FAA Grounds Virgin Galactic Over Course Deviation On Branson Flight

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Virgin Galactic says nobody was in any danger, including its founder and CEO Sir Richard Branson and three other passengers, aboard the landmark July 11 flight of its Unity spacecraft despite an FAA probe into the flight. The agency announced on Thursday that it was banning any further flights until it completes an investigation into the highly publicized flight in which the spacecraft deviated from its planned course. The deviation, which lasted a minute and 41 seconds, reportedly could have put Unity out of reach of a safe glide back to the company’s spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic admits the deviation occurred but says it was all handled properly by the crew.

“Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico,” a company spokesperson told the BBC. But the account in the New Yorker that broke the story claimed the deviation should have resulted in the flight being aborted. The company said Unity encountered unexpected winds and the pilots handled it. “At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centres or cause a hazard to the public.”

The FAA says it had people in the control room while this was going on and it will lead an investigation into what happened. “Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety,” it said in a statement. Virgin Galactic stock dropped 7 percent the day after the FAA announcement.

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45 COMMENTS

  1. Hmm… Let’s see. Bob Hoover performs in an airshow. No real problem, no one hurt. FAA investigates anyway.

    Virgin Galactic encounters wind. No real real problem, no one hurt. FAA investigates anyway.

    Ordinarily I would say “arbitrary and capricious.” Except for this tidbit:

    “Virgin Galactic stock dropped seven percent the day after the FAA announcement.”

    It would be interesting to have the SEC investigate the FAA for any problems here. (Or AvWeb to investigate Bezos to see if any problem there.)

    • Well said. How does it go? “We’re from the FAA, and we’re not happy until you’re not happy.”

      Perhaps the investigation that really should take place is over the fact that NONE of the three-letter agencies are authorized by the Constitution. If we want aviation to prosper, perhaps grounding those folks – permanently – might be the best course of action.

  2. In the first “Star Wars” movie, Han Solo tells Luke Skywalker, “Flying in space ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”

    Incredibly, Virgin Galactic has not learned that lesson. Your typical agricultural applicator has to fly precise flight paths to evenly apply pesticide to a client’s field. It seems Virgin Galactic cannot follow a pre-planned, programmed trajectory.

    For a space operation, this is absolutely incredible. Knowledgeable engineers designed the flight path, knowledgeable engineers determined the typical errors that the vehicle might encounter in flying that path, and knowledgeable flight planners requested airspace restrictions sufficient to accommodate any expected deviation. The well-qualified pilots flew practice missions, and, it is assumed, assiduously practiced the mission in flight simulators.

    And yet they couldn’t execute properly. Incredible. Heck, the recent Astra launch out of Kodiak had one its five rocket motors explode at launch, causing it to skitter across the field before it finally rose, and it STILL stayed within its cleared airspace.

    Spaceflight requires precision, and the FAA is well-justified in demanding to know why Virgin Galactic was unable to follow its planned trajectory. I wouldn’t be surprised if the root cause was Virgin Galactic rushing to beat the Blue Origin launch.

    • Don’t jump too far to conclusions. In the SS1 program, the FAA defined reentry box was FAR smaller than requested (in addition to some other inane requirements), and they were only sometimes able to hit it. Perhaps it is the same here – this suborbital vehicle is not like any other aircraft or spacecraft, so to treat it arbitrarily in an unsuitable way would be a problem with the regulator, not the operator.

      • Blaming the excursion on winds aloft opens a bigger can of worms. The VG vehicle isn’t guided by balsa tail fins and applying a little “Kentucky windage” with a three-foot long launch rod. It’s a bit more high-tech.

        Thousands of airplanes cross the Atlantic and Pacific every year, and, for many of them, the winds aloft aren’t as forecast. Yet, flights from Tokyo to Seattle don’t end up in Portland; flights from New York to Paris don’t end up in Madrid. The aircraft monitor their position and compensate for unexpected drift.

        It would amaze me if the VG spacecraft didn’t do likewise. I’d assume, if the pilots were hand-flying the spacecraft, that appropriate guidance would be provided through their flight director.

        What happened make sense if the winds exceeded the capability of the spacecraft to react. I find this hard to believe… compensating for crosswinds at Mach 2 is FAR easier than my 80-knot homebuilt. Even if the crosswinds are ten times stronger.

        But if it *is* true, that’s where that can of worms comes in. The FAA will, quite rightly, ask, “What are you doing to prevent it from happening again?” Will VG be required to launch a high-altitude weather mission before each launch?

