The world’s largest aircraft, when measured in wingspan, has just completed its second flight. Nicknamed ‘the Roc’ and developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the conjoined fuselage aircraft is powered by six Boeing 747 engines. On Thursday, the Stratolaunch rocket-launcher turned hypersonic-test-flight carrier took to the skies for the first time in two years.
Airborne after a two-year break
After a two-year hiatus, the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan is back in the air. The twin-hulled plane, which is 385 feet (117 meters) over the wings – wider than the length of an American football field – performed a test flight earlier today at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Shortly after 07:30 AM local time, the company tweeted that the gigantic plane had successfully taken off for its second-ever flight. About three hours later, having performed various test flight maneuvers, it was back on the ground. A Cessna Citation business jet accompanied the aircraft as a chase plane.
We are airborne! pic.twitter.com/6jTkkqfjKd
— Stratolaunch (@Stratolaunch) April 29, 2021
The original intention for the unique aircraft, which took its first flight in April 2019, was to host rockets carrying satellites before launching them further into space. Due to its dual-hull, it would allow those who did not want the plane’s full capacity to share the payload with another customer. Ride-sharing for rockets, if you will. Overall, the idea was to provide a fast, cost-effective air-launch system for small satellites.
Shift of direction
For a long time, the future of the mothership of a rocket launcher was uncertain. Its maker, Stratolaunch, was started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan in 2011. Mr Allen, unfortunately, passed away in October 2018, and so he never got to see the company’s largest aircraft take flight.
Short video I took this morning, from my office, as we towed the aircraft back into the hanger. Gives a nice perspective on the size of the Roc pic.twitter.com/JEO3ao5lf9
— Jean Floyd (@WJeanFloyd) April 23, 2021
Heading for hypersonic
Following Allen’s death, Stratolaunch went on the market. The new owners, Cerberus Capital Management, decided to shift course for its newfound record-wingspan asset.
The company now means for the ‘Roc’ to function as a launch vehicle for reusable hypersonic flight research vehicles. Hypersonic is a term used to describe speeds of at least Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.
As opposed to a fixed launch set-up Stratolaunch says it is ready to bring the aircraft to its customers, significantly cutting booking windows and launch preparation time.
The plane, resembling an aircraft version of a catamaran, is powered by six Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines taken from two Boeing 747s. Moreover, many other features, such as avionics, flight deck, landing gear, and other systems, have also been adopted from the Queen.
Its official name is Scaled Composites Model 351 Stratolaunch. It surpasses the previous wingspan record-holder, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, also known as the ‘Spruce Goose’ by 65 feet (20 m).
The fuselages are 238 ft (73 m) long and are supported by 12 main landing gears each for a total of 24. The pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer are located in the right fuselage’s cockpit. The left side is uncrewed and provides storage space for mission-specific equipment.
What do you make of the future for the Stratolaunch aircraft? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think of this unique plane.
The Huge Potential Qatar Airways Sees In Africa
Africa is an important and growing part of Qatar Airways’ network, but where could be next and how suited is the airline’s fleet? Qatar Airways’ Hendrik Du Preez, Vice-President for Africa, recently spoke to Routesonline about the airline’s development and opportunities across the vast continent.
Qatar Airways’ Africa network now comprises 26 destinations, analyzing OAG data indicates, up from 24 in 2019. Abuja, Accra, and Luanda were all added in 2020, while Abidjan is coming this June. Meanwhile, Cairo and Alexandria have resumed following the end of the blockade.
These additions have offset the loss of Gaborone, Marrakesh, Rabat, and Windhoek. Speaking to Routesonline, Du Preeze singled out both Gaborone and Windhoek – each very tourist-driven – as likely to return next year.
Where could be next?
Resumptions are just one part of Qatar Airways‘ plan for Africa.
“We are definitely looking at other destinations in Africa as there is huge potential across the continent for new routes.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somaliland, South Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, were all mentioned by Du Preez as possible future destinations. And the capitals of these countries – Kinshasa, Hargeisa, Juba, Lusaka, and Harare – would make sense. Pre-COVID, Dubai had up to 13 weekly departures to Hargeisa, 11 by Emirates’ partner, flydubai.
Partners are crucial
Qatar Airways has often relied on partner airlines to reach parts of the continent that it did not serve, and they have been crucial to its development.
“We have an interline agreement with Air Côte d’Ivoire, which is important because we do not have that reach in West Africa. We have interlines with many of the airlines all over Africa.”
He said that negotiation is still ongoing with Rwandair, with data showing Qatar Airways has served Kigali since 2012. And South Africa’s Comair, a British Airways franchisee, may well become a partner too. South Africa is by far Qatar Airways’ number-one country in Africa this year, with Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg served.
“We are definitely establishing deeper partnerships with key partners around the continent going forward.”
A mixed fleet enables growth
Du Preez believes that Qatar Airways’ mixed fleet is crucial to its Africa development. This offers flexibility and the opportunity to right-size capacity to demand as passenger traffic picks up; after all, it can take a good while for a long-haul to develop.
