Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 3 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.

The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.

We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.

We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust.

SpaceShipTwo begins to break up as its twin tail booms deploy during powered ascent. (Credit: NTSB/Virgin Galactic)

It was only then that the photographs really began to make sense. We had strong hints that the engine had not been the cause in the hours after the accident, but we had still been in the dark about what had brought down the ship.

We hadn’t known that the feather had to be unlocked with the engine still firing. Due to a NTSB gag order imposed on Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, nobody was talking in the days that followed the crash.

Placing Blame

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In his new autobiography, Richard Branson makes much of this mistake and other erroneous press reports during that two-day blackout period.  In fact, he spends the better part of six pages venting about how unfair the coverage was to Virgin Galactic in the days following the loss of SpaceShipTwo.

“Most galling was the attempt by some in the press to cast doubt on Virgin Galactic’s absolute commitment to safety,” he writes, ignoring the fact that his space company had significantly shortened the flight test program. (See part 2 of this series, A Bad Day at Koehn Lake)

Branson has legitimate complaints. The initial reports were erroneous, as they often are in fast-moving events like this one. I made a mistake – an honest one. And I have felt badly about that ever since. But, I wasn’t alone in thinking an explosion had occurred.

SpaceShipTwo debris on the desert floor. (Credit: Jason_DiVenere)

I think we might have realized our mistake if we had been able to reach more of SpaceShipTwo’s wreckage that morning. The road leading to the largest piece, which we had tracked down to the ground, was blocked by road construction.

We took a detour only to be blocked again by the wreckage of the spaceship’s cockpit, which had slammed into the side of the road with Alsbury’s body still strapped in its seat. It was a grisly scene I will never forget.

Branson’s focus on the press is excessive given the enormity of what happened that day. Even if we had gotten it right from the start, that wasn’t going to bring back Alsbury, put SpaceShipDumpty back together again, or erase the fact that Branson’s little space program had claimed its fourth victim in 10 years without getting anywhere near its intended destination.

Mike Alsbury

Alsbury had made a much more serious mistake, one that cost him his life. I felt a helluva lot worse for him, his wife and children, and all of his relations, friends and  colleagues. Alsbury was a good man who was much loved and respected by those who knew him. His loss was deeply felt within the small Mojave aerospace community.

Not that Branson devotes much time to that. It’s only after he spends six pages attacking the press that he addresses the human tragedy involved. The billionaire spends three fairly generic paragraphs – less than a page – talking about the brave pilot who had died testing his space plane.

Branson didn’t really know Alsbury well, although they met at least once when the billionaire congratulated him and Mark Stucky following SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight. So, there would be an understandable shortage of stories to recount about their personal interactions.

Even so, Branson could have included something –  a story someone told about Alsbury at the memorial service, an anecdote from a friend  or family member – to give readers a sense of who the man was and the legacy he left behind.

We do find out that Branson has a short meeting with Alsbury’s family at the memorial service. For whatever reason, we learn nothing of what was said; we don’t even learn the names of the pilot’s widow and two children.

Perhaps this is to protect their privacy. But, the whole section comes off as a bit cold.

Pilot Error, Neither Pure Nor Simple

SpaceShipTwo right boom wreckage. (Credit: NTSB)

When I wrote earlier that the six pages of press criticism seemed excessive, there’s one reason that I did not mention. That passage is about six pages more than Branson devotes to criticizing anyone who bore any actual responsibility for the fatal flight. The lone exception, of course, being Alsbury.

Branson boils the crash down to two words: pilot error. That’s it. No other contributing factors. No larger problems with the program, with safety practices or with government oversight. Nothing. The co-pilot just made a mistake.

This is not what the NTSB found. The safety board determined the probable cause of the accident was

Scaled Composite’s failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced.

This wasn’t simply pilot error. It was a failure of imagination that reflected a flawed safety culture. Scaled hadn’t considered everything that could go wrong and mitigated for these possibilities. It had shown too much confidence in its pilots, and hadn’t trained them sufficiently in the dangers of unlocking the feather prematurely.

It wasn’t the first time that a lack of due diligence on safety had proven fatal in the SpaceShipTwo program. The first had occurred seven years earlier when a tank full of nitrous oxide that everyone considered perfectly safe exploded without warning during a test, killing three Scaled engineers who hadn’t cleared the area around the test stand.

