Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo mothership WhiteKnightTwo made its historic 59min maiden flight at about 08:16 local time on 21 December from Mojave air and spaceport, reaching a maximum altitude of 16,000ft (4,880m).

The first test flight of the Scaled Composites designed twin-fuselage carrier aircraft with four Pratt & Whitney Canada PW308A engines follows taxi trials on the 20, 16 and 12 December, video of which obtained exclusively.

The high-speed taxi trial between 0830 and 1030 local time on 20 December saw four runs down the runway and a brief lifting of the nose gear, the 16 December saw spoilers deployed and a brief starboard main gear lock up that generated some smoke, and on the 12th there was a low-speed trip down a runway. During the maiden flight WK2 was followed by a Beechcraft King Air that had a camera crew on board.

"It reached an altitude 4,000ft above the original test plan's maximum altitude.That is how confident we are about the aircraft. Now we have to download all the data. There will be another flight early in the new year," says Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn.

The December maiden flight was almost abandoned due to snow, "they had had 9in (22.8cm) of snow and the [Federal Aviation Administration] has very strict rules on cross winds [for flight tests] so we almost had to cancel it," he added. Whitehorn had previously spoken to Flight of a first take-off and landing that was "very soon" on 3 December at the UK's 4th Appleton space conference in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

Video of the WhiteKnightTwo's take-off and landing has been posted at Rob Coppinger's blog Hyperbola.

Sources close to the Virgin Galactic programme had informed Flight of a first take-off and landing for WK2 "in the next ten days", by 15 December. Whitehorn had also told Flight on 3 December that the FAA had given approval for the test. However repeated enquiries by Flight to the FAA for confirmation of this were not answered.

On Thursday 11 December a former senior Virgin Galactic official said, infront of a Flight reporter at a Royal Aeronautical Society event, that the major milestone had been delayed from "Friday" but that he couldn't say more "due to the presence of press". A call to Whitehorn on Friday 12 December by Flight saw the spaceline president deny that that day had been the target date.

After the 12 December low-speed taxi trial Flight's Mojave sources considered Friday 19 December to be a likely next date for the first take-off and landing but subsequent snow fall and other weather conditions had seemed to put any pre-January attempt in doubt.

Scaled, which is based at the Mojave air and spaceport, begins its 12-day Christmas holiday period on 24 December, returning to work on 5 January.

Following the 28 July roll out of WK2 at Scaled's facilities the carrier aircraft was expected to fly in September. Its payload, SpaceShipTwo, should be unveiled next year. Initially used for practicing carrier flights with its mothership, by the end of 2009 Virgin Galactic hopes WK2 will be air launching SS2 for the spacecraft's own glide back flight tests.

Virgin Galactic hopes to start operating commercially by 2011 from the New Mexico Spaceport America. The new spaceport, soon to be under construction, announced that it had received its license from the FAA for horizontal and vertical space vehicle launches on 15 December and it expects to be fully operational in 2010.

Source: Flight International