'World's largest plane' lifts off for the first time

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The world's largest aircraft completed its first test flight, developer Stratolaunch Systems Corporation announced.

The Scaled Composites Stratolaunch, a huge twin-fuselage aircraft intended for ferrying rockets into the stratosphere, has taken its first flight, officially becoming the largest plane ever built, in terms of wingspan.

The company, which was founded in 2011 by the late Paul Allen, has a contract with Northrop Grumman is use Stratolaunch to send its Pegasus XL rocket into space. Stratolaunch aims to "make access to orbit as routine as catching a commercial airline flight is today".

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

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As part of the initial flight, the pilots evaluated aircraft performance and handling qualities before landing successfully back at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The huge Stratolaunch has the largest wingspan in the world at 117.3 meters (384.8 feet), significantly larger than the previous record holder, the Antonov An-225 "Mriya" heavy lift cargo aircraft.

The 117-meter wide plane took off from a runway in California's Mohave Desert and flew for 2.5 hours at altitudes of up to 5,000 meters at speeds of up to 304 km/h. "Today's flight furthers our mission to provide a flexible alternative to ground-launched systems".

Allen died last October at age 65 from complications related to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The plane is created to drop rockets and other space vehicles weighing up to 500,000 pounds at an altitude of 35,000 feet. "It's so huge, it seems like it shouldn't be able to fly", Jack Beyer, an aerospace and launch photographer for NASASpaceFlight.com, told CNN on Thursday.

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An audience cheers the first, historic flight of Stratolaunch. "It's the same reason why people tune in each year to watch the Apple keynotes".

Other aeroplanes exceed it in length from nose to tail, including the six-engine Antonov AN 225 cargo plane, which is 84 meters long, and the Boeing 747-8, which is about 76.3 meters long. It's hoping for a first launch in 2020.

Built by California-based company Scaled Composites (owned by Northrop Grumman), the ginormous plane is created to ferry rockets and various types of spacecraft into orbit.

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