The colossal Stratolaunch captures attention for many reasons. With a wingspan of 385 feet and weighing 590 tonnes, the size of this plane is eye-catching. But it also has other attention-getting design features, including two fuselages and two cockpits. That leads to the question, where do the pilots sit? Do they have cockpit options?
Left fuselage Stratolaunch cockpit is a dummy cockpit
In the Stratolaunch, the pilot and co-pilot sit in the cockpit in the right fuselage to fly the aircraft. The left fuselage cockpit is unpressurized, and it contains the flight data systems. In reality, the left fuselage cockpit is a dummy cockpit as it doesn’t have any flight control systems.
Aiming to get on the low earth orbit and commercialization of space bandwagon, the Stratolaunch was originally conceived to carry air-launch-to-orbit rockets. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry successfully colonized by the likes of Space X and Rocket Labs.
But as with most emerging industries, startup players crowd the market, and there is a period of consolidation and shakeouts. The man behind Stratolaunch, Paul Allen, died in 2018, and the momentum behind the business died with him. A private equity firm purchased the business the following year and refocused Stratolaunch towards high-speed flight test services.
Two Stratolaunch flights under the belt
The Stratolaunch took first took to the air on April 13, 2019. Taking off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California mid-morning, the Stratolaunch flew for two and a half hours. The flight reached a maximum altitude of 4,570 meters and a top speed of 278 kilometers per hour.
It would be another two years until the Stratolauch took flight again. On April 29, 2021, the aircraft made successful a three-hour-plus flight out of the same California site. The flights got plenty of attention from avgeeks awed by the plane’s massive size and design quirks, including the seemingly dual cockpits.
“It’s a ridiculous design that’s going to tear its self apart,” said one person on social media after footage of the April 2021 flight was posted.
“It reminds me of the Spruce Goose,” said another.
Touchdown!! Successful flight tests to round out the day. What a beautiful sight. pic.twitter.com/gdssjvoN8x
— Stratolaunch (@Stratolaunch) April 29, 2021
Can bluechip DNA save the Stratolauch from white elephant status?
Despite the StratoLaunch’s unwieldy design and lumbering take-off (the aircraft needs 12,000 feet of runway to reach its take-off speed of 222 kilometers per hour), the Stratolaunch didn’t tear itself apart. At the time. Stratolaunch insiders said the two flights went well.
The Stratolaunch’s DNA is good. Within the two fuselages are many design features taken directly from Boeing’s successful 747-400 aircraft. The Stratolaunch’s six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines, hydraulic system and actuators, electrical system, avionics, pilot controls, and flight deck are all taken from retired 747-400s.
The Stratolaunch’s cockpit might be familiar to a Boeing 747-400 pilot. But a former 747-400 pilot might find the Stratolaunch an altogether different type of aircraft to fly. The Stratolaunch is significantly bigger and heavier than the world’s favorite jumbo jet. A Boeing 747-400 has 16 wheels, whereas the Stratolaunch has 28 wheels. The 747-400 always climbed rather than soared into the air, but the 747-400 is a nimble beast compared to the Stratolaunch.
The dummy left fuselage cockpit is one of the eccentricities of the Stratolaunch, but the Stratolaunch is a reasonably eccentric plane. That said, the folks behind the aircraft got it from concept to first flight in around the same time frame Boeing managed for its first 777X aircraft. The Stratolaunch’s future is far from assured, but by making it this far, the plane has written itself into aviation’s history books, dummy cockpit and all.