Monday, June 30, 2008

Fire Season...with a Vengeance!

While the Midwest is drowning in floods, out here in California we're baking, and fire season has come upon us yet again, and this time with a roar. With so many fires burning across northern and central california, air attack coordinators are finding themselves very short of tanker resources...too many fires, too few airframes.

So when the Piute Fire broke out over the weekend in the mountains between Mojave and Lake Isabella (roughly at the head of Jawbone Canyon), there were few aerial resources to throw at it. By this afternoon, only four planes, two CalFire S-2F3AT Turbine Trackers and two Air Tractor 802 SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) were tanking out of the USFS base at Fox Field, about 30 miles south of Mojave. Ironic timing, then, that the fire season hits hard just days before the roll-out of the Scaled/Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo, which Burt Rutan has hinted might find a secondary role as, yup, an Air Tanker!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo Photos

Virgin Galactic has released a series of photos for media use showing both the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo under construction at Scaled Composites. Since it's now one month and counting until the formal roll-out of WK2, today's Mojave Skies entry will focus on this giant bird. Virgin has two of these planes on order, and this first one will reportedly be named The Spirit of Steve Fossett.

Source: VG Press Page

(Fine print note: These are media release images, and VG presumably retains copyright, so the Creative Commons provisions don't apply to these.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Planes of Mojave: Special EZes, Part I - World Traveler

This article is the first in an on-going series that will highlight the stories of some of the more unusual aircraft that call Mojave home.

Sitting quietly and innocuously off to the side of the Long-EZ pack at the Rutan Birthday Bash was N26MS, the antithesis of flashy "been there, done that". But it most certainly has been there and done that...since its owner and builder is none other than the first U.S. Commercial Astronaut, Mike Melvill.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat accomplished by this small "homebuilt" is the one documented in a brief block of text adorning one of the EZ's external fuel tanks: the "EAA Friendship World Tour", an eastbound trip around the world undertaken by Melvill and Dick Rutan, each flying their own Long-EZ. Dubbed "around the world in 80 nights", the trip lasted from April 4 through June 24, 1997, logged 232 hours in the air, covered a distance of 33,685 nm, visited 14 countries and crossed all the world's oceans.

The project started out simply enough as a flight by Melvill and his wife back to his country of birth, South Africa, to visit old friends and family. When Melvill's wife decided she'd rather not cross the Atlantic in the back seat of a Long-EZ, Mike approached his good friend Dick Rutan. Rutan agreed to the trip on one condition: once they got to South Africa, they'd keep going the rest of the way around the globe. Unlike Rutan's Voyager flight, this global trip would begin and end in good ol' Mojave.

The pair left pair left Mojave on April 4th and stopped off at the Sun 'n' Fun airshow in Florida before heading south, island hopping through the Carribean and on down the east coast of South America. While crossing the 185 nm-wide mouth of the Amazon River, they also crossed the Equator. Melvill later wrote in an article in Sport Aviation, "I couldn't cross the equator for the first time in my own plane upright, could I? Rolling inverted as we crossed the equator was irresistible." The Atlantic was crossed on a stormy night in a 14.8-hour flight from Recife direct to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. After landing, they discovered that Rutan's Long-EZ had blown it main oil seal and lost 2/3 of its oil. And amazingly, the little FBO in Abidjan had a new seal in stock!

On another 14-hour leg, from Abidjan to Windhoek, Namibia, the tired pair flew all night only to be told by ATC when they arrived over the city that the main airport wouldn't open for another two hours, and that a stiff $900 fine would be incurred if they attempted a Melvill and Rutan entered a holding pattern at 11,000 feet until, tired and grumpy, they finally were allowed to touch down. The longest leg, from Reunion Island to the small Cocos Island atoll, took 17 hours (if you've ever sat in a Long-EZ cockpit, you will appreciate this feat!). According to Melvill, the final leg of the trip, a measly 1.4 hour hop from Calexico to Mojave "seemed interminable although we were flying as fast as the planes would fly. Eventually we flew over the Scaled building on the Mojave airport and entered downwind for runway 26. We were astonished to find a crowd of friends and family waving American flags to welcome us home."

Rutan later commented in an interview for The Space Review, "Although the EZ world flight wasn’t based on super-long-range endurance, we had plenty of time over the middle of oceans in the dark of night wondering when we’d see dry land again. The good part is the goals of the Friendship Tour were realized. We made a lot of wonderful friends, saw some beautiful countrysides in lands far away, and experienced some incredible receptions along the way."

