Going it Alone (3G)

“What a great thing to be able to fly glide selections without worrying about the rocket propulsion system or any of the other elements. And by separating all these variables out, you can learn how to fly the air­plane and make sure all the subsonic stuff is going to work,” Doug Shane said. In theory and in practice, yes, but it was still unnerving from a test pilot’s point of view when it came down to a vehicle that had never been flown before.

“The first glide flight was probably the one that was my least favorite because we didn’t even know if it would fly,” Mike Melvill said. “If you think about a normal airplane with an engine, we don’t just go out and fly it. We go out and taxi it slowly. We figure out if the brakes work, whether the steering works, and then we go a little bit faster until we can finally lift it off a few inches and say, ‘Yeah, looks like its going to fly.’ And then we fly.

“For this one, we just hooked it on the bottom of White Knight, went to about 50,000 feet [15,240 meters], and dropped it off. So, we didn’t have a clue how it would fly or whether it would be good, bad, or indifferent. It wasn’t great. We had to modify it a little bit. But it was flyable, and I was able to bring it back. But that was the scariest flight, I think. We just didn’t have any knowledge other than Burt’s ‘That looks about right. ’ It had never been in a wind tunnel. There was no formal wind-tunnel testing of the airplane at all. And so we tested it in the real wind tunnel.”

White Knight flying at 105 knots, 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of Mojave, released SpaceShipOne at an altitude of 47,000 feet (14,330 meters).The spaceship and mothership separated cleanly. SpaceShipOne flew freely for the first time and was stable once disconnected.

Over the 19-minute flight time, Melvill evaluated the handling and performance. During that short time, the controls and avionics oper­ated as expected while he began to expand the flight envelope. At Mojave Airport on Runway 30, SpaceShipOne came in nice and easy to make its first landing.

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