SpaceShipTwo Enterprise was essentially a hand-flown ship. There were no sophisticated computers or auto pilot to assist the crew.  A FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST) safety expert told the NTSB that the workload that Alsbury and Pete Seibold experienced on the flight was the highest he had ever seen for any pilots in any vehicle.

This official – and other safety experts who had come over to FAA AST after NASA’s space shuttle program ended – knew that even experienced astronauts made mistakes. The shuttle’s systems, procedures and training were designed to prevent any single human error from bringing down the ship during ascent.

In 135 shuttle flights, pilot error never caused a fatal accident. The same was true for all of NASA’s crewed space missions going all the way back to Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961.

So, why did Scaled assume that their pilots would never make a mistake? And why didn’t FAA AST’s safety experts catch the error and require the company to address pilot error?

It turns out they had caught the problem, but they couldn’t convince management to do anything about it.

Dueling Mandates & Outside Pressure

In 2012, Scaled Composites submitted an application to FAA AST for an experimental permit to begin SpaceShipTwo powered flights. The documentation included a systems safety analysis (SSA) that detailed potential failures and how the company would address them.

The SSA was evaluated by an official without a lot of safety experience who concluded the analysis as meeting statutory requirements. FAA AST issued a renewable, one-year experimental permit in May 2012. Scaled began flight powered tests the following April.

In the year that followed the permit approval, some of the office’s more experienced safety experts reviewed the SSA and concluded it didn’t really meet the standards laid out in the regulations for a piloted space vehicle.

The safety experts wanted Scaled Composites to redo the analysis for review before the permit was renewed. The main drawback was that this would have delayed flight testing in a program that was already running years behind schedule and had already cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In deciding what to do, FAA AST’s management had to balance several competing priorities. For one, the office has a dual mandate to oversee the safety of these flights while at the same time promoting the nascent commercial human spaceflight industry.

The office’s safety oversight is also limited. It was not focused on protecting the pilots involved in the tests or ensuring mission success. FAA AST also cannot write safety regulations to protect passengers on commercial space vehicles until after there is an accident or close call.

Instead, FAA AST is limited to protecting the “un-involoved public.” Examples include preventing people on the ground from getting hit by debris if a spacecraft crashes, and making sure a vehicle that explodes while being fueled at a spaceport didn’t hurt anyone not involved in the operation.

Officials within the office were split about whether it was really necessary for Scaled to redo the analysis. Some felt it was sufficient as it had been originally submitted. There were concerns about the fairness of making Scaled resubmit something FAA AST had originally approved.

FAA AST safety experts later told NTSB investigators that there was a lot of political pressure to approve tests and permits in order to keep programs on schedule. This pressure was not limited to Scaled and SpaceShipTwo, but it was across the board.

After an internal debate, FAA AST management decided the analysis complied with the statute’s requirements even if it didn’t meet the exact letter of the law. The permit was renewed in May 2013 and renewed again the following year.

FAA AST’s George Nield

Two months later after the first renewal, the office issued a safety waiver signed by FAA AST Associate Administrator George Nield exempting Scaled from the requirements concerning pilot error and software error. The waiver listed a number of mitigating actions the company was taking during powered flights to protect the un-involved public if an accident occurred.

Fifteen months after the waiver was issued, SpaceShipTwo was brought down by pilot error that Scaled hadn’t properly evaluated. The mitigation efforts mentioned in the waiver came very close to not protecting a pair of truck drivers on the ground who barely missed getting hit by cockpit debris with Alsbury’s body.

A Selected Retelling

Branson mentions none of this in his book. He doesn’t criticize Scaled for its poor safety analysis. Or for not training the pilots properly.

He doesn’t blame the FAA AST for accepting the flawed analysis. Or for failing to correct its mistake once safety experts pointed it out. Or for issuing a safety waiver for pilot error for a hand-flown spacecraft.

He also absolves his own company of any blame. “We’ve been crucified [in the press] in the last few days for an accident that wasn’t our fault,” Branson tells Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides after the accident.

When the nitrous oxide tank exploded in 2007, Virgin Galactic had no in-house expertise to check up on what Scaled was doing; it was primarily a marketing and sales operation at that point. By the time powered flights began, the company had hired hundreds of engineers who were in the process of building a second SpaceShipTwo.

