Saturday, September 27, 2008

Flying to Space from Mojave

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the August 28 edition of the Mojave Desert News, and is reprinted here with kind permission from Bill Deaver. I've added some left-over photos of WK2 that I took back in July at the rollout ceremony (with the exception being the photo of Brian Binnie, below, in the simulator, which is a Virgin Galactic media release image).

by Bill Deaver

I flew to space from Mojave last Thursday. It was my second time sitting in the pilot's seat of a Scaled Composites spaceship and aiming it at the stars.

The first time was back in 2003 in a realistic simulator built by Peter Siebold and crew for SpaceShipOne and White Knight. Like the first time, it was an exciting and realistic experience. But it was nothing compared to my ride last week in the simulator Siebold and Terry Agold have created for SpaceShipTwo!

The view from the SpaceShipOne simulator was displayed on several computer monitors Siebold bought from Jim Balentine's Radio Shack in Mojave. It was realistic, but no match for the newest version.

The view outside in the new simulator is projected onto a surface similar to the inside of a very big ball. Imagery from satellites is projected from projectors mounted on the ceiling. As the simulation began, I was in the left seat of SpaceShipTwo with the two fuselages of WhiteKnight2 visible on eather side of me. As soon as we were dropped from WhiteKnight2, the fuselages slid away realistically as we headed to space.

Powered by three electric motors connected, like the imagery, to a cabinet full of computers, the control stick and pedals have the pressures a pilot will feel flying the real thing. Sound is realistic, rumbling when the rocket engine is fired and shutting-off with the silence of space as the spaceship's momentum carries it to apogee as the sky changes from the deep blue of the desert to the dark skies of space.

In atmosphere-free space, the spaceship is controlled by several rocket motors, whose firing was heard when I pushed the stick. As we headed back to Mojave Airport/Spaceport, Agold pulled a handle on the control panel to raise the shuttlecock-like tail booms into the "feather" position to slow our rentry. Lights on the panel confirmed it was up and locked, and later, when it was back in its normal position after reentry.

As we dropped into the atmosphere the control wheel and rudder pedals began to regain feeling, and Siebold and Agold helped guide me to the airport by lining up lines on a box-type display similar to that of SpaceShipOne. That display, Agold noted, will be refined as the real SpaceShipTwo is developed.

My landing could have been better, as I was reminded by a "stick shaker" that vibrated on rollout.

"That's activatyed when you make a rough landing," Siebold said. Not being a pilot, I didn't feel too bad after the same thing happened to a veteran pilot who was flying the simulator when I arrived.

I'm not a video game enthusiast, but this is pretty close to the ultimate video game. as I drove home in my mundane Ford Fusion, I began to wonder how long it would take to master this latest version of Scaled simulators - and then there's the real thing....

"We took a lot of experience from SpaceShipOne into this," Siebold said. the much-improved graphics help make the landing experience much more realistic. "It's a better training tool," he said.

The body of the simulator is a mock-up of the spaceship's cockpit Scaled's talented technicians developed as the design evolved. "It has minor differences from the final version but not enough to bother," Siebold said.

Following Scaled's first spaceship experience, the cockpits of the spaceship and White Knight are similar. A section of the instrument panel can be installed in the simulator to simulate WhiteKnight2, and is connected with only one USB connection.

Agold said the simulator was developed ahead of the spaceship. "Because of that we have been able to help drive the design" of the cockpit, especially in human factors issues, including the controls and instruments. "This has dovetailed nicely with designing the spaceship," Agold said. "Having the simulator really helped."

The simulator is controlled from a control room upstairs from the former paint booth the land-based cockpit occupies. A console behind the simulator is used by an instructor who listens to the cockpit conversations and can creat "challenges" to the mission, such as technical glitches and other events that pilots may encounter on their passenger-carrying flights into space from Mojave.

One minor problem the team encountered is that the scenery projectors are mounted on the ceiling. "When the Mojave winds are really blowing, the scenery jiggles," Siebold said with a smile.

My landing of SpaceShipTwo was perfect until about half-way down the runway when I began to veer to the right off the runway. Not being a pilot I forgot to use the rudder pedals to control my rollout. My patient mentors stopped me before I could run into one of the Boeing 747s parked realistically in the airport boneyard, another of the many realistic touches (including the Mojave Public Utility District sewer ponds) that replicate the electronically-generated scenery that makes the simulation so much like the real thing. I could almost smell the fumes from the ponds!

