Wednesday, April 29, 2009

WK2 and the Media

Although blogs are often a place of editorializing, I don’t generally do that here, because Mojave Skies is more suited to be a source of news and information about the unique activities that take place at Mojave. But, today I’m making an exception, because of the way recent events have garnered world-wide media attention. 

I’m speaking, of course, about the tail strike that occurred at the end of the fourth test flight of Scaled Composites’ WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. After an envelope-pushing four-hour flight (the takeoff is pictured here), the crew of WK2 executed a touch-and-go in crosswind conditions when the aircraft experienced an asymmetric thrust condition, resulting in the bottom of the left rudder scraping the ground and a few moments of pilots truly earning their pay (hat’s off to Pete for such a fine job of airmanship).

What also resulted was a confluence of media attention that surprised many. Traditionally, Scaled Composites refrains from commenting publicly after test flights, a combination of their near-legendary secrecy and a desire to let their customer direct the material that the media receives. In this case, their customer is Virgin Galactic, which as part of the Virgin Group, has a reputation for stage-managing as much as possible any and all media coverage. As they’re in the business of selling tickets, they naturally want to maximize their efforts, and control all the forces that affect them.

The end product has been, up to the release of Scaled's statement, a lot of official silence, punctuated with the release of a couple of in-flight photos, a fluffy promo video, and continual pronouncements from Virgin’s Will Whitehorn that the program is progressing “flawlessly”. And yet, as the schedule slips further and further (Sir Richard pronounced in the media, not that long ago, that he expected to take his family into space in his new chariot in 2009), and structural changes appear on Eve, industry watchers, who are not exactly dummies when it comes to aerodynamics, scratch their heads and wonder what in the “flawless” program could be motivating such expensive and time-consuming design changes. The consequent media discussion let to, remarkably, a rather frank and detailed press release from Scaled explaining exactly what was going on. Such openness, at last, has resulted in “Bravos!” all around.

The toll has been regrettable. Lost in the hubbub has been what really is going on, which is that Rutan’s hard-working crew is laboring to hand-build a man-rated space launch system, and breaking new aviation design ground every step of the way. In such a learn-as-you go endeavor, there’s bound to be things that are first tried, then changed, then tried again. There is nothing wrong with that…that’s the basic world of flight test. I know from my own experiences, having once worked in this segment of aviation, that in the flight test industry, everyone lives by the concept of “lessons learned”, in which the goal of each flight is to learn more about the vehicle, its peculiarities and then to hone the design. “Lessons learned” is the frank evaluation of the results, good, bad and ugly, from each flight. In the Virgin Galactic program, we have the unique collision of the world of flight test, with its habits, and the Virgin world of promotional PR, with its habits. 

Maybe what could best come out of all of this, as Burt and Will sit clearly frustrated with the course of events outside of their control, is that the concept of “lessons learned” can be picked up by the PR folks over in the UK. And one of the most important lessons, it seems to me, is of the importance of openness in this new world of ours. If Virgin Galactic (and them specifically, since Scaled defers to the customer) had an on-site full-time media representative who was dually familiar with the world of flight test and the world of the media, who would hold periodic mini-press-teleconferences, who provided a frank review to the media of the results of each test flight, think of how much better this whole thing could have been handled. 

Customers and potential ticket-buyers would have that much more confidence that they are getting the straight scoop about the vehicle that they’re entrusting their lives to, the media would have real, accurate information to present to its viewers, and people in general would have a much better understanding of what goes into developing tomorrow’s aircraft today. Had such a person been in place and doing his or her job last week, every little bit of frustration that was experienced by the folks on both sides of the Atlantic would never have occurred. Such a lesson-learned about open communications would be to the vast benefit of all concerned.

