Related link: http://www.scaled.com
Special thanks to Trekmail, a provider of multimedia messaging services for cellular networks, and Nacio Systems, a co-location and managed hosting service provider, for hosting the Quicktime streaming video clips for this article.
About two weeks ago, Burt Rutan’s airplane design shop, Scaled Composites , announced that they would attempt the first manned suborbital space flight in a privately built aircraft. Rutan is a living legend in the aviation community, and prior to Monday’s flight, was best known for Voyager, the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe without refueling.
It is rare that you have an opportunity to watch history. If successful, this flight would be a historic moment in aviation, on par with Kitty Hawk and Charles Lindberg’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Nothing like this had been done before. This would be the first time that a completely new aircraft design, built entirely with private funds, would be launched into space.
When news of the flight broke, I decided to rent a plane fly down to Mojave to watch the flight in person. I am a pilot, and having not flown for a couple of years, decided this was a perfect excuse to get back in the cockpit and go for a ride. So I booked a Cessna 182 and an instructor at West Valley Flying Club and started planning my trip. I suppose we could have driven down to Mojave, but since this would be the first flight of a privately built spaceplane, it only seemed appropriate to fly down.
Since I had not flown for a couple years, I was not legal to fly as pilot in command (PIC), so I went down with Nick Ulman, a physicist and part-time instructor at West Valley. West Valley is a great place to learn to fly. They have about 70 airplanes available to rent, ranging from tailwheels that can land on dirt runways to high-performance turboprop planes. If you live in the Bay Area and are thinking about learning to fly, check them out, they operate out of San Carlos (KSQL), Palo Alto (KPAO) and most recently, Hayward (KHWD).
Joining us for the ride were Richard Quinn, a planetary scientist at JPL who is working on upcoming Mars missions in 2007 and 2009, and Moses Corrette, a city planner and architectural historian. Moses is also an amateur videographer, and brought a handheld DV camera along for the ride to document our “road trip”. The video clips linked to this article were produced using iMovie on a Powerbook running OS X. (I had never made a video before, and was astonished at how intuitive Apple has made this process).
They say getting there is half the fun, and that was certainly the case with our two-day “road” trip to the high desert.
Flying an airplane isn’t like driving a car. You can not set foot in a car for months, even years, and still remember how to drive it. If you forget something, you can always pull over. This isn’t really an option when you’re cruising along at about 150mph several thousand feet above the earth. Controlling the airplane is pretty easy once you learn to fly, but that’s only a small part of traveling safely from point A to point B. Procedures, finer points of flying the aircraft (such as proper fuel/air mixture settings), and dealing with complicated air traffic control procedures are the things you forget first. So the FAA has some common sense rules that dictate what you need to do to stay current, or legal to fly as pilot in command. Since I had not set foot in a small aircraft in two years, I was definitely not current.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of flight instructors who were eager to make the trip to Mojave to watch the launch of Spaceship One. It seemed like any pilot who could play hookey on Monday called in sick and either flew or drove to watch the launch.
Planning the Trip
For a short flight in your local area, such as a Bay Tour, you generally don’t need to plan every minute detail. You call the local flight service station (FSS) for a weather briefing, plot your route on a sectional map, and off you go. If you’re familiar with the local airports, airspace and weather trends, you can generally plot a rough course, grab a plane, do your pre-flight inspection and go.
Longer trips outside familiar territory require thorough planning because, at a 150 miles per hour, a common speed for a higher performance single engine plane, you can cover a lot of ground, and can easily get lost even if the weather is good. Adverse weather is a small plane’s worst enemy, and the leading cause of small aircraft accidents. Fly into bad weather when you’re not prepared for it, and you can easily get lost and/or kill yourself.
One thing you learn flying airplanes is that your definition of bad weather changes dramatically. The weather has to be REALLY bad before you’d think twice about driving. Even in the most perilous weather, you have the option of driving REALLY SLOWLY, so if you spin out of control on I-80 during a snowstorm, you do so at 5 or 10 miles per hour, fast enough to wreck a paint job, but not much else. You don’t have this option in an airplane. In a small airplane, slow flight means about 70mph. If you get lost and fly into the side of a hill at 70mph, you’ll have a very bad day.
Bad weather, also known as IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) is defined as follows: visibility less than 3 miles, ceiling (cloud level) below 1,000 feet (higher than all but the tallest skyscrapers). It doesn’t even need to be raining. A hazy day with low clouds, a common occurence along the California coastline, can be IMC, which means that in order to fly, you need to be rated to fly IFR (under Instrument Flight Rules). Flying IFR means that you control and navigate the airplane solely by reference to cockpit instrumentation except during takeoff and landing.
