Virgin Galactic veteran reports pilot error in July 11 crash

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DEMING – The Virgin Galactic test pilot, who had been an integral part of the company’s commercial space flight program until he was recently terminated, alleges pilot error, rather than winds, is at the origin of a theft incident of July 11 which is currently under investigation.

The Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation into why the VSS Unity rocket plane deviated from course and entered unauthorized airspace on the famous flight with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and a crew full on board.

Mark Stucky, who flew Unity on its first suborbital flight in 2018 with CJ Sturckow as co-pilot, wrote on Twitter Thursday: “The facts are that the pilots failed to compensate to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within limits, they did nothing substantial to correct the track error and entered into Class A airspace without authorization. “

Class A airspace refers to an area between 18,000 and 60,000 feet above mean sea level, where flights are conducted under instrument flight rules, as flight by exterior visual reference is dangerous.

In other words, because Unity was mounted at the wrong angle, its return path deviated from its approved airspace into airspace where other craft would have been navigated by instruments and not by sight. However, the company maintained that the deflection was vertical rather than lateral.

The other aircraft were not present. A hallmark of Spaceport America is its proximity to federally restricted airspace above the nearby US Army White Sands Missile Range facility.

Spaceport Aerospace Operations Director Bill Gutman explained that spaceport customers “use federally restricted airspace for their missions, but some need to use the national airspace system. , which requires coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration for temporary flight restrictions. “

The Virgin Galactic VMS Unity rocket plane with founder Richard Branson and other crew on board, lands at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, NM on Sunday, July 11, 2021.

“When active,” he continued, “non-participating aircraft are prohibited from entering TFR areas. The FAA controls and coordinates this airspace directly with Spaceport America customers.”

Virgin Galactic is Spaceport America’s main tenant. The facility was originally built from 2006 to 2012 with public funds, and has added more tenants and customers over the years as delays plagued Virgin Galactic’s suborbital commercial flight business.

The investigation was announced following a New Yorker report that the spacecraft had deviated from its intended path on July 11 after climbing at a low angle, altering its path during descent.

Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci altered the trajectory rather than interrupting the combustion of the rocket, deviating from their approved airspace for 1 minute and 42 seconds, the company acknowledged while saying the pilots were in control. at all times and that the crew were never in danger.

Richard Branson, right, answers questions as teammates Sirisha Bandla and Colin Bennett listen during a press conference at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, NM, Sunday July 11, 2021.

“Although the final flight path deviated from our original plan, Unity Flight 22 did not fly outside the lateral limits of protected airspace,” the company said in a statement Thursday.

“Due to the course adjustment, the flight descended below the altitude of protected airspace for Virgin Galactic missions for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering. the restricted airspace which is protected all down to the ground for Virgin Galactic missions. At no time has the ship traveled over a population center or caused danger to the public .

Virgin Galactic attributed the problem to “high altitude winds,” an explanation Stucky rejected.

Following:Students share their experiences seeing Virgin Galactic launch and meeting Richard Branson

Stucky was still an employee when he watched the famous July 11 flight over Spaceport America in New Mexico. A week later, he was fired by the company, according to recent reports in theNew Yorker, having already been dismissed from his post in May following the recent publication of the book “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut”, by New Yorker reporter Nicholas Schmidle.

In the book, Stucky and others who had worked on the program expressed concerns about its assessment of errors and other security issues at the company.

The company called the New Yorker “misleading” report and said: “Our entire approach to spaceflight is guided by a fundamental commitment to safety at all levels. ”

In subsequent Twitter posts Thursday and Friday, Stucky asserted his confidence in the company’s rocket engine and horizontal launch system (in which the spacecraft is transported to an altitude of 50,000 feet by an aircraft before dropping and engage its engine for its climb to the edge of spacing).

On Thursday, the FAA announced that Virgin Galactic could not pilot Unity pending a joint company and agency investigation or a determination that “issues related to the incident do not affect public safety “.

The agency said the investigation could take weeks or months, possibly interfering with plans for a commercial flight with members of the Italian Air Force as early as this month.

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.


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