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WK2 at Oshkosh
A crowd gathers around WhiteKnightTwo after it lands in Oshkosh for the EAA AirVenture show last week. (credit: E. Hedman)

WhiteKnightTwo at AirVenture 2009

My favorite week of the year arrived and passed again. It’s the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture 2009 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Each year Oshkosh hosts the biggest fly-in in the world at the end of July. Aviation enthusiasts gather from all over the world. Each day of the week there are close to 100,000 people on the grounds looking at just about everything available in aviation. You can find everything from home-built airplane kits to jet fighters to jumbo jets. This year the featured event was the public unveiling of WhiteKnightTwo from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic.

It’s interesting to see how many aviation enthusiasts at the EAA are also space enthusiasts. The crowd gave Burt Rutan and Richard Branson a rock star welcome.

For the space enthusiast there were a couple of interesting things to see besides WhiteKnightTwo. There was a NASA building on the EAA grounds, and during the show NASA has a number of employees to explain to the public what NASA is doing. Two aeronautics researchers from the Glenn Research Center were there explaining the research they were doing with small model aircraft. A couple of manufacturing engineers explained what they have been working on, including the Ares 1-X test launch vehicle and the MLAS alternate abort system for the Orion capsule. Another interesting place to visit was the FAA building. I had a chance to talk with a person involved with licensing the vehicles in NASA’s COTS program and Scaled Composite’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. At these exhibition buildings anyone can ask any questions they want.

It’s interesting to see how many aviation enthusiasts at the EAA are also space enthusiasts. The crowd gave Burt Rutan and Richard Branson a rock star welcome. The people that come to Oshkosh to see stunt flying and congregate with fellow aviation enthusiasts are definitely interested in what Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are up to. It shouldn’t be too surprising considering that in one way it’s just flying a little higher. In another way it may be an historic leap that helps set the destiny of the human species to push permanently beyond the bonds of Earth.

WhiteKnightTwo arrived on Monday July 27th after a direct flight from its Mojave home. It circled above Oshkosh about an hour before landing so it would come in on schedule. It made a number of passes high above the crowd before landing. As it comes in it is a very quiet aircraft for its size. It made a smooth landing and taxied back to pull in near the Aeroshell Square area of the EAA grounds. When it came to a stop Richard Branson and Burt Rutan were there to meet it. Unlike 2005, when White Knight and SpaceShipOne were on display, only a few members of the media were allowed close to talk with the people involved.

On the evening of July 27th it became apparent that WhiteKnightTwo had developed a problem upon landing. According to one person I talked to in the crowd, one of the actuators for deploying the speed brakes failed. If you look at the front view of the aircraft in the photo gallery you can see that one of the four sets of red speed brakes on the wing section between the two fuselages did not deploy the same as the other three. I asked one of the people from Scaled Composites what was going on. He acknowledged that they had a problem, but did not want to go into details. He said it was not an unusual problem to crop up so early in a flight test program. That is why they do the testing. He was obviously correct that it was not a big deal since WhiteKnightTwo flew the next day with Richard Branson onboard as the flight engineer. A video of his demonstration flight can be seen on YouTube.

During my visit to the NASA building on the EAA grounds I asked the aeronautics researchers what they were working on. They had a couple of remote control aircraft models that they use to test out new ideas. Some were very small reconnaissance drones. One was an approximately three-and-a-half-foot-long model of an old F-100 used to test advances in flight controls. The plane was used to test methods for compensating if a flight control surface was not working or had fallen off an aircraft. Both the researchers seemed worried about the future funding of aeronautics research within NASA.

I found it quite interesting that the NASA engineers that I talked to were not following what the Augustine Commission is doing and the changes that could be in store for them from the results.

An example of why aeronautics research is still relevant was on display at the show when a new Airbus A380 arrived. It landed in a strong cross wind that caused the pilot a number of problems. He had to crab the aircraft strongly into the crosswind to stay on line with the runway. As he cut power to set down, the plane dropped unexpectedly and hit the runway very hard. The wings went through two very strong deflection cycles and the pilot had to kick the rudder over very hard to get back in line on the runway center line. While air travel is very safe, there are remaining issues like the one encountered by the A380 that are still worth addressing. NASA is the agency that has done quite a bit to clean up these problems and their job is not done.

When I talked with the NASA manufacturing engineers they told me about their work on the Ares 1-X test vehicle. They manufactured the dummy upper stage. They had pictures of the DAVI roll former that was used to roll the cylindrical sections of the second stage into shape from sheet metal flats. DAVI roll formers are also being used to form the aluminum hull of the Orion capsule test articles. I visited the DAVI factory in Cesena, Italy, last year so I was quite familiar with how they fabricated the stage. One of the engineers who had worked on the MLAS alternate abort system for the Orion capsule explained that much of it was made of fiberglass and was very difficult to work with. I found it quite interesting that the engineers that I talked to were not following what the Augustine Commission is doing and the changes that could be in store for them from the results.

In addition to the items on display, the people that come from all over the world to this show are fascinating to talk to. As I was watching the repairs on WhiteKnightTwo, the person to the left of me was a vintner from Melbourne, Australia, and was in Oshkosh for his fourth AirVenture. The person to the right of me was from Warsaw, Poland ,and was making his first of what he was hoping would be many trips to the show. The people who come to the show are there for the shared adventure and most want to talk with as many people as they can. Every one there has a story to tell.

Richard, the vintner I met from Melbourne Australia, said something to me that we Americans sometimes forget. He said that this could only happen in America. He was referring both to the show and to the development of WhiteKnightTwo. We have the sense of adventure and entrepreneurial spirit to pull off the impossible. We may be struggling as a nation economically, but we keep recreating ourselves. The EAA is a perfect example of that. We need to keep remembering that and never give up and never stop believing that we can pull of the impossible.