        • If a trans-Pacific flight finds itself a few degrees of course, it has about 8 hours to correct for it.
          If SS2 finds itself a few degrees off course (and such a thing is hardly unexpected given the nature of the trajectory, motor, wind variations etc), it has a few seconds at best to correct for it, then it’s outside of the sensible atmosphere and ballistic. From that point, they must wait until after re-entry to make adjustments – which is exactly what they did in this case.

          Apples and footballs. Not reasonable to compare.

          • Concept is the same. Both vehicles have plenty of time to adjust their profiles.

            The VG spacecraft releases from it carrier about 45,000 to 50,000 feet…which is above most of the jet stream. The rocket motor runs for at least a minute after passing through the last vestiges of the jet stream, leaving plenty of time to correct the profile. Plus, of course, the vehicle should have perfect understanding of the winds aloft at the time it separates from the carrier…it’s been flying captive for tens of minutes.

            Even descending, the time of exposure is going to be minor. Two minutes exposed to an unexpected jet stream of *200 MPH* puts it off-course by just ~seven miles.

            On ascent, there’s plenty of time to apply correction. We’re not talking Mr. Spock with an E6B here; the onboard computers should be tracking the spacecraft position vs. its planned profile. With a minute or so of engine burn left AFTER exiting the major portion of the jet stream, that’s plenty of time to update the required vehicle attitude.

    • I’m with you on this Ron. I started my career 45 years ago launching satellites into orbit. This is just best practice.

      Even though there were no lives at risk on our launches, the system was grounded until all anomalies that were detected on a mission were analyzed, a root cause determined, and corrective action taken. Space launch (even sub-orbital) is a very unforgiving environment and you just don’t take unnecessary chances.

      The FAA is entirely in the right here. Saying a major deviation is no big deal as the flight crew handled it is not an acceptable answer. VG needs to be able to explain the root cause of the deviation and how it will be prevented in the future.

      • We’ve gone to “off course” to “outside authorized airspace” to “major deviation”.

        Seems there was a deviation from the flight plan. How large was the deviation? Was this deviation so large that the craft had to perform extraordinary maneuvers to make the landing site? Did the craft not have enough energy to make the primary or secondary landing sites? Was the craft outside authorized airspace?

      • I probably know a bit more than the average pilot. Forty years in aerospace, developing satellite concepts, leading teams that design and manufacture satellites, acting as test conductor for both ground and space testing, and operating Air Force early warning satellites will give one a modicum of knowledge of space system design. My record stands at 17-0-2 (seventeen successful satellites, no failures, two still in storage).

        Though I will admit, I’ve never worked on a launch vehicle. Led the launch system integration effort for a couple of satellites, though, which means I had to work closely with the booster folks.

    • Evidently VG not only learned their lesson, they were able to plan for such contingencies, in that the spacecraft made it back to the planned landing point.

      Knowledgeable engineers designed the flight path, knowledgeable engineers determined the typical errors that the vehicle might encounter in flying that path, and knowledgeable engineers place some margin of error for contingencies.

      Even in the golden age of Gemini and Apollo, while planning for everything, engineers could not account for everything. There were, especially in the beginning, always some formula or parameter that needed tweaking or, even some physics that were not completely understood and/or not realized until after a flight or two. So then, not thinking of everything, they planned for contingencies.

      Hardly any space launch or trajectory is “perfect”. Flight engineers refrain from using such a word, and don’t even like “normal”….so much so, they made up a word; “nominal”. As in “within parameters”, everything looks “nominal”, not in an abort or unsafe state.

      So then, VG made a launch and recovery that was by all accounts, “nominal”. Anything other and it would have been off nominal and at best, unable land at the intended site.

  3. Might have been more prudent to say “it was safer to continue than to abort” rather than “we pressed and it was fine”

    Virgin agreed to FAA conditions to get flight authorization…if they didn’t think they could meet it and did it anyway, it is a management safety disregard, a big issue for pax ops (even in the unique civil space regulatory environment), or they encountered something they weren’t prepared for and it’s an engineering/ops issue to investigate/resolve before flights resume…the decision not to abort when encountering abort criteria is a downstream, related, but separate issue, if not evaluated at the time as a safer outcome to continue vs “get-there-itis” with boss onboard and heavy PR interest (get-there-first-itis?), I’d expect some interest in PIC and Ops team decisionmaking process.

  4. Lost in Space. Be off by a few hundred feet on the RUUDY.6 at KTEB and see what happens to you. I am sure that any one of us who deviate from a flight plan would be taken to the woodshed. It is your turn to drop trou Sir Richard. Show your cheeks, take your licks, and get on with it. To blame the error on the wind……would be to tell your parents that it was your brothers fault for pitching the ball that you hit through the garage window (or the barbers fault for your bad haircut).

