of ‘Roc’ gathered to watch with awe as the giant composite flying machine climbed effortlessly into the clear blue skies for a three hour test flight. This gigantic aircraft is nicknamed Roc as a tribute to the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology.
Pilots Evan “Ivan” Thomas and Mark “Gidro” Giddings, with Flight Engineer Jake Riley were at the controls of Roc, while Ana Benet flew the Cessna Citation chase plane.
The test flight lasted nearly three hours and at the conclusion, ROC made a couple of low passes down Runway 30. Cameras and cell phones were everywhere and you could hear the audible ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaahhs’ as ROC effortlessly glided through the air. “There she is!” several people exclaimed.
At approximately 10:30 a.m. ROC touched down on runway 30 at Mojave Air and Space Port with a slight quartering tailwind from the east.
Stratolaunch was originally founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and the giant aircraft was built for Stratolaunch Systems by Scaled Composites to carry air-launch-to-orbit rockets. It was rolled out in May 2017 and was engineered to enable deployments of a range of launch vehicle shapes and weights.
When Allen passed away in October 2018. Cerberus Capital Management acquired Stratolaunch in October 2019, and they announced they would use the aircraft to provide a high-speed ‘hypersonic’ flight test service.
The aircraft features a twin-fuselage design and the longest wingspan ever flown, at 385 feet, surpassing the Hughes H-4 Hercules flying boat of 321 feet. The flight crew is in the right fuselage and the flight data systems is located in the left fuselage.
Stratolaunch, the multi-vehicle launch platform, will carry a 550,000-pound payload and has a 1,300,000-pound maximum takeoff weight.
Six Pratt & Whitney 4056 engines, hydraulic system, electrical systems, landing gear and windshields, among other major components were fitted onto the Stratolaunch aircraft from two ex-United Airlines Boeing 747-400s.
The Stratolaunch websites states, “Our Stratolaunch plane is the largest in the world. But it takes off and lands from a runway just like any other aircraft. Once it reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, one or more high speed vehicles are released, enabling a single or multi-mission capability on a single Stratolaunch aircraft sortie. As the high-speed vehicles complete their assignments, the Stratolaunch plane heads back to the runway to reload for its next mission.”
New employees have been recruited to fill positions in this aerospace firm that has a mission statement “to be the world’s leading provider of high-speed flight test services,” with hypersonic vehicles that reach speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 10.
Stratolaunch has revealed the designs of two hypersonic aircraft plus a reusable space plane that will be launched from its giant Carrier Aircraft launch plane. The company hopes to begin test flights of these vehicles by 2022.
“Our hypersonic testbeds will serve as a catalyst in sparking a renaissance in hypersonic technologies for our government, the commercial sector, and academia,” said W. Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s CEO, on the company’s website.
The two new hypersonic planes are called Talon-A and Talon-Z, while the space plane is dubbed Black Ice.
Talon-A is a flexible, high-speed testbed built for hypersonic research, experiments, and enabling operational missions. The vehicle will be 8.5 meters long with a wingspan of 3.4 meters and a total mass of approximately 2.7 tons at launch. It will be dropped aloft by its mothership, the giant carrier aircraft.
“We believe that innovative flight research and testing programs are key to enabling our nation to develop emerging hypersonic technologies into operational systems. Stratolaunch designs, manufactures, and launches aerospace vehicles and technologies to fulfill several important national needs, including the need for reliable, routine access to space and the need to significantly advance the nation’s ability to design and operate hypersonic vehicles. Developing hypersonic technologies is one of our country’s most important national priority programs,” said Stephen Corda, chief technology officer on the company’s website.