Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot

If you fall off your horse…

The program to develop and test Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne (SS1) had many different demands, but I can safely say the one that made the pilots uniformly uncomfortable was the hour-long wait in SS1 while the White Knight carrier aircraft dragged it up to release altitude. During this time, there is little to do and the mind is somewhat free to wander.

For me, what first filled the void was a nagging hint of anxiety, which, over the course of the laboring ascent, began to slip down the slope into fear. And there is nothing quite like fear. Its demons will stalk you until they’ve conjured all kinds of trouble. I know; I lived with it for years while struggling to land the unforgiving A-7 Corsair aboard aircraft carriers at night. There’s something much worse than fear, though. That’s having your dreams taken away from you. And I know all about that too.

One of Burt’s dreams was to put the Tier One program (the code name given to keep the project secret early on) squarely in the national limelight by celebrating the centennial of the Wright brothers’ first flight from Kitty Hawk with the first powered flight of SS1 from the Mojave Desert. No matter which coast you were on, December 17, 2003, was to be a glorious day.

For Scaled Composites, the company Burt started in 1982, the flight was the culmination of months of hard work by a small team of dedicated, smart, and seriously focused individuals. I will remain forever awed by the talent that resides within the unassuming facilities that make up Burt’s fun factory.

The Tier One program comprised two stages: White Knight, the carrier-launch aircraft, and SS1, the vehicle that would take us to our 100-kilometer (328,000 feet) altitude. The goal of Tier One was to win the $10 million Ansari X-Prize by accomplishing two privately funded, manned spaceflights, above 100 kilometers, within 14 days.

In the five weeks preceding the centennial, we had completed two envelope-expansion glide flights in the vehicle and a qualifying ground run of the flight-configured, hybrid rocket motor. Modifications by Burt, along with engineers Jim Tighe and Matt Stinemetze, included enlarged tails and esoteric details like strakes and stall fences. Pilot and engineer Peter Siebold was running what seemed like a 24/7 simulator operation, contributing misery and challenges to the rest of us as we tried to keep up. Finally, rocket motor integration details had been pounded into submission by Scaled engineer John Campbell and the SpaceDev team (which provided critical components for the hybrid rocket motor). It was a stunning exhibition of pure willpower to make it all happen by December 17, so the Christmas holidays could be enjoyed in peace.

By December, we were about as smart as we were going to be without throwing all the various elements together and seeing how they really behaved. Some of the features we were interested in learning more about were the rocket motor ignition at altitude, pilot reaction to the energetic impulse of that motor waking up, the acoustic environment (could you hear the radios?), and the structural environment (would the displays even be readable with the motor vibrations?). Oh, and there were the basics, of course, like performance: Did we have the right stabilizer trim setting to get the vehicle flying around the corner—the transition point from horizontal to near-vertical flight? Not enough trim and you could overspeed it and watch parts start to shed. Too much and you drive the angle of attack into regimes where the handling qualities become suspect. And speaking of handling qualities, there was the whole matter of accelerating to supersonic airspeeds within 10 seconds.

There was considerable uncertainty as to whether we should fly the vehicle conventionally as an airplane first, transitioning to electric trim as the control forces became overwhelming, or go with the trims straight out of the gate. The beauty and excitement of flight test is that it is the sword to the Gordian knot of all these details.

Burt has often been quoted in the press as saying that we’ve lost the courage to explore new frontiers. Usually there’s a reference to NASA not too far away. We need less government, the freedom to follow our dreams, and the courage to exercise that freedom. After 20 years with the Navy, I have an affinity for flag and apple pie, and I love that kind of talk. Burt can challenge anyone in the risk/reward business because his flight test safety record is second to none, and he’s achieved it while ferreting out the truth on a remarkably diverse number of aircraft over three decades. You might say Burt, Doug Shane (Scaled’s new-business director and chief test pilot), and Mike Melvill (Scaled’s general manager and senior test pilot) have collectively put together a safety record to die for.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to fly that first powered flight on December 17. Some might surmise that pulling it off took nerves of steel and other parts made of brass. I didn’t see it that way. Expectations were low; just getting the motor lit would have been considered a success. Plus, any troubles during boost would be chalked up to the difficulty of the task. From a piloting standpoint, it was really a no-lose situation.

So imagine my delight when the motor lit and the little-spaceship-that-could scooted around the corner like a bat out of hell. No matter that I was about half a mile behind it. After 15 seconds the motor shut down and SS1 coasted (upside down!) to a modest apogee of 68,000 feet, where Burt’s magic feather system removed any further need for piloting skills. The feather system allows the pilot to literally break the vehicle in half—raising half the wing, both tail booms, and tails to nearly vertical. This configuration is extremely stable, and allows the ship to reenter the atmosphere safely without pilot input. I call it the “angel’s wings,” and it’s a part of Burt Rutan’s genius. All’s well that ends well, and that boost had been a blast.

On the glide back down there isn’t much to do but enjoy the ride, and I admit to thinking we had set the bar pretty high (so to speak) for the Kitty Hawk boys. Paul G. Allen, our reclusive bazillionaire benefactor, had made a surprise appearance that morning and planned to announce officially to the world his sponsorship of the program. So there was considerable horsepower on the ramp to help celebrate what was shaping up to be a rather fine morning, not to mention several hundred people who had guessed Burt’s plans and were camped out at the airfield to watch the show.

