License to Thrill

Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.

British tycoon Sir Richard Branson (left) and maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan are racing to put the first paying passengers into space — at $200,000 per 2 1/2-hour flight. (MICHAEL BELFIORE)
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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.”

The NASTAR center is the only non-government-operated facility in the world where civilians can undergo high-G training. I signed on for the center’s one-day “spaceflight lite” program, which subjected me to only half of the maximum G-loads of a SpaceShipTwo flight. The full-G, two-day program that Virgin Galactic offers as part of the price for a rocketship ride would have cost $5,800 and required a flight physical as well as an ambulance on standby at the center. Still, the light version was enough to give me a sense of what spaceflight would subject me to. After Brienna Henwood, director of commercial business, strapped me into the capsule—complete with projected images of altimeter, G-load, and Mach number gauges and a simulated view out the front and back of the spaceship—and secured the hatch behind me, an automated voice provided a countdown from the control room. The reassuringly professional voice talked me through the drop from the mothership (accompanied by a gentle rocking of the capsule), and then the rapid buildup of Gs as the rocket motor fired. As instructed by King in a classroom earlier, I tensed my legs and forced air through pursed lips to blow away the grayness creeping in on the fringes of my vision as the blood tried to drain from my brain.

King had shown me and a fellow student a video of himself in the fighter cockpit mockup, undergoing gravity-induced loss of consciousness. It wasn’t pretty. His eyes rolled back in his head, his head flopped forward, and his hand fell from the control stick in the centrifuge. Granted, at that point he was up to 9 Gs, but even SpaceShipTwo’s 6 Gs could knock out a pilot who doesn’t start proper breathing and straining maneuvers to keep the blood in his head well in advance of the high Gs. King explained that once the blood has drained from your head, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force it back up your neck. For commercial space pilots, high-G training will be essential.

To all the other qualifications of a commercial spaceship pilot, one might add that of company spokesperson. Former Air Force test pilot and NASA space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss is now chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace, yet another spaceflight startup based at the Mojave Airport. He puts his experience as a professional speaker to good use during XCOR press conferences and public events like the rocket-powered airplane flights he made last summer for XCOR and the Rocket Racing League at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in. Commercial space pilots will necessarily become some of their companies’ most visible representatives in selling the experience of spaceflight to potential passengers. Regarding a space pilot’s more formal qualifications, “obviously I’m showing my bias here,” says Searfoss, “but I believe it would be advantageous to have the disciplined, uber-professional training and background of a former military pilot, particularly a formal-course graduate test pilot, for any commercial spaceflight operations.”

XCOR’s planned one-pilot, one-passenger, jet-fighter-size suborbital rocketplane, called Lynx, will glide through its descent, since none of the craft’s kerosene fuel will remain after the boost to space. Lynx will take off on its own from a runaway and reach an altitude of about 200,000 feet. Although the craft is still under construction, Searfoss has flown XCOR’s rocket-powered technology demonstrators. “Imagine a small, light, experimental homebuilt like a Long-EZ, which flies very nicely to begin with,” he says. “It has light stick forces. It’s a nice flying airplane if you’re a fighter pilot. But then without a reciprocating’s just smooth as silk to fly.”

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