The world’s largest plane has just broken its flight hours record: its real mission is even more ambitious

If on Friday the 13th you were casually walking around the mojave desert, a vast and arid area in southern California, you may have enjoyed what is probably one of the most impressive spectacles in modern aviation: a test flight of the gigantic Scaled Composites Model 351 Stratoulanch, better known as the Stratoulanch Roc. And given its dimensions, gigantic is far from being an exaggeration: it reaches 117 meter wingspanmore than other titans of the skies, such as the Antonov An-225 Mriya or Hughes H-4 Hercules. To provide another reference, it approaches the 120 meters allowed as maximum length for a soccer field.

Although it turns out to be a engineering show and boast, the January test flight of the Stratoulanch Roc is nothing new. In fact, with him there are already nine. What really makes it unique is that it has allowed it to break its own operational record, exceeding six hours in the air and moving beyond Mojave for the first time. Along with him, Roc also carried the TA-0 test aircraft. Beyond setting a new record in the air, the operation takes another step on Stratolaunch’s path towards its great goal: the launch of hypersonic aircraft.

Roc lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Friday the 13th and —accurate— landed in the same terminal after six hours of flight. During its operation it reached an altitude of around 22,500 feet, equivalent to 6,858 meters. “The main objectives of the test included the flight outside the local Mojave area for the first time and the evaluation of the separation environment,” the company details in a statement in which it celebrates the success of the maneuver.

A titan of the skies with a clear objective

Both Roc and the TA-0 test vehicle it carried took advantage of the experiment to gather “critical information” on issues such as downforce which will now help the company move forward in its review phase. Once reviewed, Stratolaunch will continue towards its goal: achieving its first hypersonic TA-1 flight during the first half of 2023.

Because Roc is not just any plane. By dimensions. And for focus.

In the first, your business card is awesome: 117 meter wingspan and 73 in length, six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines —those used by the Boeing 747-400— and a payload of 226,800 kilos. Regarding its approach, the Stratolaunch aircraft stands out for its potential as a launch platform for hypersonic vehicles. In May, it actually carried out its fifth experimental flight, in which it already incorporated its “pylon”, the structure that will allow it to load and then launch vehicles. So Roc flew for just under five hours, away from his new mark.

Those responsible for Roc raise it in fact as a hypersonic technology accelerator. As we already told you in his day, he has prepared autonomous rockets heel-A designed to take advantage of its launch potential. The goal: move loads at a speed of Mach 6, more than 7,000 kilometers per hour (km/h). To test its technology and possibilities, the firm has been carrying out a series of tests for some time, including the flight of the past 13.

A couple of months ago, in November, its managers already tested Roc’s “pylon” with the TA-0, a version of the Talon-A designed precisely to test all systems. Although the altitude that he reached then is very similar to what he has achieved now, from around 7,000 metersthe duration of the flight was much shorter: it lasted just over five hours.

“We have built confidence that the components will perform exactly what they were designed to do,” the company explained. At the moment, yes, the operations are carried out as “captive transport” with the TA-0 test vehicle, mounted on the Roc itself.

“A review of the flight data will determine the next steps in the test schedule. Stratolaunch continues to move towards separation testing and its first hypersonic flight of the TA-1 in the first half of 2023.” now point out the company. The objective, clarifyis to achieve a launch system from an airplane that allows the elimination of technical and logistical barriers.

Cover image: Gauntlet Aerospace / Christian Turner

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Written by Editor TLN

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