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Stratolaunch hits new heights with world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch says its mammoth carrier airplane rose to its highest altitude yet during its seventh flight test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The aerospace venture, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago but is now owned by a private equity firm, reported a peak altitude of 27,000 feet during today’s test.

If all goes according to plan, the twin-fuselage Roc airplane could begin flying Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic test vehicles for captive-carry and separation testing as early as this year.

One of the prime objectives for today’s three-hour flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port was to gather data on the aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, including a pylon structure from which the rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles will be released and launched.

Roc’s seventh flight came a week after the sixth flight test, which couldn’t achieve all of its objectives.

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World’s widest airplane lands early after flight test

Stratolaunch says the sixth flight test of its super-sized Roc carrier airplane ended earlier than planned when the team ran into an unexpected issue.

“While completing Roc testing operations, we encountered a test result that made it clear we would not achieve all objectives for this flight,” the California-based company, which was created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago, said in Twitter update. “We made the decision to land, review the data, and prepare for our next flight.”

Stratolaunch’s 385-foot-wide, twin-fuselage airplane is the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan. Stratolaunch has been testing Roc at Mojave Air and Space Port in preparation for using the plane as a flying launch pad for rocket-powered hypersonic test vehicles.

The company, which was acquired from Allen’s estate by a private equity firm in 2019, didn’t specify the nature of the test results that led to the decision to land. For what it’s worth, one of the flight’s key objectives was to expand the testing envelope for the center-wing pylon that will carry and release the hypersonic vehicles.

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Stratolaunch marks May the 4th with fifth flight test

Stratolaunch took the “fifth” on May the 4th, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Today brought the fifth flight test for Stratolaunch’s 385-foot-wide carrier aircraft, known as Roc (in a nod to the giant bird of Middle Eastern mythology).

Roc ranks as the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, and is designed to carry and release the company’s rocket-powered Talon-A hypersonic vehicles for military and commercial applications.

Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, founded the venture in 2011 — but after Allen’s death in 2018, ownership was transferred to a private equity firm. Like Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, Stratolaunch takes advantage of air-launch technology pioneered during the award-winning SpaceShipOne campaign that Allen bankrolled nearly two decades ago.

Roc took off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:39 a.m. PT today for a flight that lasted four hours and 58 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of 22,500 feet. Stratolaunch took note of the Star Wars Day connection in a post-landing tweet. “The force is strong in this plane,” the company said.

The test’s prime objective was to check the aerodynamic performance of a new pylon added to Roc’s center wing section.

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Aviation collection reportedly sold to Walmart heir

Three and a half years after his death, another one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s passion projects — the extensive collection of aviation and military artifacts that was housed at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Wash. — has reportedly been sold off by his estate.

Air Current magazine reported late last week that the museum’s entire collection was sold “in its entirety.”

“Many of the projects are being crated for shipment to their new home while the flying aircraft are being readied for cross-country trips,” the magazine said on its Facebook page. “One man’s dream has come to an end, but another man’s dream has just begun.”

The collection’s new owner is Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, according to Scramble, a publication of the Dutch Aviation Society.

Walton is the co-founder of Runway Group, a holding company with investments in northwest Arkansas; and the co-founder and chairman of Game Composites, a company that designs and builds small composite aircraft.

He serves on the board of directors for Walmart and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, among other organizations, and is a licensed pilot as well as an aircraft collector. His net worth has been estimated at $300 million.

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Eviation makes a deal to sell 75 electric airplanes

A Seattle-area venture called Eviation has struck a deal with Massachusetts-based Cape Air for the purchase of 75 Eviation Alice all-electric planes.

The letter of intent follows up on a claim that was made back in 2019 by Eviation’s then-CEO, Omer Bar-Yohay, who said Cape Air would be his company’s first customer. At the time, Bar-Yohay said the list price for the Alice commuter aircraft would be $4 million per plane — but Eviation said it’s not releasing financial details about the Cape Air deal.

Bar-Yohay left Eviation in February, citing “a longstanding disagreement” with the company’s main shareholder, Singapore-based Clermont Group. Longtime aerospace executive Gregory Davis took over as interim CEO for the privately held company, which is headquartered in Arlington, Wash.

Eviation has begun ground tests of an Alice prototype, and those tests haven’t always gone perfectly — which is to be expected with a totally new type of aircraft. In February, Eviation said Alice’s first flight test would take place “in the upcoming weeks,” but the company now says it plans to reach that milestone this summer.

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‘Downfall’ recounts 737 MAX mess as a tech tragedy

The missteps traced in “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” — Netflix’s new documentary about Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX jet — are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Under the direction of filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert F. Kennedy, “Downfall” recounts how the aerospace giant cut corners in a race to compete against Airbus, and pressed mightily to minimize the known problems with a computerized flight control system that was capable of causing the 737 MAX to go into a fatal dive.