It also enables the airline to start a new route – perhaps a secondary destination, of which “there are a many of them” – with a smaller aircraft and to build up over time.
Qatar Airways uses eight aircraft types to Africa this year. In order of the number of flights, they are the B787-8, A350-900, A320, B777-300ER, A350-1000, B777-200LR, B787-9, and A319. The carrier used the A319 on just one route – to the Seychelles – back in January.
The carrier’s mixed fleet also enables a strong focus on cargo, where it makes sense, which can make a huge difference. As Du Preez said:
“Thanks to the belly hold of the B787s and A350s, a lot of the [trip] cost can be covered by the cargo and at the same time we are building up on the passenger side.”
Cosmic Cocktails: Qantas Launches 787 Supermoon Scenic Flight
For years Qantas has been operating flights to nowhere. Since the start of the pandemic, the airline has upped its game with the latest offering set to appeal to eager astronomy fans. A Boeing 787 Dreamliner will be enlisted to allow passengers from Sydney to get even closer to the second supermoon of 2021.
Since the start of the current crisis affecting the aviation industry, flights to nowhere have risen in popularity. This is as passengers on such flights are not subject to entry restrictions given that they originated at their destination. Qantas has a long history of operating flights to nowhere, with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner taking over following the retirement of the Australian flag carrier’s Boeing 747s.
Supermoon scenic flight
On May 26th, the moon will be at its closest point while orbiting the earth. The situation, known as perigee, will see the mood coming within 357,311 kilometers (222,022 miles) of the earth. Between 21:11 and 21:25 Australian time on that day, a total lunar eclipse will also occur. This means that the earth will perfectly pass between the moon and the sun, causing it to go dark temporarily.
To celebrate this rare double phenomenon, the Australian flag carrier will be taking a group of just over 100 passengers out over the Pacific Ocean to get an optimum view of the event. The flight’s pilots will work with astronomer Dr. Vanessa Moss to ensure this.
What should passengers on the flight expect?
The flight will last for around three hours. While aircraft typically cruise lower, Qantas will take the 787 right up to 43,000 feet, its maximum cruise altitude, to avoid as much atmospheric disturbance as is possible.
Onboard, the airline will theme its catering around the flight. As a result, lucky ticket holders will be treated to “cosmic cocktails and supermoon cakes”. The Qantas Boeing 787 has around 66 window seats. It also boasts the largest windows found in the Qantas fleet, meaning that the view should hopefully be available to those not in the window seats too.
Tickets for this lunar liftoff will go on sale tomorrow at mid-day (Australian time). Fares will start at AU$499 ($392) for the economy cabin, AU$899 ($706) for the premium economy cabin, and AU$1,499 ($1,177) for the business cabin.
Commenting on the mission, Chief Customer Office Stephanie Tully said,
“We are very excited to now be doing a supermoon scenic flight and the 787 has the largest windows of any passenger aircraft so it’s ideal for moon gazing. We think this flight has great appeal for anyone with a passion for astronomy, science, space photography, aviation or just keen to do something a little ‘out of this world’.”
Not the first sightseeing flight to nowhere
This isn’t Qantas’ first dabble into offering flights to nowhere. For years, the airline has been operating sightseeing charter flights to Antarctica. These used to be performed by the Boeing 747, but since its retirement, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has taken over.
Last year, the Australian flag carrier operated a mammoth day trip from Syndey. One of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners flew up the Australian coast before heading to Ayers Rock and then back to Sydney. The triangle journey lasted around eight hours.
What do you make of Qantas’ latest flight to nowhere? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Domestic aviation to ‘fully recover’ by end of year, says Budget
Domestic aviation is expected to “fully recovery” by the end of the year, the 2021 budget has predicted.
Treasurer Josh Frydenburg’s address contained no new major announcements for aviation but revealed domestic routes have already returned to 70 per cent of pre-COVID levels.
It comes as it was revealed on Sunday that Australia would move its official estimate as to when its international borders will reopen from later this year to 2022.
The budget document released on Tuesday evening read, “In this Budget, the Government is providing additional support to keep planes in the air and to preserve an international airline capability. This builds on the $2.7 billion of support provided during the height of the crisis.
“The Government is extending the successful Domestic Aviation Network Support and Regional Airline Network Support Programs until 30 September 2021.
“Already the number of weekly flights on major domestic routes have returned to around 70 per cent of pre‑COVID levels and are expected to fully recover by the end of the year.
“The Government is also extending the partial Airservices Australia fee waiver and reinstating the domestic aviation security charge rebate, keeping operators’ costs low as the sector continues to recover.
“A new $200 million International Aviation Support payment will preserve an Australian international airline workforce and operational capability. This will protect up to 8,000 jobs and enable international flights to resume when borders reopen.
“The Government is also ensuring businesses in regional Australia remain connected to key international markets by extending the International Freight Assistance Mechanism.
“So far this support has helped Australian businesses export nearly half a million tonnes of agriculture and seafood products valued at more than $6.6 billion.”
