LAS VEGAS - Like the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk more than 115 years ago, the Stratolaunch on Saturday achieved a historic flight, becoming the largest composite aircraft assembled to get off the ground.
The 238-foot-long superplane, which features a double fuselage and six engines designed for Boeing 747s for lift, flew for 2 1/2 hours at a maximum speed of 189 mph over the Mojave Desert.
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With the world’s largest wingspan of 385 feet, it is essentially an airborne launch pad and is trying to become a contender in the lucrative $7 billion market for launching small satellites into space.
“What a fantastic first flight,” Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch, said in a release. “Today’s flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground launched systems.”
There are cost savings and other advantages of air-launch systems, including being able to use numerous airports and avoid the limitations of fixed launch sites, which can be impacted by weather, air traffic and ship traffic on ocean ranges. The plane also burns less fuel than a traditional rocket blasting from Earth.
The aircraft is designed to carry as many as three satellite-laden rockets at a time. The half-million-pound plane is made from carbon fiber rather than aluminum. The engines and landing gear are the same as that used on Boeing 747s.
The company was founded by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011.
The previous wingspan leader was Howard Hughes' World War II-era eight-engine H-4 Hercules flying boat, nicknamed the “Spruce Goose,” which had a 320-foot wingspan. The aircraft is kept in an aviation museum.
While the Stratolaunch is billed as the world's largest aircraft, other airplanes have exceeded it in length from nose to tail. They include the 275.5-foot-long, six-engine Antonov AN 225 cargo plane, and the 250-foot-long Boeing 747-8.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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