EXCLUSIVE PICTURES: WhiteKnight Two at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport

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Flightglobal has obtained exclusive pictures of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two mothership Eve at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport in Arizona after a speedbrake actuator failure diverted it from its New Mexico destination.

On Friday 19 June the mothership was to overfly the ground breaking ceremony for Spaceport America, which is to be located 72km (45 miles) north of New Mexico's Las Cruces city.

The spaceport will be the world headquarters for the spaceline Virgin Galactic when it is operating commercially.

The prototype aircraft departed Mojave air and spaceport, the base of its prime contractor Scaled Composites, at 08:04 Pacific Daylight Time (15:04 GMT) on 19 June.

It was to overfly the ceremony being held at the site of the proposed spaceport at about 11:30 Las Cruces local time, which is currently on Mountain Daylight Time (MDT), one hour ahead of PDT.

Instead, WK2 landed 2h 14min after take-off at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway at its local time of 10:18 Mountain Standard Time (MST) (17:18 GMT). Arizona is permanently on MST, does not observe saving time, and is currently on the same time as PDT.

virgin galactic
©Flight/Aaron Rumfallo

 Above: WhiteKnight Two sits at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport on 19 June
All the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway WK2 pictures obtained by Flightglobal can be found here and the full Virgin Galactic gallery is here.

virgin galactic
©Flight/Aaron Rumfallo

 Above: Ground crew push WhiteKnight Two at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport
On 19 June Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport, also known as Williams Gateway, told Flightglobal: "It is sitting on our cargo ramp. They [the pilots] don't want any pictures taken of it. They don't want any press releases."

Local photographers were informed of the ban and almost all of those approached by Flightglobal declined the request for images, citing the self-imposed ban. Photographers even withdrew images already posted on internet sites.

However, photographs were obtained and a Phoenix-Mesa source told Flightglobal that once WK2 had taxied to the cargo ramp after landing the crew jokingly asked: "Where is the closest Home Depot?", referring to the US chain of hardware retailers.

After attending the ground-breaking ceremony Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn explained the diversion to Flightglobal: "WhiteKnight Two left California on flight ten cruising at 47,000ft [14,335m]. An actuator warning light came on so they made a technical stop in Phoenix Arizona."

Later Scaled Composites posted its flight ten online log, which says: "During the descent toward the Spaceport America groundbreaking we experienced a failure of a speedbrake actuator. Based on facilities available and logistics for our ground crew, the pilots elected to make a precautionary landing at Williams Gateway airport near Phoenix. Our ground crew is on site."

Virgin Galactic has confirmed that Scaled's ground crew reached Phoenix-Mesa Gateway later on 19 June using a Beechcraft King Air, tail number N308BS, chartered from Golden State Air Charter. Golden State declines to comment.

Spaceport America's 19 June statement gave the reasons for the diversion and decision to stay at Phoenix for the day as a "minor" technical fault and "approaching thunderstorms". It stated the aircraft would overfly Las Cruces international airport the following day.

Overnight at Phoenix-Mesa, WK2 was stored in a hangar previously used by Boeing to convert US Air Force Northrop T-38 Talons to C models.

On 20 June the mothership departed the Arizona airport from runway 12R at 07:32 MST. The King Air departed from a parallel runway shortly after Eve on the 20 June.

In its 20 June statement Spaceport America said that WK2 circled Las Cruces airport four times at about 09:30 MDT on 20 June.

After leaving Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Eve had flown at 27,000ft at about 280kt (518km/h) and according to flightaware.com reached Las Cruces international airport at 09:48 MDT after a 1h 16min flight. After its Las Cruces airport overflight it flew on to Mojave.

The mothership landed back at Mojave at 10:51 PDT on 20 June after a 3h 19min trip from Phoenix. It overflew the spaceport's Plane Crazy Saturday event, making a simulated approach to Runway 26 before landing at Runway 30 to applause from crowds. It was accompanied by the chartered King Air.

Find Hyperbola's blog postings here following the events as they unfolded on Friday 19 June and Saturday 20 June.