The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
SS1 at Oshkosh
White Knight and SpaceShipOne attract a crowd last week at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (credit: E. Hedman)

The past meets the future in Oshkosh

At 3:00 PM on July 27, 2005, the past met the future in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I was standing in one of the huge grass parking lots of Wittman Field, the home of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture fly-in, when I looked up to see Burt Rutan’s White Knight aircraft doing a flyby carrying SpaceShipOne. As I watched, the carrier aircraft and its famous payload turned and climbed like the high performance combination it is. The piercing scream of the jet engines drew the attention of anyone who had not yet looked up. With Mike Melvill at the controls the huge crowd was thrilled. The 2005 EAA AirVenture convention was truly underway.

For those of you unfamiliar with the EAA and its annual show, a short history lesson is needed. In 1953 the EAA had its first fly-in back in 1953 in Milwaukee. The EAA was founded by Tom Poberezny, a former fighter pilot with combat experience in both World War 2 and Korea. The EAA was designed to be an organization for people interested in private general aviation. Each year his organization has steadily grown.

A whole culture of innovation has grown up in and around the EAA community. It is what helped shape Burt Rutan and his unconventional way of thinking.

In 1968 my father brought me to see the EAA museum in Hales Corners, a small suburb of Milwaukee. I was nine years old and already developing a strong interest in aviation and spaceflight. I have a clear recollection of a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on display. There was a collection of aerobatic and historic aircraft that were making the small museum bulge at the seams. The EAA needed a new home.

In the 1970s the EAA found that new home in Oshkosh, a small city in the middle of Wisconsin farm country. It is the home of Oshkosh Truck, Wisconsin’s largest defense contractor; and Oshkosh B’gosh, the clothing manufacturer. It also, once a year, has one of the busiest airports in the world. During the ’70s Tom Poberezny and his son Paul, now the president of the EAA, continued the growth of the EAA at its current site.

The EAA is now an international organization with 170,000 members and chapters all over the globe. The members range from non-pilots to ultralight hobbyists to fighter pilots and astronauts. The organization and members own and fly aircraft that include ultralights, homebuilt kit planes, single-engine Cessnas, Piper Cubs, biplanes, vintage war birds, turboprops, helicopters, corporate jets, and now, spacecraft.

The 2005 EAA convention is huge. Approximately 14,000 small airplanes are parked on the grounds. Many of these planes have a tent under a wing. There are thousands of RVs in the EAA campgrounds. There is a gleaming museum facing US Highway 41; behind it are hangars to store and restore vintage aircraft. On the display grounds are six B-17s in flying condition, nine Ford Trimotors, Stearman trainers, P-51 Mustangs, an F-16, an F-15, a C-130 transport from Milwaukee’s 440th Airlift Wing, an F-4 Phantom, and countless vintage and new airplanes. There are displays from several hundred companies and NASA showing everything from aviation lubricants from Exxon Mobil to corporate jets from Cessna and others to flight schools.

One of my favorite displays was a twin-engine flying boat replica built by the Johnson family of the S.C. Johnson Company of Racine, Wisconsin. The plane, named Carnauba, was a replica of the plane Samuel Johnson used to visit the plantations in the Amazon in the 1930s that were the source of Carnauba wax. The plane, like many others on display, is absolutely beautiful.

The reason I’m describing a convention dedicated to general aviation is that it helps explain the roots of Burt Rutan and his pilots, their way of thinking, and how they do business. In the early ’80s, when companies like Cessna and Beechcraft were getting out of the small single-engine plane market due to crushing liability costs, pilots turned to people like Burt Rutan, who developed innovative kit planes in order to get affordable aircraft. The EAA is where manufacturers of small planes introduce and start selling their planes. A whole culture of innovation has grown up in and around the EAA community. It is what helped shape Burt Rutan and his unconventional way of thinking.

I’ve seen pictures of the White Knight and SpaceShipOne before, but they are truly a sight to behold when you see them in person. From an engineering eye and an artistic perspective, it looks just right. Unfortunately for most people, the 2005 EAA convention is the last chance people will get to see the pair together on the ground and flying. From Oshkosh it will be flown to Wright Patterson AFB where it will not be on public display. From there it will fly to Dulles where SpaceShipOne will be taken by truck to the National Air & Space Museum, where it will hang from the ceiling with the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, and the Wright Flyer.

Rutan said that SpaceShipTwo will have nine seats. The announcement later in the week with Sir Richard Branson noted that they would carry seven passengers on each flight; presumably the two remaining seats are for a pilot and copilot.

