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.


Peter said...


As annoying as I find social networking, it would certainly behove Virgin to get with the 21st century. Perhaps Whitehorn can twitter from time to time on the progress... As long as it's not always "flawless." C'mon now Will, the truth will set you free and your customers respect and appreciate a bit more honesty.

Alan, do you know if Scaled is planning any photo shoots with WK1 and WK2 (both on the tarmac and in the air)? Seeing your photo of the two out at the same time gave me chills... I hope they get both in the air soon for some high quality photos... That's a poster I'd like on my wall!!!

Getting Wk1, WK2 and Proteus all in the air at the same time would be neat too! (hint, hint, Scaled!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for deviating from your normal "news" coverage Alan and venturing into the world of making a normative recommendation as to how the parties might improve. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

What "expensive and time-consuming design changes" have been made to the airplane?