FAA investigating off-course descent of Virgin Galactic’s flight with Richard Branson

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Branson’s flight to space was lauded as a total success, but a new report indicates otherwise

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The FAA said Wednesday that Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration for exiting mid-flight within its designated airspace. report from the new Yorker. According to sources, two pilots of the mission were alerted to yellow and red lights during mid-flight the new Yorker, should have prompted them to end the mission. The flight continued and finally landed safely.


Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Spaceplane air-launched on July 11 from its carrier aircraft at the company’s New Mexico Spaceport, carrying Spaceport America founder Branson and three company employees. The rocket plane flew at an altitude of 53.5 miles, skimming the edge of space of weightlessness for a few minutes, before free-gliding on a runway, before its ascent using rocket-propelled motion. Branson and company lauded the mission’s success shortly after, with company president Mike Moses telling reporters that “the ship looked perfect” at touchdown.

But as the space plane approached peak altitude, two pilots, Dave McKay and Michael Masucci, saw cockpit warnings indicating the ship was not flying as fast as it should have. Such warnings “should scare the crap out of you,” were quoted by Masucci. the new Yorker As stated in a meeting with other pilots of the company in 2015. This gave pilots two choices of procedures per company: “immediately implement corrective action, or abort the rocket motor,” reports the magazine. Triggering an abort and returning Branson and his crew to the ground without reaching space would have been the safest option at the time, multiple sources told the article’s author, Nicholas Schmidley, who earlier this year wrote an article on Virgin Galactic’s history. A comprehensive book was also published.

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The July flight fulfilled Branson’s long-laid goal to travel to space. Branson, originally slated to fly on the latter mission, extended its flight shortly after Jeff Bezos announced it would fly on a rocket from his space company Blue Origin in July. Virgin Galactic has said safety is its top priority, and Branson has denied that Bezos’ rival jaunt in space played a role in his decision to launch sooner than planned.

In a statement, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said the crew was never in any danger, the “change of trajectory” was caused by high-level winds and the company disputes that it was “misleading characterization and Conclusion”. the new Yorker Story. “Our pilots have responded to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures,” the spokesperson said. “Although the final trajectory of the flight deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and deliberate flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico.”

Branson, 71, speaks to reporters shortly after flying into space in July
Patrick T. via Getty Images. Photo by Fallon/AFP

“During a July 11, 2021 flight, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its air traffic control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” an FAA spokesperson said in a statement. “The FAA investigation is ongoing.”

The off-course descent isn’t Virgin Galactic’s first danger brush. In 2014, the company suffered a mid-flight disaster during a test flight that killed one pilot and seriously injured another. After that, Branson vowed to fly the ship himself before flying to paying customers, as a demonstration of his confidence in the vehicle’s safety. In another test flight in 2018, with McKay and Masucci as pilots, SpaceShipTwo spiraled out of control, spinning and tumbling mid-air, before the pilots stabilized and landed safely, Schmidt reports. The cause was later found to be a manufacturing defect which took months to fix. After the plane took off again in 2019, engineers found significant damage to a significant portion of the plane, in which the glue-like material burst and exposed a large gap, Schmidt wrote in his book.

Schmiddles new yorker The story also revealed that Virgin Galactic’s former chief test pilot and flight test director, Mark Stuckey, was fired eight days after Branson’s flight in the wake of Schmidley’s book revelations. stuck previously posted on linkedin That he did not leave on his own terms, but the reason for his departure was unclear. It marked the second departure of a senior security-related employee for the company – Todd Ericsson, a retired Air Force colonel and Virgin Galactic’s former VP of safety and testing, resigned from the company shortly after the 2019 test flight, Security culture according to Schmidl, frustrated with Virgin Galactic.

Cast after Virgin Galactic’s statement The New Yorker Describing the sourcing as misleading, Stucki, a veteran Air Force pilot, wrote on Twitter that “the most misleading statement today was from Virgin Galactic.”

“The fact that the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were within range, did nothing to correct the trajectory error, and entered Class A airspace without authorization, Stucky said. “But if it’s proper procedures and their definition of safety is paramount, then there you have it.”

Virgin Galactic’s next crewed mission, which will also be its first revenue-generating flight, is slated for late September carrying three members of the Italian Air Force. FAA investigations into unforeseen flight incidents usually prevent future missions from occurring until the agency’s investigation is complete and no possible corrections are made by the company. But the FAA’s investigation into the Unity 22 mission “has no impact on future test flights,” a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said.

Update, Sept. 1, 8:32PM ET: Adds a statement from Virgin Galactic spokesperson

Update, September 2nd, 9:15AM ET: Adds tweets from Mark Stuckey, former lead test pilot and flight test director at Virgin Galactic, disputes the company’s statement

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