After the White Knight landed it was towed with a pickup truck through crowds of people to a place called Aeroshell Square. A rope line was placed around it to keep the crowds back. Almost immediately a news conference was set up. Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, Brian Binnie, and Paul Allen were introduced to a thunderous applause. The press was allowed to ask questions during which I made a 21 minute digital audio recording that can be heard here (MP3, 7.2 MB). It is informative and a little funny. After the press conference the press was allowed inside the rope line. Only a few members of the press took advantage of this opportunity, including a reporter for a local paper, the photo editor of the Smithsonian, three members of a BBC documentary film crew (look for their hour-long special on the teams attempting commercial spaceflight in September on the Discovery Channel), and me. For an hour and a half I was able to have nearly exclusive access to the news conference participants plus the legendary pilot Scott Crossfield.

When I was a small child I had number of heroes I looked up to. Growing up in Wisconsin, one had to be Green Bay Packer quarterback and Super Bowl I and II MVP Bart Starr. My other heroes included astronauts and test pilots. Scott Crossfield flew the Bell X-1 after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. He was the first pilot to break Mach 2. He flew the X-15. He falls into the category of heroes I had as a child. When my business leased its first office I was more than thrilled to find out that Bart Starr had an office on the floor above us. It was an honor and a thrill to meet and talk to him. I felt the same meeting Scott Crossfield.

I asked Crossfield if it was a rush to fly the X-15. He answered, “It was a very good airplane and a very good job.” I then asked him if he would like to go up in SpaceShipOne. He shook his head and said with a smile on his face, “I’m done with that.” At age 84 he still flies his own plane to the convention every year.

Rutan, Melvill, Binnie, and Allen posed for pictures, and signed numerous autographs along the rope line. They were being treated more like rock stars than designers, pilots, and financiers. From the smiles on their faces I suspect they were thoroughly enjoying the moment.

I asked Paul Allen, “Michael Griffin said that NASA is interested in contracting delivery of cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. Is that a market you’re interested in?” His response was, “I can’t answer that question.”

I asked Burt Rutan (before the official announcement later in the week about The Spaceship Company) if the White Knight would be used to carry SpaceShipTwo. He said, “Oh no. SpaceShipTwo is much bigger. We will have a much bigger carrier aircraft.” He also said that SpaceShipTwo will have nine seats, making it a bit larger than previous accounts. The announcement later in the week with Sir Richard Branson noted that they would carry seven passengers on each flight; presumably the two remaining seats are for a pilot and copilot.

Mike Melvill told me he expects it to be three to four years before SpaceShipTwo flies. Part of the time required before paying customers will be FAA certification of both SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two. Mike Melvill expects to fly SpaceShipTwo during the development phase. He will not be allowed to fly paying passengers because he is too old.: the FAA has a rule that commercial pilots have to retire at 60, and Melvill is a youthful 64.

Paul Allen is the financial backer of the development of SpaceShipOne. As the cofounder of Microsoft he has more disposable investment capital than most of us. Melvill said he is the best customer Scaled Composites has ever had, adding that Paul Allen has a vision and understands what they were trying to accomplish. He, unlike most customers, didn’t nitpick over how every penny was spent: easier to do, of course, when you have billions. He was interested in results.

While Allen was happy to talk about some of his other interests—when asked about this season’s prospects for his NFL team, the Seattle Seahawks, he said “The defense will be better”—he was reticent to talk about future space-related investments. I asked him, “Michael Griffin said that NASA is interested in contracting delivery of cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. Is that a market you’re interested in?” His response was, “I can’t answer that question.” The only thing I’m reading into that answer is that he’s a smart business man.

Burt Rutan has picked up the baton passed on by Kelly Johnson.

For those of you who haven’t met the people behind SpaceShipOne, I can tell you that they come across as warm friendly, approachable, intelligent, and easy to talk to. Melvill and Binnie seem to really like working for Rutan. If you’re an engineer and passionate about spacecraft, he said he’s hiring. Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, California, has a reputation of delivering on what they promise. I would not bet against them successfully creating a space tourism industry.

In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, the premier aerospace designer in the world was, in my opinion, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson at Lockheed’s Skunk Works. He designed the U-2, SR-71, and a number of other creative aircraft. He did it with small teams very quickly and with small budgets compared to other projects of the era. People who worked for him said he had an intuitive eye for understanding aerodynamics and weight and balance. Burt Rutan has picked up the baton passed on by Kelly Johnson.

The EAA convention is the ideal place for SpaceShipOne’s one and only public viewing prior to hanging it in the Smithsonian. In its parking spot it is surrounded by the aviation heritage that led to its creation. Burt Rutan has been a member of the EAA for more than three decades. The display of SpaceShipOne is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The EAA has had a number of such events. If you have any interest in aviation and spaceflight, I would highly recommend that you attend an EAA convention. It is held at the end of July every year. It is where the past meets the future.


Home