In addition to visibility, you also need to watch out for high winds. Most small airplanes can’t land well in strong crosswinds (where the wind is blowing across the runway instead of down the centerline).
To plan a cross-country plane trip, you need to do the following:
1) Select a safe route that gives you lots of options, usually this means avoiding long stretches of open water, rugged terrain, and also selecting a path that is close to small airports, or if airports are scarce, open land where you can make a forced landing in the event of engine trouble.
2) Call for a weather briefing, or go to DUATS, an online briefing and flight plan filing system for pilots. Check that current and forecast weather along the route exceeds the minimum requirements for both pilot and airplane. Modify the route as needed to avoid adverse conditions.
3) Once you’ve refined the route, consult the pilot’s operating handbook (aircraft owner’s manual) to determine how much fuel will be required for the flight (including reserves), and how much payload the aircraft can carry with this fuel load. Often you are forced to trade fuel for payload. If you fly three passengers and top of the tanks, you may be over the maximum takeoff weight. If you’re flying close to maximum weight, you might need to add a fuel stop to the route.
4) File a flight plan with the FAA. This is optional if you are flying under visual flight rules, but mandatory if you are flying under instrument flight rules. You can file online, by phone, or by radio once you are in the air. If you are taking off in instrument conditions, you have to file before you take off.
Our Flight Plan To Mojave
For the flight to Mojave, we originally planned to fly from Palo Alto, CA (KPAO) directly to Mojave, CA (KMHV), the same airport where the Spaceship One flight was planned. Unfortunately, Mojave airport was closed to private aircraft several days prior to launch due to limited parking/tie-down space. If you knew someone at Scaled Composites, you could get in, but otherwise, no luck. That was the official reason.
I think the real reason was that they did not want the event to be marred by accidents at the airport. The high desert is very windy, especially in the afternoon and evening, when many people would be attempting to land. High, gusty winds and small airplanes are not a happy combination. If hundreds of small planes had converged on Mojave Sunday afternoon and evening, I think it’s likely the place would be littered with more than one bent airplane.
There are two small aiports close to Mojave, General Fox and Palmdale (PMD), both of which we considered. We planned to fly to one of them if the forecast looked good, and planned to fly into Burbank (KBUR), about 70 miles south, if the not. By Sunday, the forecast was for high winds, so we decided to go to Burbank and do some sightseeing along the coast and over Los Angeles on the way in. It added an hour to the trip, but safety is always #1 when planning a flight. It’s a cliched saying that “Takes are optional, landings are mandatory,” but it’s true.
After rechecking the weather, we settled on the following route to Burbank:
- Palo Alto (KPAO) to Woodside VOR (OSI)
- Woodside (OSI) to Salinas (SNS)
- Salinas (SNS) to Paso Robles (PRB)
- Paso Robles (PRB) to Morro Bay (MQO)
- Morro Bay (MQO) to Gaviato (GVO)
- Gavioto (GVO) to San Marcus (RZS)
- San Marcus (RZS) to Burbank/Bob Hope Airport (KBUR)
Weather conditions along the route, except for the coastline near San Luis Obispo (KSBP), were good, so Richard and Moses had a good view. I decided to fly simulated instrument conditions and wore a hood for most of the trip. It was a smooth, uneventful flight. Everyone except me enjoyed the view along the coast.
Route From Palo Alto to Salinas (San Francisco Sectional Map)
We flew from Palo Alto airport to Woodside VOR, then to Santa Cruz and Salinas along a victor airway (standard route for VFR traffic). San Jose Airport and Moffett Field are at the south end of the San Francisco Bay.
Route From Salinas to Paso Robles (San Francisco Sectional)
We flew from Santa Cruz to Salinas, and then down along 101 to Paso Robles.
Route From Paso Robles to Santa Maria (LA Sectional)
We flew from Paso Robles to Morro Bay, and then south to Gaviato VOR, a route which took us past Santa Maria. We had to divert inland slightly due to heavy coastal fog south of San Luis.
Route From Santa Maria to Fillmore VOR
This route took us along the coast near Santa Barbara.
Approach into Burbank (Visual Flight Plan)
Approach from Fillmore VOR to Burbank airport for straight in landing on runway 8. We filed IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and flew the ILS Runway 8 approach, see IFR chart later in this article.