Why did Virgin let Scaled get away with such a poor safety analysis? Was it comfortable conducting tests under the FAA AST ‘s waiver? What sort of pressure did it apply on Scaled and FAA AST to keep the program on track? Who thought that beginning commercial service after only six powered flights constituted an “absolute commitment to safety”?

Branson provides no answers to these questions.

The Unspoken Truth

As history, autobiographies can be extremely unreliable. In retelling the story of his life, the author is more liable than not to paint his actions in the best possible light while spinning or ignoring altogether anything that reflects badly on him or doesn’t fit the narrative.

That is certainly true here.That doesn’t mean the book is uninteresting, just incomplete.

The author recounts star-studded dedications of the runway and Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America. His first-hand accounts of the hair-raising flights of SpaceShipOne are exciting. You can feel his excitement as he watches SpaceShipTwo light its engine for the first time. And he waxes eloquently about his historic mission to open space up to the masses and why it must continue despite the tragedies.

But, for the really dramatic moments, when horrendous accidents put good men in their graves and left the program on the edge of ruin, Branson’s account is far more interesting for what it leaves out than for what it reveals. Ever the promoter, he has created a portrait of his space program that he wants us to see, not the one that exists.

It’s all to protect the Virgin brand. And, when the brand is the man and the man is brand, as is the case with Branson and Virgin, that becomes an exercise and personal and professional self preservation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for a very good book.

The Series

Part I: Richard Branson’s Memoir Gets Lost in Space

Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake

Part III: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

  • Lee

    I stand behind my comment of a year or so ago (for which I was roundly criticized here): The second SS2 will also end up a smoking hole in the ground, and this program will end. At least I hope it will. Hopefully, the second catastrophic failure won’t kill anyone.

  • HyperJ

    Thanks Doug! Another great series on this very fascinating venture. I do hope all their work pays off at some point, but I fear the worst.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It will be difficult not to kill someone since it doesn’t have a real escape system. Like the old DC-3 your only option is to put on a chute and jump out the door.

  • ThisismyBOOMstick

    Or jump in an inflatable life raft.

  • Robert G. Oler

    this is really quite good

    there are two types of Pilot Error…carelessness and mistakes brought on by contributing circumstances…the former is simply unacceptable individual behavior

    the latter is a function of the safety system in which pilots (and others) operate in.

    Test pilots by their very nature are assumed to have a higher level of error free performance avoiding mistakes…no one is perfect of course…but test flights are far different then routine operations…ie they are unique, heavily planned, briefed to the second of the time line and flown by “very capable” pilots

    so the level of “internal safety systems” in a test machine is always “less” UNLESS the machine under test is a production prototype. then of course things change

    and that is where this project was at…ie they were testing a vehicle for “routine” ops . what reached up and bit them was a failure that was in my view mostly pilot “mistake” but one which if it didnt bite them here…would have gotten them in routine operations…

    the equivelent in a transport category airplane is trying to take off with no flaps…

    that they did not see this earlier…and have standard safety protocols in place…is a little alarming at least to me
    Robert

  • Robert G. Oler

    Tom. you mention the Goony bird. and reading that just made me have a thought.

    from what I have read Branson et al (well his pilot shop) have picked a kind of flying that I suspect that they dont have much experience with

    in th 30’s the DC3s had a bare min autopilot…it had some basic features, altitude hold, heading hold…but very little else (the VOR structure did not exist and an LF range cannot be flown by autopilot)

    and frequently the heading select/alt hold function didnt work all that well. When I got my DC3 type rating a long time ago…one quickly found out that when you were the “flying pilot” that really meant you were the flying pilot…not todays “flying pilot” which really means that you are mostly operating the autopilot.

    there is nothing wrong with flying like that…but it does mean that who ever is the flying pilot depends on the non flying pilot heavily to operate the systems because there is little time for cross checking

    in this case…it killed them

  • Michael Halpern

    I have no respect for anyone who can’t accept their own mistakes, and less for anyone so neglegent about safety,

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I have witnessed fatal plane crashes in front of my eyes on two occasions: Once was a mid-air during air race at an airshow where pilot Dick Goodlett was killed the other was wing walker (Jane Wicker, FAA employee) and pilot were killed when performing low level, inverted maneuver (CFIT).

