Last October, Scaled Composites pilots Mike Melville and Bob Waldmiller took off from the civilian flight test center at California’s Mojave airport in the twin-jet Proteus and set three altitude records, reaching 63,245 feet, maintaining horizontal flight at 62,385 feet, and carrying a 2,200-pound payload to 55,994 feet, all of which were recently certified by the National Aeronautic Association.
Powered by two Williams International FJ44-2E turbofans, Proteus is a HALO aircraft—high altitude, long operation—designed to carry 2,000-pound payloads to 60,000 feet and loiter there for hours. Potential missions include reconnaissance, atmospheric research, commercial imaging, and, ultimately, serving as a launch platform for a three-passenger spacecraft (Proteus designer Burt Rutan is a contender for the $10 million X-Prize being offered to the first entrepreneur to launch a piloted three-place spacecraft to 62 miles and repeat the flight within two weeks.)
Proteus is initially being marketed as an atmospheric communications satellite, one that will fly wide circles high over cities for 14 hours at a stretch, carrying an 18-foot-diameter antenna and providing coverage for an area of 60 miles. Scaled Composites is marketing both a two-person crew and an unmanned version. Crew positions will target young pilots who want to build up their time.
Scaled Composites conducted the record flights under sponsorship of the NASA Office of Earth Science with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, and NASA. The NAA certified the records in Class C-1.e, Group III, land-based airplanes with jet engines, weighing from 6,614 to 13,228 pounds. Takeoff weights were 8,962 pounds and, with the payload, 11,319 pounds. The previous altitude and horizontal flight records, 54,570 feet, were set by a Lear 28 in 1988.
Proteus made its first flight in late 1998. Its modular construction and extendable wings can be adapted to carry a variety of payloads, hence the name—Proteus is the mythological Greek shepherd of the seas who can assume different shapes at will.
Scaled Composites was founded in 1982 by prolific designer Burt Rutan, who Time magazine called “one of the country’s most innovative designers.” The company has produced more than 30 unique aircraft, including Voyager, which in 1986 flew around the world non-stop without refueling, earning the NAA Collier Trophy.