    God bless.

  5. The reason for the investigation is to determine why they continued with the mission when, as the New Yorker article asserted, the safest alternative was to abort. During any flight, if a pilot is faced with a “…scare the s*** out of you…” decision, and the pilot does not err on the side of safety, the FAA will investigate and come down hard. Excuses such as “well, the boss was on board” or “it would have cost a lot to do that” are not going to fly anymore. After the 737 Max debacle, the FAA is under incredible pressure (deservedly so, brought on by their own past ignorance and lack of oversight).

    Virgin Galactic is a lot closer in concept to the X-15 program than to any other current launch system. Test pilots pushing the edge of aircraft capabilities, materials, their own skills, are highly desired traits in the experimental, go where no man has gone before realm. But commercial aviation? Anyone who does not believe that Richard Branson’s presence and the press this flight was receiving did not influence the decisions made has their head in a very huge pile of sand. Virgin Galactic’s pilots are the safety system, not computers, and if their human safety system is influenced by money, peer pressure, the bosses’ egos, then Houston, we have a problem.

    • I also recommend following the link Russ included to the “account in the New Yorker”. It tells a story of a management that are “innocents in the woods”, that fire its two strongest voices for flight test experience and safety. If that’s the real underlying cause, then good on the FAA for being strict.

  6. So weather forecast was not precise – who’d a thunk of that?

    Does the design not have a trend vector for course variation? That was planned for a fast crewed air vehicle a half century ago.

    So hypocritical braggart Branson spins PR such as the meaningless ‘safety is out priority’ buzz phrase, complete with slide-by-you statements? Red Flag on his lack of leadership.

  7. Since when does the FAA get to regulate “space”?

    FAA regulated airspace extends to 60,000’, if they were 20 miles up at the time if deviation, corrected the flight (space) path, how does the FAA get to ground the crew and company?

    I totally get the need for precision, and hand flying that part of the profile may not be best practice (if that’s what they in fact did), but absolutely no flight is perfect, never will be.

    That’s why we have autopilots and real pilots (not R2D2) in the front seats.

    Just my opinion, I could be wrong.

    • Congress defined FAA as civil space authority in US…it also waived numerous safety restrictions…so like flying in an experimental, your passengers should be briefed that this isn’t airline level of safety, though unlike experimental, they can charge for the flight. At some undefined point the “experiment” will end…perhaps ( though hopefully not) at the site of a smoking hole occupied by the mortal remains of some very wealthy folks…at which point the lawyers will litigate it to oblivion.

  8. “deviated from its planned course”

    What am I missing here?

    Did they deviate and fly out of approved airspace? Did they deviate and were unable to correct? Did they deviate and need to activate backup systems and/or emergency procedures? Almost all flights, space or otherwise deviates from a planned course. Just what’s the emergency here?

    If deviating from a planned course or trajectory is cause for alarm, are we now requiring NASA to ditch the launch corridors and fly a predicted vector? How much off course or vector would cause concern? 2 miles? 20 ft? 2 inches?

  9. To paraphrase a WWII German General: “Space flight is chaos and the reason American companies are so good at it is they practice it on a daily basis.” No flight system is perfect nor will one ever be created. It is foolish to confuse perfection with reliability and while we can achieve the latter, the former is impossible to attain. Jet powered planes have been reliably flying for 6+ decades and yet engines still come apart mid-flight. Do I concern myself with this chance happening? Of course not and I suspect no one, myself included, gives it a 2nd thought when boarding an airliner.

    I don’t recall the FAA getting involved with Apollo or the STS (Shuttle) and the problems with those programs are well documented. “Risk, Gentlemen, is our business*”. It’s the reason private enterprise got into the space race. That, and to make a buck.

    * Captain James T. Kirk

    • Apollo and the STS were governmental programs, and the FAA didn’t have authority to intervene when they had problems. In any case, all the expertise was within NASA (and its contractors), so the FAA wouldn’t have brought anything to the table.

      I’ll say I’m not too fired up about having the FAA given authority for civilian space operations. They don’t have the expertise. Hopefully, they’ve hired some industry professionals (and to forestall the obvious question, yes, I did consider applying after I’d retired :-), but the problem is that they’re trying to fit things into the FAA “template,” and space operations are TOTALLY different from aircraft operations. It’s like the US Space Force; all the people in charge are aircraft pilots thus they’re only reference is Tooey Spaatz in 1943. “It’s another kind of flying, all together.”

