The largest aircraft in the world took off for the first time in its history on Saturday morning. Built by rocket launch company Stratolaunch, the 500,000-pound aircraft with a wingspan of 385 feet took off shortly after 10:00 am (ET) from Mojave Air and Space Harbor in Mojave, Calif. . This was a first critical flight for the aircraft, designed to launch rockets into orbit from the air. The maiden flight lasted 150 minutes, according to the company, after which the plane landed safely.
The double fuselage Stratolaunch is designed to fly at an altitude of 35,000 feet, where it can launch rockets that ignite their engines and propel themselves into orbit around the planet. There is no rocket on this particular flight. But the company has already signed with at least one customer, Northrop Grumman, who plans to use Stratolaunch to send its Pegasus XL rocket into space.
"It was a moving moment for me, personally, to watch this majestic bird take flight," said Stratolaunch General Manager Jean Floyd. The aircraft operated as planned, reaching a maximum speed of 175 miles per hour and a maximum altitude of 15,000 feet.
"The flight itself was regular, and that's exactly what you want for a first flight," said test pilot Evan Thomas. During the first phase of the flight, Stratolaunch tested the flight qualities of the aircraft. "He flew very well as we had simulated and as we predicted," he said. According to Stratolaunch, the aircraft's systems "worked like a watch" and the aircraft landed "on the mark" after a few low-level passes.
Today's flight comes just three months after Stratolaunch laid off more than 50 employees and canceled its efforts to develop its own rockets. Originally, the company planned to build a whole series of rockets, including a space plane. The change in plans would have been caused by the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who created Stratolaunch in 2011.
Allen's name was mentioned frequently at the press conference today. "He would have been extremely proud to see his plane take off," Floyd said. "Even though he was not here today, I whispered a" thank you "."
Stratolaunch did not answer questions during the press call and made no mention of what was going to follow for the aircraft.
The road to today's launch has required a number of additional tests in recent years, including initial deployment and an engine test in 2017, as well as several taxis to Mojave at different speeds.
Update from April 13 at 2:20 pm ET: The article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Stratolaunch aircraft landed safely after its maiden flight with management comments during a press call.