Virgin Galactic’s Former Flight Test Director Disputes Company’s Version of Off Course Flight with Richard Branson Aboard

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic’s recently fired flight test director claims that pilot error, not upper-level winds, resulted in the company’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle flying outside of its assigned airspace during a July 11 suborbital flight test that carried the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson. He suggested an independent investigation instead of a company-led one might be required to address the mishap.

Mark Stucky, who Virgin Galactic fired eight days after Branson’s flight, said his former employer put out an inaccurate statement about why VSS Unity flew unauthorized into Class A airspace for 1 minute 41 seconds during its descent. Class A airspace is primarily used by airlines, cargo operators and higher performance aircraft.

“The most misleading statement today was @virgingalactic’s,” Stucky tweeted. “The facts are the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within limits, they did nothing of substance to address the trajectory error, & entered Class A airspace without authorization.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it began in investigation of the incident on July 23. On Aug. 11, the agency declared a mishap had occurred, grounded VSS Unity and ordered Virgin Galactic to begin an investigation with FAA oversight. The company’s only operating space plane remains grounded pending the completion of the investigation and FAA’s sign off on it.

Following Branson’s flight, Virgin Galactic President of President of Space Missions and Safety Michael Moses said the only problem during the flight had been intermittent loss of live video from the passenger cabin where Branson and three company employees were evaluating the customer experience. The loss of video downlink would not have affected VSS Unity‘s trajectory.

The airspace violation was only publicly revealed in a story published by The New Yorker on Sept. 1. The story said pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci got a red light in the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity cockpit during powered ascent indicating the vehicle was off course. The pilots let the engine continue to burn to completion instead of shutting down the engine and aborting the flight as the story’s unnamed sources said they should have done.

VSS Unity veered into Class A airspace where it was not authorized to fly during descent. There is no evidence the spaceship flew close to any other aircraft during its descent to a landing back at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Following public disclosure of the incident, Virgin Galactic released a statement disputing what it called “misleading characterizations and conclusions” in The New Yorker story and defending the actions of the two pilots during the Unity 22 flight.

“Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols. When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company said.

Stucky said Mackay and Masucci should have declared an emergency so controllers could have cleared the airspace below them.

“The predicted reentry point was known for minutes prior. Just because you blindly merged onto a 6 lane highway and didn’t hit anybody before jumping the curb on the other side doesn’t mean it was safe,” Stucky tweeted.

The New Yorker story raised the possibility that the pilots didn’t shut off the engine and abort the flight because they had Branson aboard. The British ex-pat billionaire had been scheduled to take a later test flight; however, he joined the earlier one on July 11.

The decision ensured Branson would reach space nine days before rival Jeff Bezos, who flew aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket on July 20. Branson denied he moved his flight up for this reason. However, a source told Parabolic Arc that’s exactly why it was done.

Virgin Galactic is conducting the mishap investigation with FAA oversight.

“The FAA requires all licensed commercial space transportation operators to have an FAA-approved mishap plan containing processes and procedures for reporting, responding to, and investigating mishaps. Based on the nature and consequences of the mishap, the FAA may elect to conduct an investigation into the event, or authorize the operator to perform the investigation in accordance with its approved mishap plan. During an investigation conducted by the operator, the FAA will provide oversight to ensure the operator complies with its mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements,” a FAA spokesman said.

Stucky said the company-led investigation might be insufficient to address the mishap.

“Even after @FAANews of grounding @virgingalactic following #unity22, there continues to be a huge disconnect between company statements & my take on what went wrong, why, & the pilots’ failures to follow procedures & take appropriate actions. Time for an independent review?” Stucky tweeted.

The New Yorker story said that Stucky was stripped of his responsibilities as director of flight test in May after the publication in May of Schmidle’s book, “Test Gods.” The book is an inside look at Virgin Galactic, with Stucky as the main character. It is believed the pilot may have been too candid about problems at Branson’s space tourism company.

Schmidle’s story said Stucky was excluded from planning sessions for the July flight and was standing on the flight line, not directing the flight in the control room, as Branson flew to space. A human resources representative fired him eight days later.

It is not clear when VSS Unity will return to the air.

“The type of launch or reentry vehicle involved in the mishap may not return to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety. This is standard procedure for all mishap investigations,” the spokesman said.

“Depending on circumstances, some mishap investigations might conclude in a matter of weeks. Other more complex investigations might take several months. The FAA will not speculate as to how long this specific mishap investigation will take,” he added.