    This was particularly rough for me because Wicker was on the wing at the time and I was center show only a few rows back. She raised her hands had the Steerman diverted into the deck. In both airshows (dead of summer) rough winds/rain rolled in shortly after the event occurred. I can’t help but think these precise low level maneuver might have been compromised by some wind gusts ahead of the front rolling in only less that an hour after the incidents.

    These incidents are tragic but don’t haunt me because I know they understood the risk they were embarking on and dong what the loved. Death is part and parcel with life. Lots of people die in much more mundane circumstances.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Jane Wicker was a class act

  • Douglas Messier

    One issue I didn’t mention was that Virgin Galactic’s top safety official, Jon Turnipseed, left the company in December 2013. He wasn’t replaced until after the SpaceShipTwo accident. During that whole period, he was still on the website as VP of safety even though he had reportedly moved to Idaho.

    The VP of safety has a wide range of responsibilities, including overseeing the flight test program, being liaison to FAA AST on testing and launch licensing issues, and preparing for the move down to New Mexico and the start of commercial flights. Given that they were trying finish the flight test program and begin customer flights throughout 2014, it’s amazing they didn’t fill that position during that period.

    “Absolutely commitment to safety” with no VP of safety….well, OK….

  • Robert G. Oler

    One issue I didn’t mention was that Virgin Galactic’s top safety
    official, Jon Turnipseed, left the company in December 2013. He wasn’t
    replaced until after the SpaceShipTwo accident. During that whole
    period, he was still on the website as VP of safety even though he had
    reportedly moved to Idaho.

    this would not be allowed at a Part 121 airline

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I wouldn’t assume that the flight card was heavily examined. Procedure had the co-pilot unlock the feather at a velocity rather than an altitude. The feather was unlocked to make sure that it could be unlocked as the airframe would overspeed and it would be difficult if not impossible to control coming down after a full profile burn. I was told that Mike had been late in unlocking the feather previously and that may have contributed to him unlocking too soon. If there were concern that the locking pins could jam, a system should have been added to destructively disengage the pins with a backup set that could be reengaged on the decent. What surprises me the most is that Pete and Mike signed off on the way that was designed.

    When the SS2 motor is burning, there is severe vibration that makes it hard to read the pilot’s displays. Incorrectly reading the figures could have been an issue. There was the absence of any callouts and confirmations between Mike and Pete that Mike was preparing to unlock the feather and had done so. The NTSB’s comment on the workload could have contributed to that not happening especially if Mike thought that he was late in the unlocking again and he was just catching up with something that would have been assumed to have already been performed.

    Guessing that the motor had exploded was not jumping the gun. The flight was the first with the new Nylon fueled motor and it’s natural to suspect that if there is an issue, the last thing that was changed or modified is the likely culprit. As soon as the information came out about the feather, I went back to my photos and lined up craft as well as I could in each frame and forwarded them to an aerodynamicist that I work with for a fresh look. I was working with a 15mp camera with a 300mm lens and looking straight up over 10 miles so my images were not as detailed as the ones from Mars Scientific. Once we knew to look at the feather, it became obvious that it had moved and in less than a half second, the craft rotated from pointing up to pointing down. The long skinny thing up and to the right in one frame was the motor casing that had been snapped off and flung away with no indication that it had ruptured.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read the NTSB report, but my personal belief is that the combination of unlocking the feather during powered flight and the co-pilot doing so when the craft was under it’s most severe aerodynamic loading led to the incident.

    If I were there, would I have caught the problem? The possibility is pretty high. I’m not a doom and gloom type of person, but I have no problem questioning anything that I don’t understand or agree with. I also constantly run what-if scenarios at least in my head. I know there is no such thing as a perfectly safe system, but the most obvious points of failure need to be worked until they are down in the noise and if one has done the analysis (and written it down), it makes it easier to troubleshoot on the fly.

    Item # XXX – Unlock feather

    What if the feather is unlocked at this speed, or this speed, at this altitude, with this crosswind……..??

    “The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence.” ~Thufir Hawat

  • Search

    Billionaire who never graduated college and without any sort of technical or science training, or any hands on technical experience whatsover running a spaceship company – what could go wrong.