The return to Mojave didn't end N26MS's association with around-the-world adventures. In 2004, as Scaled flight tested the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, in which record-setter Steve Fossett would later set a solo around-the-world non-stop flight record, Mike and his Long-EZ would occasionally be called upon to fly chase.

Perhaps the saddest flight that N26MS ever took place in, though, occurred ten years later, on July 31, 2007, when the world traveler took part in a memorial flight in memory of the three Scaled Composites employees who were killed in an explosion during a SpaceShipTwo systems test. As Mike flew left wing behind the company's Beech Duchess, fellow Long-EZ pilot Doug Shane pulled away in the classic "missing man" salute.

For more information:
-Mike's detailed account of the round-the-world flight
-Dick Rutan's page on the flight, including a link where logs of the flight can be purchased
-The Space Review's interview with Dick Rutan

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hawaiian Farewell

For the past seven years, Hawaiian Airlines DC-9-50s have been a fixture at Mojave, and now the last one, N420EA, is being scrapped. The plane, c/n 47689, was originally delivered new to Hawaiian in 1975 as N639HA, but spent three years, from 1988 to 1991 flying for Eastern Airlines, before heading back to the Pacific (but keeping the EA registration for a souvenier). The photo on the right was taken on June 13th. The cockpit section has is in the upper left.

This last Hawaiian maiden didn't go without a moment of glory, however. Like a few others before her, she became a TV star for a fleeting moment, along with N603DC. With wings shorn, and a USAir DC-9-30 main cabin door standing in, a bomb was placed in a passenger seat by the producers of the TV show SmashLab to test bomb-proofing techniques, and tearing a nice hole in the side of the fuselage (right).

N420EA enjoying a Mojave sunrise in December, 2002

When all the Maidens were here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rutan Brothers' Birthday Bash

This weekend saw the Mojave Airport being once again invaded with "fast glass"...dozens and dozens of home-built aircraft, most of which were Burt Rutan designs. The occasion? The celebration of the Rutan Brothers' birthdays, a Mojave-style bash with the theme of "Around and Out of this World". Dick's birthday is July 1 (he'll be 70) and Burt's is June 17 (a spry 65). This year's bash was a repeat of the one five years ago, but with the roll-out of White Knight Two imminent - and the Scaled hangar doors firmly closed against sneak peaks - the celebration was held on the east end of Mojave's flightline, away from the company's buildings. Instead, Flight Test Associates and XCOR Aerospace helped host the festivities - which also served as a benefit for the Mojave Transportation Museum - and also showed off the ultimates in small canard aircraft: the EZ-Rocket and the Velocity-based Rocket Racer.

To the cheer of the crowd, Robert Sherer's gorgeous Beech Starship, the "big brother" to the multitudes of Long-EZs present, taxied into position at the head of the pack. Since Raytheon decided to seek out and destroy most of the existing Starships, there reportedly is now only five left flying in the US.

During the ceremonies, Dick Rutan was presented with a special honor from XCOR's Chief Test Engineer, Doug Jones, who honored Dick with a plaque commemorating his being named the innaugural member of The 7700 Club, a humorous poke at all the in-flight emergencies Dick has managed to live through. During his Air Force career, Dick twice had to eject from his F-100 Super Saber, once from enemy fire, and once from an engine failure (for his service to America, Dick received the Silver Star, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals and a Purple Heart...quite the collection!). As Jones said, the plaque was presented in "recognition of his round-the-world flight (one long continuous emergency) and all his other adventures involving over-enthusiastic rocket engines, popped balloons, the North Pole, runaway trim, blown cylinders... since he's had to squawk the emergency transponder code so many times, and the number seven has new meaning for him, he might as well do it all the time, save some effort."

Highlights of the 2003 Bash

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


From time to time, folks have asked me if I know about the history of such-and-such a plane, or have asked if I have photos of this or that. If you have requests or suggestions for an article, please feel free to make them as comments to this post. If I have pics in my archive, and if it isn't a hush-hush project that I need to respect, I'd be happy to oblige. Blue skies!!

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Arrivals Board

Over the weekend, two more fuel-guzzling 737-200s arrived for storage, Aloha's N824AL and Tropic (aka Aerotropical) XA-UEL. This is the second time to the Mojave Aircraft Resort for UEL, as it spent time here in 2005 in its former guise as Southwest's N91SW.