As a side note to the media events, and maybe to get everyone back on track to appreciating the uniqueness of these aircraft, the occasion of the 4th test flight was the first time that I'm aware of that WK1 and WK2 were on the ramp at the same time, above. Also out, while WK2 was up flying, was Proteus, below, making for a very unique morning when all of Burt's big double-boom designs graced the Mojave flightline.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mojave Plane Crazy Saturday Photos

This month's Plane Crazy Saturday was also tied in with the annual "Yuri's Night" festivities. This is a celebration of space achievement, typically held on April 12th, the day of Yuri Gagarin's launch as the first man into space, and also the date of the first Space Shuttle launch (for more info, visit Representing Mojave's growing space development industry were XCOR Aerospace with several engines and their EZRocket, and Masten Space Systems displaying their rocket engine test stands. Right: XCOR's Aleta Jackson explains the concept of mach diamonds in a rocket's exhaust plume to a fascinated youngster.

Left:XCOR also makes really classy tables! Right: Masten's Ben Brockert explains some upcoming rocket engine testing that they will be doing for their X Prize Cup efforts.

Aleta Jackson kindly provided the two photos below. Left: "A young lad who wants to be a rocketship pilot poses by the EZ-Rocket." Right"A goodly representation of what happens at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Rockets, bi-planes, general aviation, a MiG, and the Nemisis NXT."

Left: Always a favorite is this stunning red Cessna 195 which lives at the nearby private Ancient Valley airport. Right: Hollywood aerial stunt coordinator Mike Patlin brought his latest student pilot and a gorgeous Siai-Marchetti SF-260C over.

Ronny and Paula Alldredge of Tehachapi brought down their gorgeously restored Beech T-34 Mentor for the first time. This plane was built in 1955 and served in the USAF before being transfered to the Indonesian Air Force in 1961. The Alldredges brought it back to the states in 1988 and did a wonderful job making it look new again.

An unexpected treat was the appearance of two Aero L-39s, which happened to arrive for lunch unaware that a public event was underway. 

Making it's first Plan Crazy Saturday appearance this month was Bob "Stambo" Stambovsky's ex-RAF BAC Mk5A Jet Provost, which was once based at Mojave, but now lives down at Fox Field.

After the crowds had headed home, Mojave warbird collector and restorer Al Hansen took the opportunity to do a few high-speed taxi runs and short hops in his latest rebuild project, a T-28 Trojan (which had been on display earlier in the day). Congrats, Al, that radial engine sure sounded good!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cal City Recon

If you think the town of Mojave is out in the middle of nowhere, you've never been to the bustling metropolis of California City! Bypassed by both Hwys 14 and 58, Cal City is the home of a prison and not much more, so housing prices are some of the cheapest in all of southern California. The place does, however, have a pretty nifty airport, which is popular amongst the skydiving and gliding crowds. Here's a bit of an overview of the oddities to be found out there....

Below:Cal City is the base of operations for Baja Air, which operates a pair of DC-3s and a Cessna 414 in charter service down to Cabo.

Stuffed out behind some hangars on the east end of the airport are a bunch of what look like unfinished Curtis P-40 mockups, presumably from a movie set. If anyone has any information on the background of these, please leave a comment below! 

Cal City seems to have attracted more than its fair share of Fouga Magisters. The one above is marked "221", while the flyable ones, below, are (from top): N315VB, N315MB and N355F. (These shots are posted specifically for my Fouga friends in Finland!)

Completing the collection of the odd and forlorn are a Convair HC-131 sitting in a trailer park (the FAA shows it being registered to the "California Museum of Air and Space") and a rather dusty Yak 52.

Lastly, while leaving Mojave, I grabbed a shot of the Fun Bird for my good friends at Aloha!

Only in Mojave: Anyone Seen the Garage Door Remote?

Only in Mojave . . . do you need a garage door remote to get into a 747!

This ex-Continental 747-200 is now gone, but for years it sat at Mojave complete with a rollup garage door on its nose, leading to many questions from puzzled passers-by. The 747, and an ex-Korean A-300 sitting next to it, were owned by Telair International, a German company that specializes in developing cargo loading systems for large aircraft. For any such system to become approved (the approval is called a "Supplementary Type Certificate", or STC) for use in commercial aircraft, it first has to be tested, and Telair used the two retired Mojave-bound airliners as testing and development setups for their systems.