License to Thrill
Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.
- By Michael Belfiore
- Photographs by Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
(Page 2 of 3)
Virgin has already begun recruiting spaceship pilots from among the commercial jet pilots of its four airlines. With the rules of the game still being written, the only stated requirements for a Virgin space pilot is 3,000 hours of flying time and ratings on multiple aircraft types. There are no weight, height, or other physical requirements. “Obviously, pilots will have to be healthy and fit,” says Virgin Galactic test pilot and Virgin Atlantic captain David Mackay, “but not necessarily more so than, say, military fast-jet pilots.” Ostensibly that qualifies all of Virgin America’s pilots, who all have twice the required number of hours. But it’s no accident that those on the short list have a lot of additional relevant experience.
Take Virgin America captains Rob Bendall, 44, and Rich Dancaster, 55. These two civilian-trained test pilots made the flights the Federal Aviation Administration required to get Virgin America certified. Bendall is a good-natured Canadian with dark brown hair and a quick smile who clearly loves his day job. Virgin America’s chief pilot, he has seven years of flight test experience with Nevada-based International Flight Test Group, as well as flying time in everything from small airplanes like Cessnas and Pipers to the big Airbus transports he pilots for a living.
Dancaster, Virgin America’s director of pilot training, grins when asked why he wants to be a spaceship pilot. “Once they said you go from like Mach .7 to about Mach 4 in 10 seconds, I said ‘I gotta try that!’ ” Dancaster, whose flying experience encompasses a broad range of aircraft, including the Boeing 747, the Airbus A320, and the Douglas DC-8, is fit and trim with close-cropped gray hair. He exudes the kind of quiet competence that passengers on the first commercial spaceflights will doubtless find reassuring. Bendall and Dancaster are, in fact, counting on their obvious competence to put potentially anxious passengers at ease during preflight briefings and during the flight to launch altitude. If necessary, the pilots might be able to get out of their seats to help spacesick passengers back into their seats before reentry, but once the spacecraft begins the 6-G reentry, a passenger having a hard time will have to cope on his own. Virgin Galactic hopes that centrifuge training will nip such problems in the bud.
Bendall, Dancaster, and fellow Virgin America pilot Brad Lambert will each spend 27 months on loan from their airline to train with Virgin Galactic. As we went to press, they hadn’t yet started their training—which will include flying simulators at Scaled—and so weren’t able to compare the spaceship’s handling characteristics to those of more conventional aircraft. But Virgin Galactic test pilot Mackay, who is already working with the pilots and engineers at Scaled, has had a taste of what the Virgin Galactic pilots are in for. “The obvious differences here to anything I’ve flown in the past,” he says, “are that [the ship] goes much faster, much higher, and into a new environment.” With structural changes made to the design after the flights of SpaceShipOne—mainly bringing the wings from atop the fuselage to below it to increase stability—the ship shouldn’t be quite as difficult to fly during the boost phase as its predecessor. “The change in the vehicle’s responses to disturbances or control inputs as it rapidly travels through the atmosphere makes it interesting,” says Mackay, “but, in practice, the boosted flight profile is quite simple.” As for gliding it home, he says, “in the landing pattern SS2 is quite agile, its field of view is good, and it has an excellent, versatile navigation system, meaning that, if necessary, pilots can be quite flexible in the approach they fly. I’ve flown flameout patterns in the AV-8B [Harrier jump jet] and Mirage III [fighter] and they were more demanding.”
Mackay came to Virgin in 1995 after serving in the Royal Air Force as a test pilot, most recently as chief fixed-wing instructor at the Empire Test Pilots’ School in Wiltshire, England. All told, he has more than 11,000 hours of experience in 100-plus aircraft types, including World War I biplanes, early jets like the de Havilland Vampire, and, of course, the airliners he flies now. Like Binnie, Mackay was inspired to become an astronaut by Apollo. “The only snag in my plan was that the U.K. was not sending people into space,” he says. It wasn’t until he reached his 30s that he realized he probably wouldn’t become an astronaut. “That was hard to accept,” he admits. So when Virgin and Scaled Composites offered a chance to become a commercial spaceship pilot, he jumped. Besides working closely with Scaled pilots Binnie and Pete Siebold (Melvill has retired from full-time duties at Scaled) in creating the flight test program, Mackay is helping to work out the training program for the Virgin pilots who will follow him into space.
As Mackay puts it, “The accuracy of the flight profile and the safety of the vehicle rest entirely in the hands and the flying skills of the pilot,” so future space pilots will need to spend time—lots of it—in Scaled’s spaceship simulator. But in preparing a pilot for the demands of flying a spaceship, the simulator can go only so far. Training will also include flying time in the White Knight 2, which has deliberately been designed with a cockpit identical to that of its daughter ship, as well as with the ability to duplicate the lift-to-drag ratio of a spaceship gliding to a landing. And, says Mackay, “all SpaceShip pilots will have to be in current practice in high-G maneuvers.” Mackay and his colleagues envision flying in aerobatic aircraft such as the Extra 300, in which the SpaceShipOne pilots trained. Weightless flight training is possible in conventional aircraft too, says Mackay, but “as SpaceShip pilots will remain strapped in throughout the flight, it is not currently as important as high-G training.”
If all goes well, Virgin Galactic expects to fly at least two spaceflights a day from each spaceport from which it operates—initially New Mexico’s Spaceport America, and then from other locations around the world. Since each flight will require four pilots—two in the spaceship and two in the mothership—the initial cadre of 18 pilots will get a lot of flying time.
Wanting to experience some of what a pilot (and passengers) will go through on a SpaceShipTwo flight, I visited the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pennsylvania. The NASTAR center has configured a centrifuge to exactly duplicate the G-loads of a SpaceShipTwo flight. The center’s parent company, the Environmental Tectonics Corporation, manufactures centrifuges, altitude chambers, and other flight simulation equipment, and it launched NASTAR in October 2007 to train fighter pilots as well as potential commercial astronauts. After checking out the facility, Virgin Galactic officials contracted with NASTAR in September 2007 for preferential treatment and pricing for Virgin Galactic passengers. “We worked very closely with the VG team to provide a complete VG branded experience,” explains NASTAR chief operating officer and instructor Glenn King. “This experience includes flights in our High Performance Human Centrifuge, now called our STS-400 [Space Training System], with the flight profile matched to the actual VG suborbital flight profile.”