As Virgin Galactic’s first passenger flights near, we take a look at the key people and technologies behind the world’s first commercial spaceline. This post: test pilot Dave Mackay.
Interviewed by Michael Behar
When he wants to relax, David Mackay, 55, flies an Extra 300L, a performance aerobatic aircraft, doing vertical rolls and knife-edge spins. This helps him stay sharp at his day job: chief pilot for Virgin Galactic. At the moment, Mackay is flight-testing WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – the mother ship that will shuttle tourists to 47,000 feet, where the rocket plane will decouple and blast into space – and is scheduled to begin flying tourists to space next year. The Scotland native made his first flight in 1977. “I did it with the University Air Squadron, which gave students experience with the armed forces,” he recalls. After graduating, Mackay joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), flying a Hawker Harrier GR3, a fighter known for its unique ability to take off and land vertically. “I always wanted to be a test pilot,” he says. “So as soon as I had sufficient experience, I applied to test pilot school.” He remained in the RAF as a test pilot until 1995, when he left to fly for Virgin Atlantic, and then, in 2009, joined Virgin Galactic to become the world’s first commercial spacecraft pilot.
What inspired you to become a test pilot?
From an early age, I was interested in the possibility. I lived in a part of Scotland where I saw military jets’ low flying. It looked really exciting. I was also inspired by manned spaceflight – the first astronauts were ex-military test pilots. That seemed to me like a fantastic career path.
How did you land your job at Virgin Galactic?
I was a pilot for Virgin, flying A340s, when I got the invitation to look at technical documentation for Virgin Atlantic’s GlobalFlyer, built by Scaled Composites for Steve Fossett to fly solo, nonstop around the world. On the basis of what I reported, I was asked to come to Mojave [California, where Scaled is based] to talk to the engineers. At the time, they were building SpaceShipOne, and I flew its simulator. When Virgin Galactic embarked on its SpaceShipTwo project, I was asked to be the test pilot.
Isn’t testing aircraft a risky way to earn a living?
That’s the popular impression. Test flying was dangerous in days gone by, back in aviation’s early years. But today you can’t afford to damage or crash an aircraft. Now it’s all about taking small steps. It’s a careful, controlled approach.
Do test flights give you an adrenaline rush? Or is it business as usual?
It’s somewhere in between. Flying can be very unforgiving. You should really know your aircraft, its limitations, and its systems. Do this and you shouldn’t get a big adrenaline rush. That said, there are some flights where the adrenaline flows.
I once flew an aircraft where the main gear did not lower properly. I was stuck with just the nose gear and one of the main gears down. It was a training flight. We ended up landing on two wheels, which made for quite an exciting ride as the aircraft slid off the side of the runway. That’s the only accident I’ve ever had – I felt the adrenaline after we came to a stop.
Tell us about your test flights for Virgin Galactic.
I’ve done a glide fight in SpaceShipTwo and about 15 flights in WhiteKnightTwo.
Are there similarities between the two vehicles?
The cockpits are very similar – same windows, same flight controls, same avionics. WhiteKnightTwo can be used as an in-flight simulator for SpaceShipTwo; with its gear down and speed brakes deployed, it can duplicate SpaceShipTwo’s [steep] approach angle.
Is WhiteKnightTwo hard to fly?
It’s a large airplane with a 140-foot wingspan [comparable to a narrow-body commercial jet’s], and it’s equipped with a manual flight-control system – literally just cables and rods maneuvering it. That’s quite unusual for an aircraft of this size. But because it’s manually controlled, you can feel its natural characteristics. There’s no fly-by-wire system to hide those, which makes it a satisfying aircraft to fly – full of character and not bland or boring.
What has impressed you most about flying WhiteKnightTwo?
Its incredible performance at low altitude. Also, its rate of climb – up to 50,000 feet in 45 minutes – is amazing for such a large airplane. When I came in for my first approach for landing, there was a crosswind. It was quite gusty, so I was tentative. But it felt much nicer than I expected.
What’s the most challenging aspect of flying WhiteKnightTwo?
Its landing gear is very wide, 52 feet between the main gears under the wing. So on the ground you’ve got to be very careful not to put a wheel off the side – particularly on some of the narrow taxiways we have at Mojave.
WhiteKnightTwo has two fuselages. What’s in them?
The pilot sits in the right fuselage. At the moment, the left one is empty. But you could bring in seats and an air-conditioning system for passengers.
Why steer from the right side? Is this a British thing?
Yes. It’s why they need a British pilot – I’m joking. There were many considerations, but conventionally the captain in a two-crew aircraft sits in the left-hand seat and the copilot sits on the right. Flying from the right fuselage gives WhiteKnightTwo’s captain a good view of the spaceship.
How has WhiteKnightTwo broken ground that might be useful to commercial aviation?
Its configuration – the twin fuselage – allows you to carry a very large and heavy payload mounted externally. This could be a spaceship or a rocket or anything else you might want to have sitting outside an aircraft.
When you piloted SpaceShipTwo, what was it like decoupling from the mother ship?
A little like you’ve gone over the top of a roller coaster. It lasts for a couple of seconds and then almost immediately you’re flying a glider. It’s pleasantly surprising how well it flies. I had this mental model of how it was going to feel, so I approached it carefully when I first took the controls. But I quickly realized it’s really quite a sweet-handling airplane.
Will you be hiring other pilots?
We’ll have a fairly small number to begin with, around seven or eight, until we’re really comfortable and feel ready to increase the frequency of flights. Then we’ll recruit and train more pilots.
Where are you in terms of flight-testing WhiteKnightTwo?
We’ve been doing quite a bit of work on the landing gear, looking at how it gets affected by prolonged flight at high altitude. When you fly very high for a long time, the aircraft starts to cool down, and seals and oils start to behave slightly differently. We want to make sure that the gear and other systems can tolerate a long time at altitude.
What about SpaceShipTwo?
SpaceShipTwo is being modified in preparation for the rocket motor installation.
During reentry, SpaceShipTwo may reach about six Gs. Have you ever endured that much in flight before?
I’ve pulled nine Gs in an F-16.
How do you think passengers will handle the high Gs?
Different people tolerate high Gs differently – it’s the reason we want to train passengers beforehand, so it’s not a complete shock to their system. We don’t want any unpleasant surprises.
For more about Virgin Galactic and other great articles, view the most recent edition of Virtuoso Life.