The massive Stratolaunch aircraft took to the skies for its first-ever test flight on April 13, and flying with it were several Santa Clarita Valley connections, from a familiar face at the controls to locally manufactured parts.
With twin fuselages, six engines and a 385-foot wingspan, it is not only the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan but also the largest all-composite vehicle, according to Scaled Composites LLC.
“This first flight was really the end result of seven years’ worth of effort,” said pilot Evan “Ivan” Thomas, who may be familiar to some SCV residents as he ran for the 25th Congressional District in 2014. “It was a very large team effort to get this accomplished.”
The Stratolaunch was built from scratch and assembled in place in its hangar, only to be wheeled out when it was ready to begin the year’s worth of ground testing required, which included numerous engine runs, taxi tests and simulations.
On its first flight, the plane flew without cargo, only carrying Evans as pilot along with copilot Chris “Duff” Guarente and flight engineer Jake Riley, who were tasked with evaluating the aircraft’s performance and handling skills.
“That first 30 to 60 seconds was certainly the most exciting,” Riley said.
Guarente agreed and added, “The plane just leapt off the ground — that was a big moment for everybody. It does give you butterflies in your stomach until you realize everything is going exactly how it should be going.”
The Stratolaunch reached speeds of 189 mph and soared to 17,000 feet during its 2.5-hour flight over the Mojave Desert.
“It really couldn’t have gone better than it did,” Riley said. “It was exactly like one of our simulation sessions, and it felt like something we had done a million times before. You don’t want anything interesting to happen — I was happy to say I had nothing to do.”
Because the crew sits in the right-hand fuselage, it was the first time they would ever be landing off-center, which Thomas said was the “big event of the flight.”
“It was especially weird to see the other fuselage,” Thomas said. “But it felt fairly smooth, and if you didn’t look over to the left, you could almost forget it was there.”
The next step for the aircraft is the post-flight inspection, which typically only takes a couple days, but will take a month due to the size of the plane.
The Stratolaunch is designed to eventually be a mobile launch platform for more convenient access to space.
It will be capable of air-launching rockets that will carry satellites and launch to multiple orbits and inclinations on a single mission.
“Historic milestones like this in aviation happen right up the street from Santa Clarita in Mojave,” Thomas said. “It may seem far away, but parts of the plane were built in Santa Clarita and we’re happy to have their support.”