When SpaceShipTwo begins to carry real passengers into the dark skies of space, their flights will be possible because of the genius and ingenuity of two guys named Agold and Siebold....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Phantom Phun

In a world of computerized multi-billion dollar fighters, it's good to know there's a bit of old-style muscle still flying around. When BAE Systems sends up the latest QF-4s for an FCF, in a full-burner takeoff, you can feel what a fighter is supposed to sound like....

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Gotta just love those Mojave winds....

Results of some gusty zephyrs over the weekend....

Sunday, September 7, 2008

WhiteKnightOne Tests Project CHLOE Pod at Mojave

Northrop Grumman has begun flight testing an anti-MANPADS infrared countermeasures pod onboard its Scaled Composites WhiteKnightOne aircraft at Mojave, California. NG has been contracted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to perform the tests as a part of Project CHLOE.

NG has modified one of the countermeasures pods that had been flight tested by FedEx as a part of the commercial "Guardian" program for use at high altitudes. According to Jack Pledger, Director of Infrared Countermeasures Program at NG's Business Development unit, the flight tests are part of a concept demonstration to use a high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles to loiter above commercial airports and protect aircraft from man-launched heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. WhiteKnight is acting as a "surrogate UAV" for the tests, said Pledger.

The current tests are being flown to verify the pod's altitude capabilities in advance of demonstrations to take place next month against threats, in which NG hopes to show that the pod can detect a missile launch and "put energy on the target from high altitude", stated Pledger.

The primary concept being explored under Project CHLOE is to use a UAV circling for up to 24 hours at 65,000 feet above a major airport which is equipped for the dual role of detecting and defeating a heat-seeking missile launched against an airliner. Other systems, such as the Northrop Grumman Guardian, CAMPS and Flight Guard have been developed which would be mounted on individual commercial aircraft, but such systems can cost upwards of US$1 million per plane, and airlines would prefer a more workable and affordable solution over using equipment that they have to both pay for and then maintain. The program is the result of a congressional directive to the DHS to explore technology options parallel with the development of aircraft-mounted systems.

The proposed UAVs would have a long loiter time, up to 24 hours per flight, so that there would be a "perpetual orbit", of an aircraft above an airport. The system would have all-weather capabilities to scan a threat envelope of a three mile radius around the airport, and air traffic up to an altitude of 18,000 feet, plus standard approach and departure corridors up to 65 miles from airports. The system would be required to respond to a threat within three to ten seconds. It would also have to be unaffected by ground clutter which could mimic the signature of a missile launch. Admiral Jay M. Cohen, DHS' technology chief was quoted by Fox News as saying, "One of these devices flying above 60,000 feet would cover all of the commercial airports in the L.A. County area."

According to DHS literature, there are three objectives to Project CHLOE development. The first is to "investigate and demonstrate the feasibility of persistent stand-off Counter-MANPADS protection". This includes using one or more UAVs stationed over airports which are equipped with both warning systems and countermeasures systems, or using UAVs networked with ground-based countermeasures. The UAVs would be autonomous in their flight and detection operations.

The second objective is to "investigate and demonstrate DHS missions and payloads that are compatible with CHLOE technology platform and operating environment." These secondary roles for the UAVs would include emergency and disaster relief support, support of the Customs and Border Patrol and Coast Guard for border and maritime surveillance and interdiction, and critical infrastructure monitoring.

The third objective is integrate such technologies into the air traffic control system and other law enforcement agencies for overall situational awareness.

Civilian pilot groups have expressed concern about impact of drone operations in civilian airspace, especially during takeoff and landing. During the actual loitering, the drones will not be a factor to civilian air traffic, since they will be above the national airspace. DHS is also addressing concerns about the danger to people on the ground from lasers being directed downward, as well as concerns over a falling defeated missile.

The project's name refers to the character "Chloe O'Brian" from the television show 24, which is Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's favorite show.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Only in Mojave: Handicap Parking for a C-130

Only in Mojave . . . can a C-130 get a handicap parking sticker!

Actually, what happened was this: Because of a series of fatal crashes involving older C-130A being used as fire fighting airtankers, the U.S. Forest Service grounded the entire civilian C-130 tanker fleet, a highly politicized decision, including TBM's Tanker 64. The plane has now found a job as a flight test aircraft for Mojave's ASB Avionics, and while this might be nothing more than a prank, I suspect that this is actually a savvy commentary on the crippling of the U.S. aerial firefighting fleet, most of which (including this plane), are perfectly good, safe aircraft.