In March, the federal government announced it would supplement airfares for passengers to 15 destinations including the Gold Coast, Alice Springs and Kangaroo Island. It follows the end of JobKeeper later that month.
The package of measures to support aviation in Australia also included a new wage subsidy for those working in international aviation; cheap loans to small businesses coming off JobKeeper; and a six-month extension of the ‘RANS’ and ‘DANS’ supplemented routes initiative.
The scheme has proved hugely successful. By the end of April, more than three-quarters of the 800,000 cheap fares were sold, leading the government to announced it could extend the imitative.
It led to Qantas and Jetstar announcing they would soon be flying more aircraft on their domestic routes than before than pandemic, and Virgin pledging to hire 150 new cabin crew and lease 10 new 737s because it was “committed” to restoring its pre-COVID market share.
It’s still unknown as to exactly when the government’s new wage subsidy for those working in international aviation, essentially the same as JobKeeper, would expire, though it is expected to last until international borders open.
More to follow…
Emirates’ President Thoughts On The Future Of The A380
Despite the global fleet of A380s shrinking significantly over the past year, one airline stands by its huge fleet of superjumbos. Emirates’ president Sir Tim Clark spoke warmly about the aircraft in an interview with Simple Flying, noting that it still makes sense on many routes, and was historically its most profitable aircraft.
The A380 remains key to Emirates
While other airlines have been abandoning their A380s, Emirates has stood by its large fleet of giant jumbos. Although their return to service is a slow process, the airline remains confident that all the fleet will fly again.
Speaking exclusively with Simple Flying, Emirates’ president Sir Tim Clark noted his love of the superjumbo, and its solid future with the airline, saying,
“I’m a huge fan of the 380 … It will figure in the Emirates fleet for the next 15 years.”
While older models may see some retirements, Emirates is still taking delivery of newer members of its A380 family. The A380 launched the airline’s new premium economy product, and has assured its place in the fleet for many years to come. Sir Tim noted just how valuable and popular the aircraft is,
“It’s hugely popular. 85% of our profits prior to COVID came from the A380. It was always full. (…) It was popular in all classes.”
With a new class to offer alongside the typical three classes on board, there’s yet another route to securing additional revenue with these big beasts.
Frequency and capacity
Sir Tim noted that, while other airlines have struggled with the size of the A380, Emirates has found a way to make it work. While some airlines will put smaller aircraft on routes in favor of operating the service more frequently, others will use their largest aircraft for less frequent services, leaning towards a high capacity strategy instead.
The beauty of Emirates in the way it uses the A380 is that it does both. The UK is Emirates’ top destination, with five UK airports regularly seeing the A380 arriving. Simple Flying analysis showed that Heathrow was Emirates’ number one A380 destination worldwide, with more than 18 million scheduled two way seats over the past decade.
This has been instrumental to the A380s success, allowing Emirates to not just provide the capacity to its hub from the busy, slot-restricted airport, but also at a frequency that means there’s always an A380 leaving Heathrow. Sir Tim noted,
“It stands testament to the quality of the A380 because Heathrow slots are restricted, Hong Kong slots are restricted, every single major hub is restricted on slots. So, if you want to put a 787 in there to a Heathrow slot where you could put a 517 seater A380, it doesn’t take long to do the maths on that.”
Other slot controlled airports including JFK, Paris CDG, Hong Kong and Sydney also made it into the top 10 A380 historical routes. Even this summer, with the market as uncertain as it is, Emirates will use the A380 on 20 routes, with Heathrow still the number one most served destination.
But aren’t four engines bad?
A trend that has become apparent over the course of 2020 is that two engines are good, four engines bad. So why is Emirates still sticking with its quadjet strategy while all other airlines are stripping their fleets of their four engined birds?
Sir Tim believes that the economics of the A380 work well despite its multiple engines, thanks to the high capacity it is able to deliver. Right now, another aspect that is helping the A380’s profitability is the currently low price of jet fuel. Sir Tim believes that is something that will continue in the short term at least, saying,
“Fuel at the moment is priced at a level that makes [the A380] even more viable, more profitable for us.”
Although the A380 is set to be a firm fixture in the Emirates fleet for some time to come, the airline is still keen to keep a young fleet flying. To date, only one A380 has seen its retirement from the Emirates fleet, despite several models now well over 12 years old.
The airline wants to retire some of these older aircraft, and had plans in place to begin refreshing the fleet as the 777X arrived. But with the 777X program facing delays, Sir Tim noted that the airline has been forced to hold on to some A380s for longer than it perhaps wanted to. He said,
“When the 777-9 came along we were able to start growing the capacity and growing the network as well as taking some of the older 380s out as they were obviously coming up to their retirement age. All of that has been shifted to the right, but we actually don’t know by how much at this stage. This is vexing us a little bit in terms of cash management, etc.…”
Nevertheless, the A380 remains a valuable tool for Emirates’ operating model, and will be flying with the Middle East airline for many years to come.
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