As we did for the previous powered flight in April, photographer Ken Brown and I staked out a position outside the airport fence at the end of Runway 12/30. Test flights usually take off at around 7 a.m., but a technical problem delayed departure by about an hour. As we waited, the desert began to quickly heat up. Temperatures would rise to nearly 100 F later in the day.
This test flight was much more low key than the inaugural one in April, which Sir Richard Branson has announced about six day in advance and then showed up to watch. There was no mention of it by the media until the night before, although it was obvious to almost everyone in Mojave that something was up. WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo stood mated out on the tarmac throughout the day in front of its hangar on the Mojave flight line.
At 8:06 a.m., WhiteKnightTwo lifted off from Runway 12/30. At the far left, you can see a 747, one of dozens of planes set for dis-assembly in the Mojave boneyard. It’s always fascinating to see WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo roll past this aircraft junkyard. A time traveler from 40 years ago would instantly recognize almost every airplane there; designs haven’t really changed much over the decades. What they would make of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo is anyone’s guess. These crafts are true 21st century creations.
Runway 12/30 is 12,500 feet long, but WhiteKnightTwo usually lifts off quickly even when its carrying SpaceShipTwo.
The Virgin Galactic logo seen on the bottom of SpaceShipTwo is, for some reason, a close-up of one of Branson’s eyes. I’ve always found it to be equal parts intriguing and creepy — like it’s watching me or something.
It would take an hour before WhiteKnightTwo would reach the drop altitude of 46,000 feet, so Ken and I stopped over at Stoken Donuts for coffee before heading over to the other side of the airport to photograph the landing.
There was already a crowd of people on the dirt road just beyond Runway 12/30 — some folks had the foresight to their own folding chairs to make the wait more comfortable. As we the sky looking for WhiteKnightTwo, a B-2 bomber flew over head with an enormous roar. It’s really hard to believe that it’s a stealth aircraft; it’s got to be one of the noisiest flying machines ever made. You can hear it for miles!
We finally saw the twin contrails of WhiteKnightTwo, and we listened to the chatter over the radio as the drop neared. Seven minutes, then four and finally the terminal countdown.
“5…4…3…2…1…drop drop drop”
SpaceShipTwo dropped and quickly lit up its engine, soaring skyward on a column of flames and smoke for 20 seconds.
With pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Clint Nichols at the controls, SpaceShipTwo soared to 69,000 feet, its highest altitude ever.
The vehicle would reach a new top speed of Mach 1.43.
After the engine burned out, the pilots were able to test SpaceShipTwo’s feather re-entry system, which will greatly reduce the stress on the vehicle when it re-enters the atmosphere from space.
SpaceShipTwo circled overhead, bleeding off speed as it descended, and then lined up for a landing.
“Does this guy know what he’s doing?” someone exclaimed jokingly, noting the space plane that was barreling toward us seemed really low.
But, no worries. it cleared us — and the airport fence — by a good margin and landed safely on the runway.
As SpaceShipTwo landed, WhiteKnightTwo made a low pass over the crowd and then the field.