  • Search

    I’ll take the DC-3

  • Search

    ^this. The report makes it clear that they seem to consistantly disregard basic common sense standard design practices for pilot controls. I wager that if you put 100hr different test pilots with similar experience into this situation the results would have been the same. This isn’t “pilot error” its more correctly “error to design system for human pilots”..

  • Douglas Messier

    The two innovations that Rutan was proudest of coming off SpaceShipOne — the feather and the hybrid engine — both turned deadly. Nitrous oxide and rubber. What could go wrong? Boom!

    The feather is simple in theory but complicated in practice. Gotta unlock it Goldilocks style (not too early, not too late) during powered ascent when the pilots are bouncing around with all sorts of things to pay attention to. If it doesn’t unlock, need to abort the flight.

    Then there’s what happens if it doesn’t deploy during reentry. 12 Gs. Maybe not survivable. Even if the can land it, probably can’t fly it ever again.

  • Michael Halpern

    Still there is a difference between racing, air stunts and a test flight on a program supposedly dedicated to safety with a complicated aircraft that lacks the slightest bit of fly by wire, and blaming the now dead pilot.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Lots of people fly airplanes in complicated environments that are not fly-by-wire. Anyone watching Melvill corkscrewing his way up on SS1 had a pretty good idea what was going on there visa-vi stick and rudder type of operation.

    There are a lot of test pilots who tragically died through a combination of factors including their own miscalculations.

    https://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/air-force-pilot-dead-after-classified-crash-at-test-sit-1803132167

    Even fly-by-wire isn’t bullet proof:

    https://www.f-117a.com/792.html

  • Michael Halpern

    True but they should have locked out certain functions that they knew would lead to death if activated prematurely for instance and they didn’t

  • Douglas Messier

    SpaceShipTwo isn’t an airplane. The most striking thing I read in the NTSB transcripts was this:

    “Above 50,000 feet, the game changes.”

    Basically, the safety expert said the minimums are not enough.

    That goes to the heart of what went wrong. Scaled was used to aircraft. It did the safety analysis that way. It was reviewed by someone who was used to airplanes who said it essentially met the minimums. When the experts with space expertise saw it, they realized it was insufficient. They couldn’t get management to require Scaled to redo it.

    Here’s another difference. Airplanes are churned out in mass quantities. If one crashes, others can continue to fly. Sometimes they get grounded for a while if investigators find some problem that could exist in other planes.

    SpaceShipTwo crashes and even though the second one was 65% complete or whatever percentage they claimed, it took about two years for first glide flight. We’re now 3+ years later and they’re not back to where they were at time of crash. You can’t mass produce these things and when one goes down, it can take a while to resume flights.

  • Robert G. Oler

    “There was the absence of any callouts and confirmations between Mike and
    Pete that Mike was preparing to unlock the feather and had done so”

    those are all good comments…this surprises me though

    never having seen even a simulation of the flight I am not in a position to comment on the workload environment (but this is of course the role of Safety and whoever is the chief pilot) …BUT just from what you said…a fundamental part of crew resource management (CRM) is that if one of the pilots is being used as a “configuration changer” then 1) it is done either under the command of the flying pilot and/or 2) if it is to be done at a set milestone in flight a) that milestone is called b) the notice to do a config change is given and 3) that it is happening is called and 4) that is has been done is called.

    So for instance in my boeing if I am the flying pilot the call “gear down” does not have to be acknowledged because it was a command (although my company and Boeing do acknolwedge it by “speed check”) but then the next call out is “gear down three greens” then at some point we will run the landing checklist where the non flying pilot challenges and the flying pilot responds.

    on the other hand we release the cabin crew at 5000 feet and thats done by the non flying pilot who will say “5000 Feet Cabin release” and I will say “affirm” and then its “Cabins up”

    If the feather mechanism is done just at a milestone with no real verbaige between the two crew members…well thats fundamentally unsafe and some safety guy should have caught that.

    and it was an accident waiting to happen…

    it gets harder when the flying pilot is actually “flying the plane/rocket whatever with the control surfaces” .,..for the flying pilot to “say in the systems loop” and that is the purpose of the non flying pilot making the config callouts…if nothing else then to remind the flying pilot “whre we are”

    in addition if the instruments cannot be “read” at any point in the flight due to vibration…thats unsafe as well

    as for being hand flown …well never having flown or seen a simulation even I a not in a position to say if thats to much…and a lot of it would depend on the simulation available

    again good comments on your part Robert

  • Robert G. Oler

    fly by wire is not relevant to the discussion

    the question is, is 🙂 the flying pilot directly manipulating the controls (the slang is “hand flown”) or is the flying pilot manipulating the controls through the autopilot (of any kind)

