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World's biggest plane makes first flight

14 April 2019

Taking to the skies over the Mojave Desert in California on Saturday, it was the first flight for the carbon-composite plane built by Stratolaunch Systems, started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as the company enters the lucrative private space market.

Built by Stratolaunch, the company set up by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, the aircraft is created to act as a flying launch pad for satellites. The aircraft is created to take rockets weighing as much as 400,000 pounds to 35,000 feet for launch and will tap into the burgeoning market for communications, reconnaissance and broadband satellites being put between 300 and 1,200 miles in altitude.

A company press release said the twin-fuselage jet hit altitudes up to 17,000 feet (5,181 meters) above the Mojave Desert while performance and handling qualities were evaluated.

After Allen's death in October, Stratolaunch dropped plans to develop its own rocket engine and a family of launch vehicles, focusing instead on getting the giant plane airborne and launching Northrop Grumman's proven Pegasus XL.

The twin-fuselage six-engine jet flew up to 15,000 ft (4,572m) and reached speeds of about 170 miles per hour (274 km/h) on its maiden flight.

"We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today's historic achievement", said Jody Allen, Chair of Vulcan Inc. and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust.

"The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved".

According to test pilot Evan Thomas, a former F-16 Air Force fighter pilot, the plane flew as predicted for the most part.

Powered by the same type of engines used by Boeing 747s, the aircraft is created to take off at a maximum weight of 1.3 million pounds (589,676 kilograms).

The Stratolaunch itself has the largest wingspan of any aircraft on Earth at 385 feet, wider than a football field including the endzones; it even has two dozen feet to spare. They include the six-engine Antonov AN 225 cargo plane, which is 275.5 feet (84 meters) long, and the Boeing 747-8, which is just over 250 feet (76.3 meters) long.

Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch Systems chief executive, said the aircraft made a "spectacular" landing that was on the mark.

World's biggest plane makes first flight