This past weekend was a big one for Virgin Galactic's space tourism program, as the VirginMotherShip Eve, otherwise known as a Scaled Composites Model 348 WhiteKnightTwo, completed its taxi tests on Saturday and took to the air for the first time on Sunday.
Saturday, December 20
After a week of winter blasts, the 20th dawned cold but calm, promising good flight testing weather. By 6:45 am Eve was out on the Scaled ramp and the sky was turning a brilliant orange above it. Somewhat unusually for a Saturday, the Mojave ramp was a buzz of activity. As the WK2 crews got their aircraft ready, crews from Scaled and Northrop Grumman readied Proteus for another flight in its Air Force MP-RTIP radar test program, the folks over at FTA prepped a former Constellation Airlines Boeing 757 for delivery to its new operator, and over at ASB Avionics, a Northcap/Tepper Lockheed L382 Hercules fired up to leave after some avionics mods.
Finally, it was time for the main event, as WK2 taxied. Word spread through the small crowd of airport folks that the plan for the day was for four high-speed taxi tests, with the KingAir 200 chase plane orbiting above, and if the engineers liked what they saw, then later a flight attempt would be made.
On the last two of the four taxi tests, the WK2 pilots went so far as to lift the nose gear off the runway, a tantalizing view of what the first take off would later look like. But in the end, instead of making the maiden flight, Eve taxied back to Scaled where she was ensconced in her cavernous hangar.
Sunday, December 21
The first day of winter dawned quite a bit warmer than the last day of autumn had. Once again, Eve was taxiing by about 7:30, to the delight of the crowd of Scaled employees who had gathered at the base of the control tower.
When Mojave Tower was heard to clear "Scat 21", WhiteKnightTwo's call sign, for takeoff with airborne pickup, it was clear that there were no more taxi tests, the maiden flight was at hand. As the airborne KingAir chase plane turned final for the pickup, Eve started rolling, the nose wheels came up, the mains lifted, and the crowd cheered.
During the 59 minute maiden flight, WhiteKnightTwo was taken up to 16,000 feet, which according to a statement that Virgin's President Will Whitehorn made to Flight International (link), was 4,000 feet above the intended ceiling for the day's flight. "That is how confident we are about the aircraft," FI quotes Whitehorn as saying.
At the end of the flight, Eve made one low pass down Runway 30 before circling for a flawless touchdown. It was another historic first for the folks at Scaled, another first for the Mojave Air & Space Port, and most significantly, a major step towards Virgin Galactic's goal of commercial space flight.