Letters: The Unlikeliest Astronaut

Our June issue highlighted two aviation legends with a profile on test pilot Mike Melvill and reflections of columnist Barry Schiff, who celebrated 50 years with AOPA Pilot.

August 1, 2013

Thank you for the excellent article on Mike Melvill (“The Unlikeliest Astronaut”). What an inspirational story of someone who prepared himself so well for the opportunities life presented to him.

The article included one inaccuracy that I think illustrates the brilliance of Burt Rutan. SpaceShipOne did include brakes. The article is correct that the main energy conversion device for the kinetic energy of the landing was the maple block on the front landing strut. This was an ingenious way of aligning the mission with the weight requirements. Early on in the collaboration between MATCO Manufacturing and Rutan on the wheel and brake system for the vehicle, Rutan determined that such an approach would save weight while providing the required maneuverability on the landing rollout. Having the drag on the nose strut is unstable but, at touchdown speeds, there would be adequate aerodynamic forces to manage it. At lower speeds, some braking is required. Rutan estimated the amount of steering required and converted it to an energy requirement for the brakes. MATCO designed and tested the brakes to meet this final requirement. In the end, it reduced the original brake disc weight by more than one pound per side.

That two-pound savings was the difference between making it to space on the first attempt or not. This weight savings feat was accomplished on dozens of systems across the spacecraft, making the endeavor all the more remarkable. It is a tribute to the perfect blend of engineering, practicality, and a dedication to solve problems decisively with a can-do spirit that allowed the project goals to be met.

George R. Happ
AOPA 992402
Sandy, Utah

“Rutan’s SpaceShipOne”—I call it this because in my mind the real SpaceShipOne was Gagarin’s Vostok; the real SpaceShipTwo was Mercury—only repeated a portion of the X–15 program, not even the most difficult, which was designed and flown 45 years before Mellvill. And the X–15 saw sustained flight upwards of 4,100 mph, not just for a few minutes of reentry like Rutan’s.

So I don’t get it. Then again, I’ve sent spaceships to Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, plus one
in Earth orbit that discovered more than 60,000 unseen galaxies, and a space shuttle experiment that had a thermometer accurate to one-half billionth of a degree at two degrees above absolute zero. 

It’s nice that Rutan’s SpaceShipOne is in the Smithsonian, but I don’t see it as a pioneering aircraft, just a copycat, much like if you put a Cessna 172 next to the Wright Flyer. Not that that is bad, mind you; it’s great to be able to hop in the 172 and do something humans haven’t been able to do for hundreds of thousands of years. But pioneering? Nah.

David Rosing
AOPA 518759
Sunland, California

Reflections

Well, old friend, once again you [Schiff] have used humility to make a point and, hopefully, present a lesson to those who will have to live with our successes and failures.

We have clearly shared some wonderful times and experiences, aviation generated, which I fear are or soon will be no longer available. I have little interest in hashing the old versus new, stick and rudder versus autoflight, but I would add to your feelings of what you have been so fortunate to have done.

One other thought: it was—and still is—fun! Yes, I have had some moments that did not seem much fun at the time, and my time investigating bad outcomes was hardly happiness incarnate, but over my 55 years as a pilot most memories are recalled in the context of good times. So many of the youngsters I talk to today seem almost antiseptically analytical about aviation (how’s that for alliteration?)—either not having a passion for the wonder of it all or, worse, to have it, but be embarrassed to show it.

I have never lost the sheer joy of flying, no matter what I was doing in what airplane. What greater thrill can there be than to take off in a typical northeast occluded front and burst out the top into the brilliant sunshine? How about the chest-puffing exhilaration of a perfect touchdown in a seaplane on totally still water or the quiet magic of night flight?

Let only the Great Writer himself still your pen—we need your words to remember, not in fond hope of a return to the good old days but to ensure that, going forward, we are always conscious of from whence we came.

Webster “Dan” Todd
AOPA 185075
Oldwick, New Jersey

Twin vs. single

Dave Hirschman made good points for the single, and I would like to add one more (“Dogfight”). In a twin, you spend a great deal of time trying to keep it in the air. By the time you have cleaned up and still cannot keep it in the air, you have lessened the available options for a safe landing. Keeping it in the air uses up all of your initial work; looking for a safe landing spot is left to the last minute, leaving little to choose from.

 With a single, the very first thing you do is set up for the best possible landing (where your options are at their maximum), with an attempt at a restart left to time available. This is one of the main reasons why a single engine out is more successful/survivable compared to a twin.

K. Carl Milbrodt
AOPA 508927
McBee, South Carolina

Owning and flying a twin is the pinnacle of aviation. After years of working up the ladder, mostly in Cessnas, I finally was the owner of Twin Comanche 7750Y, Piper’s brochure airplane for 1966.

After flying and maintaining her for 400 hours, I came to some conclusions. One is the feeling of being sandwiched between two hot engines surrounded by 90 gallons of fuel and only a little opening window on my side: I like big doors. Another is the vulnerability of sitting behind a hollow nose: I like the protection of an engine and whirling prop in front of me. If you have to maintain two engines, you might as well have two airplanes; we now fly a Super Cub and a Cessna 180.

Rod Rawson
AOPA 871128
Ellenton, Florida

Android arrives

I liked Ian Twombly’s story about Android aviation apps, and even more the news that Android is becoming respectable in the aviation software community (“Products”).

I run the Android version of an app named simply “Air Navigation,” which I regard as very useful. For me, as I fly about equally in Western Europe and in the United States, it has the advantage of covering both (as well as much of the world).

The Android version lags the iPad in functionality. However, I have flown with a friend using the same app on his iPad2, and we found that the iPad froze and crashed while my tablets kept running smoothly. Also, he needed an external GPS, which I did not.

Jean Claude Dispaux
AOPA 789907
Saint-Legier, Switzerland

Running on hope

I appreciated Tom Haines’ article (“Waypoints”). I love having a good on-board fuel monitoring system. In fact, I consider it as important as a backup AI. But, the real question is, Why can’t our very expensive airplanes have a fuel indicator that accurately indicates fuel in the tanks?  Or, I would ask the question a different way:  Why is it that the FAA allows these airplanes to not have an accurate fuel monitoring system? My understanding is that the FAA only requires the fuel gauge be accurate when it reads “E.”  Really?

Our transducer-fed computers are great...so long as all the fuel is going through the transducer (and it was properly calibrated). Leave off the cap on a tank before takeoff, and all bets are off. Have a sump valve leak—or another form of leak—and you are equally likely to be surprised. All of which come down to this: We need accurate fuel tank gauges. 

Larry Bloom
AOPA 1215319
Safety Harbor, Florida

We welcome your comments. Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701 or email (pilot@aopa.org). Letters may be edited for length and style before publication.