The largest aircraft in the world started on Saturday morning for the first time. Built by rocket launch company Stratolaunch, the 500-pound 385-foot-wing aircraft was lifted off the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, shortly after 10:00 ET. It was a critical first test flight for the aircraft that was supposed to launch rockets from the air into orbit. The opening flight lasted for 150 minutes, according to the company, whereupon the plane landed safely.
The two-hull stratolaunch is set to fly to a height of 35,000 feet, where it can drop rockets that ignite their engines and put them into orbit around the planet. There is no rocket on this flight. However, the company has already signed at least one customer, Northrop Grumman, who intends to use Stratolaunch to launch his Pegasus XL rocket into space.
"It was an emotional moment for me personally to see this majestic bird flee," said Jean Floyd, CEO of Stratolaunch. The aircraft worked as expected and reached a top speed of 175 mph and a peak height of 15,000 feet.
"The flight itself went smoothly, just what you want for a maiden flight," said test pilot Evan Thomas. In the first phase of the flight, Stratolaunch tested the handling qualities of the aircraft. "It went very well, as we had simulated it and as we had predicted," he said. According to Stratolaunch, the aircraft's systems ran "like a clock" and the plane landed "at the finish" after a few low passes.
Today's flight is just three months after Stratolaunch dismissed "more than 50" employees and stopped its own missile development efforts. Originally, the company had planned to build a whole series of missiles including a spacecraft. The plan change was reportedly triggered by the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who began Stratolaunch in 2011.
Allen's name came up frequently during today's press release: "Without doubt, he would have been exceptionally proud that his plane would fly," Floyd said. "Even if he was not there today, I whispered a thank you."
Stratolaunch did not take any questions during the press call and did not mention what would come next for the plane.
The road to today's launch has included a number of incremental tests in recent years, including the initial introduction and a motor test in 2017 as well as a number of taxi cabs on the runway in Mojave at different speeds.
With report by Loren Grush
Update April 13th 14:20 pm ET: The article has been updated to show that the Stratolaunch plane landed safely after its inaugural flight, with a comment from the executive.