Since I had not flown in two years and was rusty, I wanted to squeeze in as much training as I could. We filed an instrument flight plan into the Los Angeles area. Apart from enabling you to fly in poor weather, flying IFR makes flying into complicated airspace much simpler. You just follow published procedures and/or air traffic control instructions. You’re much less likely to get lost and accidentally blunder into restricted airspace.
We then flew the ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach to runway 8 at Burbank (KBUR - ILS RWY 8). When you fly an ILS approach, you fly along a directional radio beacon that is aligned with the runway centerline, and is angled approximately 3 degrees above the horizon. If you fly along the center of this beam, you pop out of the clouds with the runway directly ahead of you. Our approach is plotted on the chart below.
The ILS approach went well, I popped out of the simulated clouds (lifted my visor) at an altitude of about 400 feet. The runway was slightly to the right, and I was right on glideslope. I made a minor course correction to get onto the runway centerline and set up for landing. The Cessna 182 we were flying was a bit faster and heaver than the Cessna 172 I was used to. The 182 is easier to fly precisely, but it’s slower to respond when landing, and requires more aggressive steering to make the plane go where you want it to.
Landing is really the trickiest part of flying because it is essentially a controlled crash. The basic idea is to enter a flare (pull the nose up slightly) when you’re close to the runway. You pull the throttle back to idle and hold the airplane so it is flying level just a few feet above the runway, and keep pulling back on the stick. As you’re doing this, the airplane slows down, eventually to its stall speed (the speed at which the wings stop producing lift). At that point, the airplane falls onto the runway. If all goes well, the plane falls a foot or two and gently squeaks onto the runway. If you botch the flare or get thrown off by the wind, you land with more of a thud. It was windy, I was rusty and flying an unfamiliar aircraft, so we landed with a bit of a whack.
The Drive to Mojave
We taxied the Cessna over to Mercury Air Center to park the plane and pick up our rental car. We felt self-conscious about parking at Millionaire, since none of us were millionaires and our rented Cessna would look pretty lame parked next to Gulfstream jets, kind of like a beat up Pinto next to a Jaguar. The lobby of Mercury Air was littered with signed photos from celebrities who seemed to travel primarily by private jet. It was fun listening to the receptionist taking calls from who knows who, the key phrase I kept hearing was “incognito… of course”. I pictured Britney Spears walking into the lobby with a bag over her head, as if being seen boarding a private jet bound for Trinidad was somehow a bad thing.
We picked up our car and headed up routes 5 and 14 to the town of Mojave. The ride was pretty uneventful, with little to report except the sameness of the strip malls that lined the highway.
Mojave is a small town which the media persistently described as “the middle of nowhere”. A note to people who work for the press … if your reference points are Manhattan, LA or San Francisco, everything is “the middle of nowhere”. Try living in a small town for a while to adjust your expectations. Most small towns don’t have five star hotels, boutique restaurants, and pedestrian districts. Mojave is close to Palmdale to the south, which might as well be called Lockeed Town, and Edwards Air Force Base to the east. It is in the high desert, so not surprisingly it is full of cowboy types, people who are into weird airplanes, and cowboy types who are into weird airplanes (see also Burt Rutan).
We arrive at Mojave airport at 6:00am. About 12,000 other people had the same idea. Mojave airport is not LAX, and is not normally equipped to handle this kind of crowd. A small army of local police officers, Civil Air Patrol cadets and volunteers directed traffic and generally prevented the event from degenerating into total chaos.
Unlike Space Shuttle launches, where spectators are kept at least three miles away from the launchpad, we were able to walk right up to the taxiway leading to the active runway. The aircraft would later taxi out directly past us. People lined the taxiway with just about every type of recording device imaginable.
Spaceship One, like most Rutan designs, is simple and elegant. While most aircraft built today rely on sophisticated electronic controls, Spaceship One has no automatic controls, and is flown entirely by hand. Rutan’s design eliminates unnecessary weight and complexity, and therefore the number of things that can go wrong. It is interesting to note that Spaceship One is the first supersonic airplane to fly with manual controls since the X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, flown by Chuck Yeager.
Spaceship One is a small single motor rocketplane. It is carried up to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a larger mothership named White Knight. The mated aircraft were scheduled to take off, weather permitting, at 6:30am, and would take about an hour to climb up to 50,000 feet.
Upon reaching their target altitude, White Knight would drop Spaceship One, which would ignite its hybrid rocket engine once clear of the mothership. The rocket burn was slated to last 70-80 seconds and would accelerate Spaceship One to Mach 3.5. The spaceplane would coast in freefall to an apogee, peak altitude, of 360,000 feet (the planned altitude for the flight), and would then fall back to re-enter the earth’s atmopshere.
