The Stratolaunch Takes Flight

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Written by Rachelle Haughn
As seen in the November 2020 issue of Model Aviation

Bonus Video

01. Mason Hutchison (L) and Dan Kreigh pose for a selfie while working for Stratolaunch. The AMA members met while working at Scaled Composites.

02. The Stratolaunch left its massive hangar for the first time in May 2017. The hangar door is made of a unique fabric that retracts between two metal pillars. The pillars then swing sideways to clear a path for the aircraft.

On November 2, 1947, Howard Hughes’ 320-foot, eight-engine H-4 Hercules, also known as the Spruce Goose, lifted off from the Pacific Ocean at a speed of 135 mph for 26 seconds. That brief flight near Long Beach, California, set a record as being the largest-wingspan aircraft to fly. Roughly 73 years later, and more than 100 miles away from where the historic flight took place, some AMA members watched as the aircraft they helped create broke the late engineer’s record.

"When the airplane lifted off, it gave the years of effort meaning, the many relationships that had been built a common memory, and it brought history into real perspective. If you watch the footage of the H-4 Hercules on its maiden flight, you’re looking through the same perspective that I had during the first flight of Stratolaunch," stated Mason Hutchison, an AMA member who helped oversee the massive airplane’s design, construction, and flight control system testing.

Mason had worked on the Stratolaunch project since 2013. When the 385-foot airplane made its maiden flight on April 13, 2019, Mason watched from the taxiway at the Mojave Air & Space Port in Mojave, California. "I believe I was the closest person on the ground to the flight itself, aside from the ground crew," he added.

The flight lasted 149 minutes and the aircraft reached a maximum speed of 165 knots. The massive Stratolaunch is a carrier aircraft that is designed to perform air launches of hypersonic and aerospace vehicles, such as rockets.

Nearby and also watching the 6:58 a.m. takeoff was AMA member Dan Kreigh. He was adjacent to the airport property, beneath the Stratolaunch’s takeoff path. "That was the best seat in the house," he stated. Dan was assigned to the project in May 2013 and worked on the airplane’s cabin structure while employed by Scaled Composites. Today, Dan and Mason work for the Stratolaunch company.

Working alongside them is another AMA member, Cedric Gould. "I first began working on the Roc Carrier Aircraft while at Scaled Composites in June of 2018, supporting structural analyses in preparation for its first flight," Cedric noted. "I am currently leading the Thermal Protection System design and analysis effort for the Stratolaunch Talon-A vehicle."

Cedric also witnessed the Stratolaunch’s maiden. He said, "To see a structure of that size rise off the ground was a sight to behold. I consider myself privileged to have witnessed such a historic milestone in aerospace history. I am also happy for all my fellow coworkers who worked on it longer than I to have seen the fruits of their labor succeed in its first flight."

The Stratolaunch aircraft, previously known as the Roc Carrier Aircraft and Scaled Composites Model 351, was the brainchild of AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame inductee Burt Rutan, who founded Scaled Composites. Burt played with the idea of building the world’s largest all-composite aircraft for more than 20 years. Finally, in late 2011, he and Microsoft Corporation cofounder Paul Allen announced the project.

Paul, who was the sole investor in Burt’s SpaceShipOne suborbital commercial spacecraft, wanted to develop an air-launch platform to make space travel more accessible. Scaled Composites employees began designing and building the airplane.

03. The flight crew is ready to board the Stratolaunch for its maiden flight early on the morning of April 13, 2019. The Stratolaunch is expected to return to the sky this year.

04. The team at Scaled Composites poses with the Stratolaunch. Many AMA members had a hand in its development.

Mason was working for Scaled Composites at the time. "Shortly after [the announcement], the company received two Boeing 747s that would later be used for parts," Mason remembered. "It was the company meeting held aboard the 747s parked outside that inspired me to seek my way onto the project. At first, I thought I might get involved in the landing gear design, but the project needed designers for the flight controls. I stayed on flight controls for more than 6 years, all the way through [the] first flight."

At roughly the same time, Dan began working on the Stratolaunch. He was hired by Scaled Composites in August 1998. At the time, "the Stratolaunch airplane, known as ‘Roc,’ was ‘just’ another Scaled project," Dan explained.

"I was mostly assigned to the cabin structure. Aaron Cassebeer, Alex Fickes (another great model airplane guy), and [I] pretty much designed the cabin structure for Roc," Dan shared. "Both Aaron and Alex have moved on from Scaled Composites to continue working at Stratolaunch. Aaron is now the hypersonics chief engineer on ‘Talon-A,’ which will be the first payload that Roc will drop soon."

Cedric is more recent to the project. "I started working for Stratolaunch in December 2019 on the Talon-A vehicle development program," he said.

The Stratolaunch has not flown since its maiden flight but is expected to fly again by the end of this year, according to Art Pettigrue, director of Communications and Marketing for Stratolaunch.

When asked to describe how the project evolved throughout the years from plans to its maiden flight, Dan said, "‘Years’ is the keyword. It is unusual for a Scaled Composites aircraft to take years to build. Scaled’s average was less than a year per aircraft. This was a very tough program that had many technical challenges. And because the program took longer, Scaled had to deal with the natural personnel turnover, which made the program less efficient, as information had to be transferred to new employees and contractors."

Mason also reflected on the years of work that went into the Stratolaunch. "This project has always had the underpinnings of a short-term project, with a sense of urgency, quick decision-making, and the use of available resources. If I were to step back from the project, I can see the long-term traits, such as unique naming conventions, [that] only those involved would understand, or special traits exhibited by the unique twin-fuselage configuration. But, seeing some of the people come and go over time has certainly been among the most interesting."