Southern Air's latest 747F acquisition, now registered N723SA (formerly JAL Cargo's JA8180), arrived in late May. Southern has three other 747s parked here that are being slowly stripped of parts to support their active fleet.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More Rocket Racer Milestones

A week ago this past Friday, XCOR's Rocket Racer prototype set a couple of new milestones, as the vehicle's flight test program continues. Since it had flown the day before, June 4th, the Friday flight represented the first time the rocket plane had flown on subsequent days. But that wasn't good enough for these rocket scientists, their goal was quicker turn-around, two flights in the same day (fast turn-arounds will be necessary for the active race world).

Through the ever-present Mojave Desert heat distortion, the Rocket Racer can be seen waiting its turn on Runway 30 as a National Test Pilot School Saab SK-35 Draken lands.

In addition, because the Rocket Racers will have to perform aerobatics in between the course pylons, the two June 5th flights included some gentle aerobatic work, including an Immelmann and inverted flight.

After the first flight of the day, once the Rocket Racer rolled to a stop on Taxiway Charlie, excess LOX had to be purged, resulting in a dramatic photo and a distict improvement in Mojave's air quality!

From what I understand, XCOR's flight test program will now be standing down for a few weeks as improvements are incorporated into the vehicle...but stay tuned...this will only get more exciting as the full envelope of the Racer is explored!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Flower Power!

The Mojave Desert is in bloom and 1960s Flower Power is back, in the form of Aloha's retiring retro 737-230 N823AL, named Liholiho. The flashy "Funbird" arrived at FTA's hangar Wednesday evening, June 11, and will likely end up in the tear-down yard. All flowers eventually die, right?

N823AL is a 1985 model, the 1,078th to roll off the Boeing 737 assembly line and was originally delivered to Lufthansa. Aloha picked her up in 1996, and ten years later, Aloha celebrated their 60th anniversary (they started as charter carrier Trans-Pacific Airlines) with a retro $39 one-way inter-island fare and the roll out of their retro "Funbird" livery, complete with flight attendants in bright 1960s miniskirts.

According to the Hawaii Travel Newsletter, "Orange was the "in" color when Aloha rolled out its new Boeing 737 aircraft in 1969. The Funbird design featured a spray of bright yellow, gold and orange plumeria on the plane’s orange tail, a swath of orange across the fuselage and the name Aloha in bold orange letters. Legend has it that the president of Boeing was appalled by the design but it was an instant hit with the flying public. And Aloha Airlines ordered new orange-hued Flower Power uniforms to go with it."

The plane is named Liholiho in honor of one of the kings of Hawaii. Liholiho was born in 1797, the son of Kamehameha the Great. When he assumed the throne upon his father's death in 1819, he became Kamehameha II. At the time, Hawaii's cultural life was ruled by the strict ancient religious code called the kapu system, and Kamehameha II abolished this. Hawaii was an independent nation then, though under a British protectorate. Five years into his rule, Kamehameha traveled to England to meet with King George IV to finalize Hawaii's independent status, but sadly, upon his arrival in Great Britain, both Kamehameha II and his wife contracted the measles, and died before the meeting of the two kings could take place.

Right: Liholiho's age is showing, in terms of boilerplate-style skin doublers filled with rivets, a stark reminder of Aloha's Flight 243, the "convertable" 737 in which skin cracking progressed to full-scale structural failure.

The Hawaii Travel Newsletter
History of Liholiho
Honolulu Star Bulletin article on the 60th anniversary, complete with some neat history notes
Wikipedia article on Flight 243
The HNL RareBirds blog has a lot of photos of when the Funbird first debuted, including the great crew uniforms!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hangar 161 Adieu

Today was the final day of existence for Mojave's Hangar 161, the third-oldest currently on the airport. The building was constructed during World War II by the U.S. Marine Corps, when the Mojave Airport was better known as Marine Corps Air Station Mojave.

For the last couple of decades, 161 has housed the offices of Flight Research, Inc., the commercial "sister" of the National Test Pilots School. The wooden building long outlived its usefulness, and was demolished to make way for a larger building that will house FRI and NTPS aircraft. Hangar 161 also was a movie star of sorts, and appeared in the last few moments of the Jodie Foster movie Flightplan, as it stood in for a hangar supposedly in Gander, Newfoundland.

In the late-50s photo on the right, Hangar 161 is the closest to the camera, the other four hangars being the original USMC hangars (of these, only two still stand, one housing XCOR Aerospace and the other Mercy Air Service).

Left - On a rare winter day in the 1970s when snow can still be seen on the ground, two C-133s and two Boeing 377s sit on a flightline that's dramatically different than today. Hangar 161 is the farthest from the camera in this image.

They just don't build them like this anymore! In an era when steel was desperately needed for other war effort projects, complex wooded trusses were used.

Below - it took less than four hours for the demolition crew to reduce the building to kindling.