      The regulatory problem with Virgin Galactic/Blue Origin/et al is not that they’re developing experimental spacecraft, it’s that they intend to provide commercial passenger-carrying service. That opens the gates to government regulation, because somewhere, someone is going to claim that the public must be protected.

      I don’t think it’s that major of an issue, just because of the high risk factor involved in space operations and the litigious propensities in the US. First shipful of billionaires (or even millionaires) that fries, the company in question will be buried in lawsuits. It’s a self-correcting problem.

      Branson and Bezos should have set up their operations outside the US… South America would have been a good choice. Set it up as a foreign corporation, keep it out of the US courts, and spread the wealth around the government of whatever country they end up in to ensure positive treatment.

      • Remember when we used to make fun of countries that were so mired in government red tape and interference that they couldn’t get anything accomplished, or be competitive in business?

        Yes–WE NOW ARE THOSE COUNTRIES!

        • Indeed, Canada and US have become crazy, overlapping fiefdoms and regulations, and enforcement so stupid that people on a yacht arriving in the Victoria BC area had to stay offshore for two weeks because gummint goons would not do that other countries do – accept time at sea as self-quarantine. Then they’d have to get a test for COVID-19 – but how when they are not allowed to land? (The few yacht occupants had come across the Pacific with little trouble.)

  10. I’m disgusted with comments in this thread – I wouldn’t hire many of the commenters who do not think things through, do not read for comprehension. I definitely would not hire ‘Mike Winchester’ of stupid sneering.

    Not aviation quality.

  11. What IS Eurocontrol. An online check with Wikipedia shows:
    Functions and centres[edit]
    Eurocontrol provides a set of different services:

    Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC)
    Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC) – coordinates flight plans and actual traffic.
    EAD – centralised access to AIS information.
    Central Route Charges Office (CRCO) – collects en-route (and aerodrome approach) charges on behalf of Air Navigation Service providers (ANSPs).
    Eurocontrol Experimental Centre (EEC) – ATM research, simulations, etc.
    Institute of Air Navigation Services (IANS) – training and e-learning.
    Eurocontrol Safety Regulatory Requirement (ESARRs) – basis requirements for certification and designation according to EC regulation 2096/2005.

    From their own website: Eurocontrol is a pan-European, civil-military organization dedicated to supporting European Aviation.
    Projects include Data snapshots, Aviation sustainability briefing, Covid impact on Eurocontrol airports, 4 year forecasts, think papers, Stakehold from an impact of climate change, Stakeholder on sustainable aviation fuels. (Does anyone else think this SOUNDS LIKE A COLLEGE THINK TANK?)

    “Manage of European aviation network and European Critical Infrastructure”. “Digitizing and modernizing the way air traffic is managed over Europe.” (again, a THINK TANK).

    “WHAT WE DO”
    “Our activities touch on operations, service provisions, concept development, research, Europe-wide project implementation, performance improvements, coordination with key aviation players at various levels as well as providing support to the future evaluation of strategic orientations of aviation.” (LOOK AT ALL OF THE WEASEL WORDS HERE, NOW I KNOW IT’S A THINK TANK–THEY DON’T DO THINGS.”

    “Eurocontrol collects route charge on behalf of its Member States through its Central Route Charges Office. The CRCO runs an effective and centralized system that ensures these charges–essential to the funding of the European Air Traffic Management System are recovered.” AHA! They don’t DO things, they plan, they administer, they “coordinate”, they “provide support”, but THE BIG THING THEY DO IS RECOVER AND ALLOCATE MONEY AND SEND IT BACK TO “MEMBER STATES.”

    Re-read the words they use to describe themselves–Just what the world needs–more government “planners”–“coordinators”–administrators–“think tanks.”Sounds like the FAA to me–except the FAA actually DOES have an ATC system, and people that actually regulate and work the system on behalf of pilots, mechanics, manufacturers, and aircraft owners.

    Let’s not give this too much credence–with the size of many European countries about the size of States in the U.S.–government may decide we “need” a “think tank” like this in the U.S. to “administer” user fees. (Sarcasm–we are well on the way now–the difference is that we collect fees fairly efficiently through fuel taxes–government would rather act like this “model” and impose yet another bureaucracy.”)

    • There has been discussion, and perhaps movement toward, more seamless transfer of aircraft between country airspace.

      But:
      – I have not followed it in detail. Wikipedia’s article Single European Sky may be a good resource for that. Some countries already coordinate closely – the Maastricht centre for example.

      – I have not parsed your word soup to separate wheat from chafe, rational management of airspace involves planning just as pilots plan a flight before taking off. Facilitating payment of usage charges is important to viability of the system. Eurocontrol has a common training capability Etc. I suggest Wikipedia’s article on Eurocontrol.