The result? Not just one, but two catastrophic crashes — first in Indonesia, in 2018, and only months later in Ethiopia. The combined death toll amounted to 346 people. The jets were grounded for nearly two years while Boeing worked on a fix to the control system.

When the Indonesian crash occurred, the root cause seemed to be shrouded in uncertainty. But subsequent investigations showed that Boeing knew the cause had to do with tweaks in an automated software routine known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

In the early stages of those investigations, I struggled to explain what MCAS was supposed to do (keep planes from stalling under extreme conditions) and what it ended up doing (forcing planes into a dive). “Downfall” uses graphics and re-enactments to show how MCAS and other points of failure on the 737 MAX figured in the tragedy.

The film also lays out evidence from emails and other documents showing that when the 737 MAX was undergoing certification for flight, Boeing was desperate to avoid providing pilots with extra training, at extra cost — so desperate that the company hid the MCAS software’s capabilities from pilots, airlines and regulators.

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Eviation changes its team as electric flight test nears

Arlington, Wash.-based Eviation says Gregory Davis is assuming the role of interim CEO as part of a planned succession process that reflects the company’s transition to the production phase of its all-electric Alice aircraft.

Davis, who has been serving as Eviation’s president, will take the CEO baton from co-founder Omer Bar-Yohay. Just last month, Roei Ganzarski left the company with Dominique Spragg taking his place as chairman.

Eviation is moving forward toward certification and production readiness for three variants of the Alice airplane, optimized for cargo shipment, commuter passenger service and executive business travel. The aircraft already has undergone months of on-the-ground testing in Arlington.

“Eviation expects to make the first flight of Alice in the upcoming weeks, having completed many preliminary milestones including initial taxi and flight test preparations,” Spragg said today in a news release. “As we complete the technical demonstration phase, Eviation is now preparing for production to make affordable regional air travel a reality in the coming years.”

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Air Force challenge gives a lift to ‘flying car’ technologies

The U.S. Air Force’s tech incubator has given the go-ahead for 11 design concepts aimed at pushing the frontier for aircraft that can take off and land vertically — and at least two of the concepts have roots in the Seattle area.

Among the teams selected to advance in AFWERX’s High-Speed VTOL Concept Challenge are Jetoptera, based in Edmonds, Wash.; and VerdeGo Aero, which is based in Florida but has Bainbridge Island’s Erik Lindbergh as co-founder and executive chairman. Lindbergh is the grandson of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.

AFWERX’s challenge focuses on technologies that the military could use in VTOLs — vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft that could include next-generation helicopters and other types of vehicles popularly known as “flying cars.” The challenge is being conducted for the Air Force as well as the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The winning teams were chosen from more than 200 entrants in the challenge. Over the next six months, the 11 teams will receive market research investments aimed at advancing their technologies.

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Brazilian airplane maker plugs into electric revolution

Everett, Wash.-based MagniX is partnering with the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Desaer to develop a hybrid-electric version of Desaer’s ATL-100 regional aircraft.

The ATL-100H will make use of two Magni350 electric propulsion units as well as two gas-fueled turboprop engines. MagniX says the configuration is designed to save 25% to 40% of fuel, depending on the range of operation.

“The implications of creating the hybrid electric ATL-100H are far-reaching, and will have a positive impact on environmental sustainability and the aircraft’s operational flexibility in the Brazil region,” Simon Roads, head of sales at MagniX, said today in a news release.

Desaer plans to start flying its gas-fueled ATL-100 prototype in 2023, with the first deliveries expected by 2026. The passenger version of the airplane is designed to seat 19. The hybrid-electric version of the plane is expected to come out after the gas-fueled version, presumably with the same specifications.

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The world’s widest airplane flies for the third time

The mammoth airplane that got its start with backing from the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen took to the air today for its third test flight — marking a new chapter in Stratolaunch’s decade-long effort to create a flying launch pad.

Stratolaunch’s twin-fuselage, six-engine Roc aircraft, named after a mythical bird, is the world’s largest airplane by wingspan. Its 385-foot spread is more than half again as wide as the wings of a Boeing 747.

When Allen founded Stratolaunch back in 2011, his intention was to use Roc to send rockets into orbit from the air. But after Allen’s death in 2018, the company was transferred to new owners — and Roc’s primary purpose pivoted to launching hypersonic test vehicles for military and commercial research.

If the development program proceeds as planned, Stratolaunch could begin testing its air-launched, rocket-powered Talon-A hypersonic vehicle as early as this year.