PARIS AIR SHOW: Virgin Galactic's mothership testing reaches new heights

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Virgin Galactic's mothership WhiteKnight Two prototype Eve is ratcheting up the test flights with four within a month, reaching the ninth on 16 June, and has now had its first type rating issued.

This follows six months of flights occurring on average once every five or six weeks. After a tailstrike during a 20 April touch and go manoeuvre, the flights have progressed rapidly and been extended from May's 3h trips to the seventh test's 6h marathon on 8 June.

On 11 June, the eighth test, the US Federal Aviation Administration monitored the flight to type rate its pilot, Peter Siebold. The awarding of this type rating, a first for a twin fuselage multi-engine powered all-composite aircraft, means the planned 19 June round trip to New Mexico can go ahead to overfly the ground breaking ceremony for Spaceport America near Las Cruces city.

Just before the 16 June ninth test flight Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn told Flightglobal, "today is the big one in that it will be long duration and we plan to approach 50,000ft or even higher."

According to WK2's prime contractor Scaled Composites' online flight test logs over the fifth and sixth tests on 20 May and 2 June, the maximum altitude was increased from 20,000ft (6,100m) to 35,000ft and the speed envelope was expanded to an indicated airspeed of 250kt with the landing gear down. At the end of the fifth flight an emergency drill was conducted with personnel from California's Mojave air and spaceport where Scaled is based and the flight tests are taking place.

 
 Tests flights of WhiteKnight Two have progressed rapidly and the 8 June sortie lasted for 6h

For the seventh flight test the online log says: "All objectives completed. Pressurization and [environmental control system] worked as designed. Speed envelope expanded with the gear up and down to 340KTAS. Peak altitudes increased to 45,000ft. Wind-up turns were performed to 2.5 g. Engines were shut down and restarted per plan." The eighth flight log is very brief and says that the FAA awarded the type rating.

The overfly of the Spaceport America construction site will be a symbolic milestone as the spaceport will be Virgin Galactic's world headquarters. It expects to launch SpaceShip Two from WK2 during flights from the spaceport in the early part of the next decade.

SpaceShip Two is released by WK2 at around 50,000ft and in its 23 April statement, concerning changes to the mothership and the tailstrike incident, Scaled gave a mid-2009 target date for a flight to the SS2 air-launch altitude.