The SS1 landing pattern had been a surprising source of trouble for the program. Flying a low-performance glider, without spoilers, to a consistent point on final had taken some experimentation, but we finally had a method that was working well for us. With good airspeed and energy I rolled out “in the groove” and lowered the gear. Mike Melvill, who was now on my wing as low chase, offered early congratulations with a clever “Cleared to land.” Up in White Knight, Cory Bird, lead engineer for that vehicle and the one who had released me 15 minutes earlier, was heard to say to pilot Peter Siebold: “Well, that’s that.” All the pieces of the puzzle had fallen nicely into place, and it looked like the good guys had once again prevailed over the forces of evil and darkness.

That is, until I crashed SpaceShipOne.

A funny thing about people: You can build a hundred bridges, but get a little dirt (okay, a lot) on a plastic spaceship and they won’t call you Brian the Bridge Builder. Burt put his best spin on the day’s events, but when all was said and done there was no escaping the awful impact of seeing the damage: the torn gear and everywhere the miasma of that dirty desert dust. It was a sore sight, and whoever was responsible clearly lacked that important ingredient, that oh-so-necessary quality in test flight known as the Right Stuff.

It seemed like I missed Christmas that year. I spent the holidays dutifully writing a test report, trying to salvage some meaning from that day’s events. I even wandered back into the hangar during those days off, hoping to see proof that somehow my personal nightmare was just a dream. But there it would be, the brave little spaceship with so much promise. Broken. Its sad appearance a slap to the senses.

The day after, on our way to play golf (yes, life must go on), Burt shared an anecdote he’d heard about a golfer who missed a two-foot putt that would have won him the British Open. Decades later, when the golfer was asked if he still thought about that putt, he responded, “Oh, I suppose 10 or 12 minutes may go by when I don’t think about it.”

This experience was threatening to haunt me the same way. I couldn’t believe that after surviving My Youth, Carrier Aviation, Desert Storm, and Rotary Rocket, this landing was going to define me. It was clear that whatever 2004 had in store, it wasn’t going to come easy.

By April, Doug Shane and Burt had waded through the Federal Aviation Administration’s launch licensing process and Peter flew the next powered flight, which reached 105,000 feet. It went straight and true and the landing was flawless. That flight was a huge morale booster to the members, who had been suffering stirrings of doubt after such a long down time. Next up was Mike, and in May he rocketed up to 210,000 feet. Mike never seems to go anywhere without at least a little excitement, and keeping the vehicle going in the right direction despite having lost the primary flight display was gutsy and full of that enviable flight test quality I had lost.

Next, in June, was the coveted flight that would crown the world’s first private astronaut. It was an event that was going to go to either Pete or Mike; by then, I was settled into my new role as White Knight bus driver. Mike got the nod, and on June 21, 2004, off he went into the history books, if only by the slimmest of margins. The vehicle, which had been stripped down to its leanest fighting weight, just managed to sneak past the 100-kilometer mark by some 400 feet. That was about 0.1 percent over the requirement. Exciting stuff again, and signature Mike by this time in the program.

Next up would be the X-Prize flights, with their $10 million carrot. The foundation required 60 days’ notice, and we needed the time and something other than a quick fix for our performance problems. Once again, the propulsion team came to the rescue, finding a way to turn up the wick on our trusty hybrid and giving us the confidence that we could get back up to 100 kilometers—but this time carrying all 600 pounds of required payload. Peter was slated for the first X-Prize flight, or X1, as we called it. However, nagging health issues disrupted that plan, so once again the reins went to our tried-and-true guy, Mike. Mike blasted out of the atmosphere with color and character, this time with all those famous rolls after rocket motor burnout. Twenty- nine, in fact, on the way up and just for good measure, one more on the way down.

Over these last couple of months, I had found myself in a new alliance, one that had given me a glimmer of hope. Mike had taken me under his wing when we had gone off together to NASA’s Langley center in Virginia in August on a Proteus deployment (Proteus was White Knight’s predecessor). Upon returning, we modified the canopy on Mike’s Long-EZ airplane (which was designed by Burt) to mimic the field of view in the SS1, and were using it as the SS1 landing trainer. In fact, at Mike’s urging, I flew anything I could get my hands on, and when I wasn’t flying I was in the simulator. I would drag Peter with me and together we spent hours comparing notes on how to fly the vehicle during boost, particularly in the capricious and unforgiving end game as you’re leaving the wispy atmosphere.

But now I ask you: With just one more flight to go to claim the holy grail of flight test, to pass Go and get the $10 million, to ensure the company’s future with a brand-new investor, Richard Branson, looking on, and to maintain Scaled’s sacred safety record, do you go with the tried and true, or do you toss the keys over to the spaceship crasher? Well, the race isn’t always won by the fastest horse, but that’s the way you tend to bet. And while I wasn’t going to be caught unprepared, I held out little hope of getting that second chance to jump-start my dreams.

Mike’s harrowing X1 flight had taken place on a Wednesday, and in true Scaled fashion the lights burned late that night as the team analyzed the roll problem. Incredibly, by the next day, we thought we understood what was going on and how to modify the trajectory to avoid the rolling departure. Burt liked what he heard, and with his penchant for promotional impact, thought that a flight on the following Monday, the 47th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch, would be an appropriate capstone to the program. All that was needed now was a pilot.

And at about 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, I was set free.

So as I was saying, easily the worst part of those flights was the hour-long ride underneath White Knight to altitude. In that time you get to live with who you are. And for me, it was strangely comfortable to be in the company of the fear demons once more. I welcomed them, for their presence meant I had my dreams back and the opportunity to realize them.

On October 4, 2004, Brian Binnie piloted SS1 to claim the world altitude record previously set by the X-15, and the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for investor Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites of Mojave, California.

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