Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo flies New Mexico skies

SPACEPORT AMERICA — Virgin Galactic’s pilot team on Wednesday performed the first operational tests of the company’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft in New Mexico in almost two years.

The dual fuselage WhiteKnightTwo — which will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to high altitude before the vehicle drops and rockets to space — took off from Spaceport America after 9 a.m. for two hours of flight that allowed pilots and air traffic controllers at White Sands Missile Range and in Albuquerque to practice working together.

Virgin Galactic brought six of its seven pilots to southern New Mexico this week for the operational tests, which began Monday and end Thursday.

Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and pilot Kelly Latimer — Virgin Galactic’s newest hire to its flight team — flew the first WhiteKnightTwo exercises on Wednesday.

WhiteKnightTwo corkscrewed up to nearly 50,000 feet and repeatedly glided back toward Spaceport, engines idle, only to graze the runway and take off again.

Lead test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky stayed on the ground to explain the day’s mission, which included tests that allowed the aircraft to simulate SpaceShipTwo’s descent.

“The beautiful thing about WhiteKnightTwo is that it isn’t just a carrier aircraft that drops the spaceship, it can simulate the spaceship gliding and landing,” Stucky said.

Working with air traffic controllers, too, “is a really important coordination exercise,” he said.

“As much as you plan, there is always something you learn for next time,” he said. “When we come down with the spaceship, we’ll want it to be smooth.”

An October 2014 accident during a rocket-powered test flight ripped apart the company’s spaceship and killed one pilot. Virgin Galactic has been recovering from that accident, rebuilding its spaceship and returning to its test flight program.

Virgin Galactic rolled out a new SpaceShipTwo earlier this year and has begun ground testing, according to Mike Moses, senior vice president of operations. Flight testing could begin this summer, he said, and would be later followed by rocket-powered test flights.

Some 700 “future astronauts” have put down payments for the $250,000 trips to the edge of space and back.

Virgin Galactic says passengers will glimpse the curvature of the earth from space and feel a few minutes of weightlessness before SpaceShipTwo descends into earth’s atmosphere and glides back to Spaceport America.

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