Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rocket Racer Returns to Mojave

The Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer, as it is known for now, has returned to Mojave from a very successful public debut at AirVenture 2008 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. While the rocket plane moves quite quickly through the air, going across country is a much slower affair, on the back of a flatbed trailer.

For the Oshkosh debut, the Rocket Racer displayed the logos of Bridenstine Racing, including their primary team sponsor DKNY Men. Bridenstine was the first of six teams to have signed on with the Rocket Racing League, according to League CEO Granger Whitelaw, and this was the first Racer, so it was natural that the logos and the plane were matched up for the debut. Both Whitelaw and team owner Jim Bridenstine, however, indicated that this does not indicate that this will be the teams actual aircraft. However, Bridenstine praised the XCOR Aerospace team, saying that they did "a tremendous job" in preparing the aircraft and engine for the demonstration flights. Three flawless flights were flown before hundreds of thousands gathered at the Oshkosh show, with pilot Rick Searfoss putting the plane through its aerobatic paces.

The XCOR team will now continue flight testing the engine, seeking to improve its performance for the next exhibition venue, the Reno National Air Races during the second week of September. Meanwhile the competing engine builder, Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, has been cleared by the FAA to begin flight testing their engine and airframe combination, according to an FAA official. It is hoped that this plane will be ready for Reno as well; if so, RRL has said that they would like to hold exhibition races between the two aircraft, with the Armadillo aircraft wearing the logos of the Santa Fe Racing team. A sponsor for that team has not been announced yet.

The RRL teams will be able to choose from two airframe/engine combinations, each of which has certain advantages and disadvantages, according to Bridenstine. The XCOR kerosene/LOX engine is matched with a Velocity SE, which is a smaller, lighter aircraft, but also which has fixed landing gear. Because the engine incorporates XCOR's proprietary pump system, the kerosene fuel does not have to be pressurized, eliminating the need for an extra tank. The XCOR engine is also either on or it is off, there is no throttling or modulating the thrust, so in a race format, the engine would be fired for a short time and then the plane would glide

The Armadillo engine, which burns ethanol and LOX, is matched with the Velocity XL, which is a somewhat larger and heavier aircraft, but which also has retractable landing gear. The Armadillo system requires that the fuel be pressurized, resulting in the need for a belly tank to be mounted under the fuselage, according to one account (photos of the test aircraft don't show this, however). The Armadillo engine has a range of thrust settings, so the approach during the race will be different.

Once both the XCOR and Armadillo systems have completed the flight test phase, the teams will be able to choose which one they want, and will then "buy" the aircraft and engines from the League, which has taken the unusual step of buying Velocity Aircraft Company, the builder of the airframes, in order to ensure the supply

RRL is modeling their formats on NASCAR and other auto racing leagues, where the differences in engine and car brands is almost as important to the fans as the drivers' abilities. However, according to Bridenstine, "it's the pilots who win and lose races." He said that because the planes have different thrust, different weights, different drag, the pilots' strategies will also be different, with the key being how the pilot "manages energy states". The result, he said, will be a dramatic race with a lot of passing. "You won't really know who's going to win until the very end."

The viewing audience will watch the race from aircraft-mounted cameras, and an RRL-patented technology will project computer animated "gates" on the screen through which the planes must fly. Whitelaw said that the technology, which he likened to the artificial yellow first-down line seen in NFL broadcasts, is seen by the league as a "branding differentiator". Because of it, the viewer will have an entertainment medium which combines the look of a video game with a live experience, or as Whitelaw described it, "a living, breathing video game." Bridenstine echoed the sentiment: "People will be surprised at how fun it is to watch."

All images except the plane on the flatbed are courtesy of Bridenstine Racing. From top to bottom: 1) The Rocket Racer arrives back at Mojave. 2) Dazzling the fans at Oshkosh. 3) Bridenstine DKNY logos. 4) RRL CEO Granger Whitelaw and Jim Bridenstine at Oshkosh. 5) Jim Bridenstine meets the fans.


Ben Brockert said...

The bit about the Armadillo vehicle having a belly tank is incorrect, as far as I can tell. All of the photos and videos of their rig in action show it with two spherical tanks right behind each other, which results in a sort of fat backside on the plane.




Alan Radecki said...

You may be correct. The info came from a contact on one of the teams who is evaluating the two aircraft. However, I've amended the text to indicate that photos of the Armdillo test aircraft don't show this. Thanks for pointing it out.

ザイツェヴ said...

The initial idea was to take the Armadillo's universal rocket module and use it with minimal modifications (obviously the propellant pickup has to deal with starting in horizontal position, I wonder how they solved that problem). They were going to use fixed (non gimballed) engines for 4x rocket already. So the tanks used have the same diameter as 1x ("MOD") and the 4x. By now there must be some structural differences, due to side loads in an airplane. In MOD, tanks carry loads.