The pilot, Mike Melville, would experience up to 5 G’s of deceleration during re-entry, and would hand fly the aircraft, and glide back to Mojave airport for a dead stick (no engine) landing about 20 minutes later. The entire operation would last about an hour and a half.
Before the launch, some of us discussed what might go wrong during the flight. While Rutan’s group was confident enough to invite the public to watch the launch, all of knew that the attempt was very risky. Before Spaceship One, no civilian aircraft had broken the sound barrier, much less flown a suborbital trajectory. Most people seemed to be worried about the rocket engine exploding, but this was probably the least risky part of the flight. Among our main worries were:
- A flight control malfunction would occur, causing the aircraft to tumble out of control when outside of the atmosphere
- A catastrophic structural failure during re-entry
- Failure of the feathered wing to swing properly into place for re-entry
In fact, the spacecraft experienced a serious problem with its flight controls during its ascent to orbital flight. The aircraft abruptly rolled 90 degrees, and nearly tumbled out of control. Melville used a backup control system to regain control of the ship, but flew 20 miles off course within a matter of seconds. Were it not for the backup controls, the flight may have ended with a tragic mishap. This malfunction was visible from the ground if you looked closely at the contrail from the rocket engine. The ship should have flown in an almost straight line as seen from the ground, but instead appeared to swerve slightly. The pilot also reported hearing a loud bang during the flight, whose cause is still being investigated.
After regaining control of the ship, Melville coasted up to an altitude of 328,400 feet, just a few hundred feet above the 328,000 foot (60 kilometer) mark (the internationally recognized boundary of space). The flight was planned to fly to 360,000 feet, but the control problem forced the ship off course. The ship re-entered the atmosphere as planned, and as it passed overhead, spectators heard two sonic booms as it descended for its return to Mojave.
A few minutes later, we spotted Spaceship One and its chase planes as the circled the field to set up for landing. The ship came in for a perfect landing, and was followed a few minutes later by White Knight. From the spectators’ perspective it was a perfect launch and landing, we only learned of the serious control problem later in the day.
The Trip Back to San Francisco
Since we played hookey to watch the launch, we milled around for a short while, and then headed back to Burbank for the return flight to Palo Alto. For the flight back, we decided to fly along I-5 in the Central Valley. The weather in Los Angeles was IFR, with low ceilings, and about 2 miles visibility in haze.
We departed from Burbank runway 15, and were vectored by air traffic control toward Santa Barbara, and then over the coastal mountains toward the central valley. Our return route was as follows:
- Burbank (KBUR), Van Nuys 7 Departure to Gorman (GMN)
- Gorman (GMN) to Avenal (AVE)
- Avenal (AVE) to Priest (ROM)
- Priest (ROM) to Palo Alto via GPS RWY 31 Approach (KPAO)
We flew in actual instrument conditions out of the Los Angeles basin, and broke through the cloud tops around 3,000 feet. I flew simulated instrument conditions (under the hood) all the way to Palo Alto, including a simulated GPS approach for a straight in landing on runway 31.
It’s rare that you have the opportunity to watch the beginning of a new era, and that’s what happened in the high desert on Monday. Rutan and his group proved that they can build spaceplanes without government patronage. Rutan will surely follow this invention with others, and other airplane designers will follow his lead. While I don’t think we’ll be hopping cheap flights to space on Jet Blue anytime soon, I am quite certain that by the time I reach retirement age, I’ll have the opportunity to fly into space, even if it is a relatively short joyride.
I suspect that most people, given the opportunity, would like to see the view from space. It seems to me that it is one of those things that everyone should do once in their lifetime. My guess is that space tourism will develop much like commercial flight did. It will start as an adventure for the idle rich, and as the technology is refined and mass produced, will eventually be within the reach of ordinary people. Predicting the future of technology is a dangerous sport, but I think it is a safe bet that a mass produced variant of something like Spaceship One is feasible, and that at the very least, we’ll be able to take short rides to suborbital space within a decade or so. How much will it cost, and how much will people pay? I don’t have a clue, but now that space flight is open to entrepreneurs, I think it is safe to predict that we are at the beginning of a period of rapid innovation, and who knows where that could ultimately lead.
A lot can happen in 30 years. To put things in perspective, the Apollo program lasted just ten years.
How much would you pay for a suborbital joyride?