UK airline Virgin Atlantic is to use its pool of mainline pilots to recruit from to fill the soon-to-be released vacancies for astronaut-pilots on the Virgin Galactic space tourism craft.

Sir Richard Branson, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic says any of the 700 pilots employed by the air carrier can apply for a nine month training course followed by 18 months of tests and active service with the space carrier.

Three Virgin Atlantic pilots have already been selected. Virgin Galactic intends on starting services from 2008 and will start training the selected candidates by the end of this year.

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Branson says: "This is such an exciting and unique opportunity for our pilots, many of whom have a wealth of experience and are fanatical about flying." The majority of Virgin Atlantic pilots are from the UK and Branson added that the scheme presents an opportunity to increase the number of UK astronauts.

The three initial pilots are: former UK Royal Air Force Red Arrows aerobatic display team pilot Steve Johnson who will swap his role as a training captain to become chief astronaut pilot; a further ex-Red Arrow and training captain Alistair Hoy will head up the astronaut training department; and Capt David MacKay, currently a line captain with Virgin Atlantic, will be the test pilot of the SpaceShipTwo variant of the Scaled Composites spacecraft.

The pilots will receive nine months of aerobatic, fast jet and business aircraft in zero-gravity training. From 2008 Virgin Galactic expects to have around 30 astronaut pilots, one-half of whom will be US citizens recruited from NASA and Virgin America with the remaining 50% being recruited from other Virgin airlines around the world such as Virgin Nigeria, Virgin Blue in Australia and Virgin Express in Belgium.

Read Space Reporter Rob Coppinger on how successful SpaceShipTwo will be in luring tourists into space

Source: Flight International