October 3, 2013
As a test pilot, Brian Binnie doesn’t have an ordinary day on the job. But one day stands out as extraordinary in his career. It’s the day — Oct. 4, 2004 to be exact — that he flew SpaceShipOne and became the nation’s 435th astronaut while winning Scaled Composites the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Binnie said it wasn’t advertised that he would be the pilot for the second flight. “It was the way Scaled did business; they didn’t put test pilots out there in the media.”
Each flight test had a gremlin or detail that the group hadn’t previously appreciated or understood, he said. “I had no reason to think this flight would be any different. There was a lot of apprehension on my part…”
From the weather, to instrument failures or avionics problems, Binnie said a variety of events could have scuttled the flight that had been in the making for three years. But everything went as scripted.
“We had made some significant changes from Mike (Melvill’s) flight just five days earlier and the way we were going to fly the vehicle,” he said. And for good reason. When Melvill first flew SpaceShipOne on Sept. 29, 2004 the spacecraft started rolling rapidly while traveling at Mach 2.7.
These days much of Binnie’s time is spent on the re-engineered SpaceShipTwo, which will carry six passengers and allow them to experience an out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience with views of the planet from the black sky of space. On Sept. 5, 2013 SpaceShipTwo completed its second rocket-powered supersonic test flight, this time piloted by Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols, and achieved the highest altitude and greatest speed to date. The spaceship flew to 69,000 feet and reached a maximum speed of Mach 1.43, as well as used its feathering re-entry system.
Binnie said they tried to take everything that was good about SpaceShipOne and carry it forward, while at the same time taking out things that were odd. “We think we have a vehicle that is really suitable, reliable and maintainable for the commercial flight environment, for those who are not engineers or test pilots and who just want to see the world from that perspective.”
An alumnus of Brown and Princeton universities, Binnie served for 21 years as a U.S. naval pilot. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1988.
Binnie said the military route is probably the best-recognized path to become a test pilot. “You get immersed in that environment, but the penalty comes that you need to commit to 15 years. It’s a long time and there are no guarantees that you will get accepted into the test pilot community...”
But the training is the best that is available, and it gives you exposure to a wide variety of different aircraft and platforms, he said.
He said he enjoys being a test pilot because it allows you to mix flying with engineering. He also likes sharing a message with young people, “Aerospace is still alive and well, and can offer challenges and career paths that can be extremely rewarding.”
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