Stratolaunch, a company founded by Paul Allen, former partner of Bill Gates at Microsoft, carried out on Thursday the fourth flight of the “Roc“, a carrier aircraft that is the largest in the world in terms of wingspan – 385 ft.
The flight of the massive six-engine turbofan, two-fuselage plane took place at Mojave Airport in California and lasted 1 hour and 43 minutes.
Although it reached a lower altitude than the third flight – 15,000 feet versus 23,500 feet -, the Roc performed for the first time the retraction and extension of the landing gear, a crucial step in the development of the aircraft.
“Today’s successful flight demonstrates and validates improvements to the aircraft carrier’s systems and overall flight performance,” said Dr. Zachary Krevor, Stratolaunch President and Chief Operating Officer. “The full landing gear retraction and extension brings the carrier aircraft closer to operational status, a milestone that is necessary to ready the aircraft for Talon-A separation and hypersonic flight tests later this year.”
Commercial launch in 2023
The plane designed by Burt Rutan is being prepared to begin commercial launches of hypersonic vehicles. According to Stratolaunch, the first test of this type will take place in 2022, so that the aircraft can provide services to its customers in 2023.
The Roc will test launch the Talon-A, an unmanned hypersonic vehicle that will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 5.
It is a different mission from the one conceived by Allen, who died in 2018, and who intended to transform the Roc into a rocket launcher in flight, a technique currently used by other companies, but with adapted commercial widebodies jets such as the Boeing 747-400 from Virgin Orbit.
Following Paul Allen’s passing, Stratolaunch performed a single Roc flight in April 2019 and ceased operations shortly thereafter. Six months later, the company was acquired by Cerberus Capital Management, which changed its focus to serve as a testbed for hypersonic aircraft, a concept that is in full development.