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Inside the Stratolaunch: The United Boeing 747 Behind the Giant Plane

June 06, 2019

It took 8 years, hundreds of people, 2 of the brightest minds, and 2 United Airlines Boeing 747s to get Stratolaunch to its successful first flight on April 13, 2019. While the future of the massive plane and the dreams of making it a reliable air-based launch platform for delivering payload into space are in question, it undoubtedly is now part of aviation history and one for the record books. The dream of Paul Allen and Burt Rutan also attracted the interest of MotoArt owner Dave Hall so when he found one of the 747s at the Mojave boneyard, he knew for sure he wanted a part of it too. Get your own part of this amazing piece of history.

 

United Airlines 747

"N198UA" flickr photo by wiltshirespotter shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

 

 

 A Brief History of Stratolaunch

Paul Allen, a lifelong aviation enthusiast and co-founder of Microsoft, had approached Burt Rutan, an exotic aircraft designer and, at the time, owner of Scaled Composites about an idea for delivering broadband internet through the air. While nothing came from that idea, the two partnered together on an idea to launch a manned spacecraft from an airplane instead of an earth bound launch pad. The result was SpaceShipOne, which flew successfully and won the Ansari XPrize in 2004 (and which Richard Branson paid $1 million to have branded with the Virgin Galactic logo.)

  Stratolaunch first flight

 

Rutan had been thinking about and designing a plane that would become the Stratolaunch since 1992. To be able to carry a half a million pounds, it would require a wingspan of 400 feet and could cost in the billions. Rather than designing everything from scratch, Rutan had an idea to use parts from a 747. The large size of the 747 and its operational and safety history and other factors made it a logical choice.

 

  “I reasoned that if I could lift out engines, pylons, landing gear, actuators, electricals, and cockpit stuff from 747s, it was doable for us…” - Burt Rutan\

 

While Rutan was continuing to design his “Big Airplane” and looking for partners in this venture, Allen had been thinking about it. Like Branson, Musk, Bezos and others, he wanted to be part of the private space industry also, but not flying space tourists or designing reusable spacecraft, but to come up with a reliable and less expensive method to launch satellites, which would make it easier and more available for innovation. Stratolaunch Systems was formed and built their hangar next to Scaled Composites in Mojave. Although Rutan had retired (but remained involved) and Allen passed away October 15, 2018, their legacy continued when the first flight took place on April 13, 2019.

  largest airplane

 

Stratolaunch Facts

Stratolaunch Vehicle Facts:

  • Announced 12/2011
  • First flight 4/13/19
  • Payload Capacity – 550,000 lbs
  • Maximum Take‐off Weight – 1,300,000 lbs
  • Operational Range – 2000 NM; Mission Radius – 1000 NM
  • Mission Time – 2‐8 hours
  • Top of Tail Height – 50 ft
  • Wing Height – 23 ft off the ground
  • Wing Span – 385 ft
  • Fuselage Length – 238 ft
  • Fuselage Separation – 95 ft
  • Propulsion – 6 PW4056 turbofan engines
  • Crew – 2 pilots, 1 flight engineer

Stratolaunch Vehicle Record Claims:

  • Largest all‐composite plane ever built and flown
  • World’s largest aircraft by wingspan
  • Greatest total thrust on an aircraft
  • Largest single piece of carbon structure

aviation history being made

From a 747 to an Air-Launch Platform

 

N198UA  was delivered to United Airlines on August 20, 1997. It was one of 44 Boeing 747-400 series planes in its fleet. Its routes included domestic flights as well as international flights to places such as London, Hong Kong, Saigon, Sydney, Singapore, and Tokyo. It had a fairly uneventful career, except for a galley lift accident which occurred mid-flight in 1999. It was retired from United Airlines’ service and soon after was stored at VCV on March 18, 2009.

  plane used in Stratolaunch

Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

 

On March 28, 2012 it began the next part of its journey. The Stratolaunch was built using carbon fiber composites, some of the largest composite components ever built, and salvaged parts from two 747s, including the standard cockpit and controls, repurposed engines, avionics, pylons, landing gear, actuators, hydraulics and fuel subsystems.

 

When the two airplanes flew into the Mojave airport, we had a short period of time during which we got to test systems, learn about specific functionality, and measure performance. It was not a big deal to make the first cut because we have a neighboring aircraft boneyard, and we see deconstructed aircraft quite regularly. But we did think about it in the moment we removed the first component and took an airworthy—but tired—airliner out of service. We found it gratifying to know that the airplane had served its mission well.


- Mason Hutchison, an engineer at Scaled Composites when asked by Air & Space Magazine how he felt about cutting into a perfectly good 747.

 

MotoArt Acquires A Plane

 

“When my team and I work up at the Mojave boneyard we see all kinds of amazing airplanes landing or being stored or being taken apart,” said Hall. “There was no mistaking that what they were doing on the other side of the fence was something really big. It was loud, it was exciting.”

  airplane fuselage skin

When Hall found out the rest of the plane was available, he acted quickly. The team was out to the Mojave Air and Space Port to start taking apart the remaining portions of the plane. They transported them down to the MotoAr t Studios in Torrance, CA to begin the process of getting them in the hands of customers.

  salvaged airplane parts

Releasing a new PlaneTag is always a busy and exciting time at the shop. All manufacturing and packaging is done by hand, from cutting the airplane skin to stamping out the tags. Other team members photograph the tags, design the collectible card, and other tasks necessary to get ready for the release date. As this is occurring, the next plane is being cut up and Hall has his sights on the next one.

  airplane boneyard

 

“We feel like we’re furthering the journey of this plane,” states Hall. “It flew all over the world for United. It flew as the heart of the world’s biggest plane. And even still, parts of it will be appreciated by people like me, as a PlaneTag .”

 

 Limited Edition Aviation Collectibles

 

  united airlines 747 PlaneTag

The team has a busy year ahead of them. Hall hopes to release a new PlaneTag every month. Some of them, the SR-71 Blackbird for example, will be very limited editions and only available for a short time. Sign up for the mailing list to receive advance notification of new planes as well as exclusive offers. Don’t miss a plane for your collection.


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