Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot
If you fall off your horse...
- By Brian Binnie
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
(Page 2 of 4)
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.