  • Robert G. Oler

    Douglas…without having seen a simulation even it is hard for me to make a judgment if the ascent and descent profile is “to much” to be hand flown. a lot of things would go into that discussion not the least of which is 1) the simulation tools available and 2) is there a flight director and 3) what kind of energy cues are there.

    what changes above 50K is mainly that you are no longer using control surfaces but have to use some kind of reaction control system…depending on what energy cues are available…thatmight be difficult 🙂

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “Above 50,000 feet, the game changes.”

    U2/SR-71 go/went above 50,000, try again. You think SR-71 over 80K feet having to deal with an Unstart was a walk in the park? Those weren’t test pilots either, they were on operational missions over hostile territory.

    “SpaceShipTwo crashes and even though the second one was 65% complete or whatever percentage they claimed, it took about two years for first glide flight. We’re now 3+ years later and they’re not back to where they were at time of crash.”

    “Airplanes are churned out in mass quantities”

    You mean like the X-15 or XB-70?

    “You can’t mass produce these things and when one goes down, it can take a while to resume flights.”

    That’s a problem for VG and potential customers, not the rest of us.

  • Jeff2Space

    Are flaps and/or landing gear deployment locked out on commercial airliners above a certain speed?

  • Michael Halpern

    Not sure, but the feather being prematurely unlocked was something that they knew would cause it to break up, and with so many things to pay attention to

  • Michael Halpern

    Not just in design but material handling, you do your due diligence research on any substance you bring in to your facilities, you do NOT assume its perfectly safe especially not an oxidizer

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Here is a fancy airliner with all the bells and whistles to prevent pilots from shooting themselves in the foot. People will find a way.

    https://www.tailstrike.com/010609.html

  • Douglas Messier

    U2…SR-71…X-15…XB-70….military vehicles. None of them designed to carry passengers. Only the X-15 flew suborbital above 80 km. That happened 13 times. 1 flight was fatal.

    SpaceShipTwo is not just a really high flying airplane. Branson seems to have made the mistake of thinking of it that way. It’s a rocket plane carrying civilians. It’s a different arena. Closest parallel is probably the shuttle flights that carried civilians.

    Yes, passengers will sign waivers. But, companies are free to say anything they want on safety. So, how informed will they actually be.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    If you drop a couple hundred grand on something like this you ought to have a basic understanding of statistics, physics and access to Google/Youtube. If not, sorry for you…

    Edit: And by you, I don’t mean YOU

  • Dave Salt

    Robert, when you say “it was an accident waiting to happen” I’m reminded of this Far Side cartoon…
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_0bWFoPo2o2c/SRSvg-gRqXI/AAAAAAAAAmY/4BsjLx3m19o/s400/A-Disaster.jpg

  • Robert G. Oler

    yes and no.most commercial airliners have a gear extend speed that is only slightly below the max speed of the plane (gear retract is different there is a max speed there) …

    and in most modern airline airplanes there are flap limiting speeds and automation to help “you” with that. you also if you try and deploy flaps above a set speed (or altitude) get a nasty note from standards as the airplane “phones home”

  • Robert G. Oler

    tail strikes are a common problem

  • Robert G. Oler

    nice 🙂 where is the cabin attendant call button 🙂

    this reminds me of a trip I was taking in business class a few months ago to the US. the guy next to me knew I worked for the airplane (it was not hard to figure out the Cabin crew was addressing me as ‘senior captain” 🙂

    we got into a bit of turbulence over the atlantic and he asked me “what would you do ? and my reply was “push the cabin call button and order another Jack”

    he goes “you are not going to second guess the Captain are you” and my reply was “I dont have a clue about the weather, the mass of the plane or the winds…all it would be is guessing and I never really do that” 🙂

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yes that was cut and paste error from wrong tab. Meant to be this one:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_France_Flight_447

    Actually that was the right event (URL is misleading).

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Which part, having the vacancy or hiring a guy with the last name Turnipseed?