In May 2017, the aircraft had its first rollout for fuel testing. In October 2018, Paul passed away from a cancer-related infection, never having seen the Stratolaunch take flight.

05. The Stratolaunch in flight.

06. The Stratolaunch flies with its flaps down.


07. The Stratolaunch on its historic takeoff.

Before the Stratolaunch

Before Dan and Mason ever witnessed one of the biggest projects of their lives take to the sky, they were launching much smaller aircraft.

Mason became involved with model aviation at age 8. He and his father were looking for a hobby to do together and chose to build and fly model airplanes. Today, Mason is still involved in the hobby.

Dan also began flying model aircraft as a child. "My mom, Mary Kreigh, was an artist who taught me to be obsessed with detail. Building model airplanes was a natural extension of that," Dan commented for an article published in the Spring 2019 issue of Park Pilot.

After flying paper airplanes, Dan progressed to balsa gliders, Control Line, RC glow-powered aircraft, and Slope Soaring RC gliders. He flew his first RC airplane when he was approximately 12 years old. At that time, he became immersed in building models from balsa kits and covering them with silkspan and dope.

Cedric began flying models at a slightly later stage in life. "A friend of mine in high school had an Electra sailplane model that we tried (unsuccessfully) to teach ourselves to fly, but I was hooked. For Christmas before my 15th birthday, I asked for and received a .25-size glow-powered balsa trainer kit. My family saw me very little over the following three-and-a-half days it took me to finish it through covering it with MonoKote (blue and silver)," he shared.

08. Postcards such as this were available to fill out at AMA Expo 2018, held in January that year. The postcards were carried onboard the Stratolaunch on its maiden flight and were later mailed to whom they were addressed.

An uncle, who was also a modeler, gave Cedric his first five-channel Futaba radio. Cedric’s dad helped him find an aeromodeling club to join in Louisiana, where a club member helped spark his interest in aerospace engineering.

Cedric, Dan, and Mason met while working for Scaled Composites. Cedric said he enjoys working with fellow modelers such as Dan and Mason. "There is a common interest or passion over which new coworkers can bond," he stated. "For modelers who are more on the introverted end of the spectrum, as many engineers are, sharing a common interest in modeling is a great ‘ice-breaker.’"

While at Scaled Composites, Dan, Mason, Cedric, and some of their coworkers held RC Pylon Races and flew RC Combat on their breaks. "Modelers come to the job with additional ‘hands-on’ experience and are more likely to experiment with nonstandard or nontraditional design solutions," Cedric added.

Being in the hobby has also given Dan and Mason a leg up at work by giving them an understanding of aircraft design such as structures, control, landing gear, and stability. "Modelers usually understand aircraft design better than pilots," Dan said.

"I feel that without my history and appreciation of model aviation, I would not have qualified to be on this project," Mason stated about the Stratolaunch aircraft. "There are many aeromodelers among the team at Stratolaunch who agree that it provides the foundation upon which we design and communicate.

"Aeromodeling taught me the importance of good hardware integration and helps me understand how systems might fail. While aeromodeling remains a hobby to me, it paved the way for me to pursue this line of work," Mason added. "First, it taught me the fundamental principles of aviation, how things work, and how things fail. Then aeromodeling introduced me to the right people who helped me decide the ways to pursue the career of aerospace engineer."

Dan, Mason, and Cedric are looking forward to the Stratolaunch’s next flight and the possibility of it carrying the Talon-A, a hypersonic test vehicle.

Art said the Stratolaunch could have flown the day after its maiden flight. "We continue to make enhancements to the plane and are working to get back in the air," he added.

Until the Stratolaunch takes to the sky again, Mason will continue to cherish his memories of its first flight.

"The morning of [the] first flight started early for me," Mason shared. "I arrived at 3 a.m. to walk the ramp and double check for FOD [foreign object damage] with the test team. I attended an early morning flight brief and checked in with the air traffic control tower. My job that morning was to oversee the camera drone pilots and make sure they stayed in the appropriate places as Stratolaunch lifted off for the first time.

"Out on the taxiway, I briefed the camera crew with the flight plan and described the ‘the shot’ we wanted to get, for there was one, and only one, chance. I let them know that I [would] not be watching the monitors, though. From all my years of flying model aircraft, it’s difficult to watch a flight of any aircraft through a monitor for me.

"At the moment of liftoff, I was watching the airplane with my own eyes, specifically the landing gear. It was when I saw light under the tires that the emotions flooded me. The airplane looked larger than I thought and it lifted off faster than I expected. While I had no fears of the airplane [not] performing well, the scene felt a bit surreal, for I had seen this in my dreams before.

"I snapped back into reality when the camera drone pilot called me over to look at the camera monitors. I remember not being able to see the monitors well for the tears in my eyes. They laughed at me, but I laughed at myself too. I love history, and I love historical moments. I think the Stratolaunch’s first flight was my historical moment to witness, the one I’ll be telling my grandchildren about someday."

09, 10. The Stratolaunch in flight.

09, 10. The Stratolaunch in flight.



Scaled Composites

"I Am the AMA" Mason Hutchison

"The Other Side of the Tree Line" Dan Kreigh

AMA History Project: Biography of Elbert (Burt) Rutan


By Rachelle Haughn |
Photos provided by Stratolaunch and Scaled Composites

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