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image: NTSB

NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher Hart gave his final briefing from Mojave on Monday evening, and provided a timeline for events leading up to Friday's fatal accident during a Virgin Galactic test flight. Hart said telemetry data shows the spaceship was released from WhiteKnightTwo at 10:07:19 local time, Friday morning. At 10:07:21, the engine started on the spaceship; at 29 seconds, it had reached 0.94 Mach, and at 31 seconds, the speed was 1.02 Mach. At that point, the copilot moved the feather control from locked to unlocked. A second step, to engage the feather, was not taken, Hart said, but the feather began to deploy, and at 34 seconds, the telemetry stops. The plan for the flight had indicated the feather should be unlocked at Mach 1.4, Hart said. The on-scene investigation will continue for a few more days, Hart said. Clean-up continues, and parts from the spaceship have been found as far as 35 miles away from the main crash site.

Hart also said the NTSB has formed a new Human Performance Group for this investigation to look at issues relating to the interface between the flight crew and the vehicle, such as displays and checklists. Copilot Michael Alsbury was killed in the accident. Pilot Peter Siebold is still in the hospital recovering from his injuries and has not yet been interviewed by investigators. Hart said the investigation into the crash may proceed faster than usual, due to the "rich data sources" available, including in-cockpit video, but the full report still may take up to a year.

image: NTSB

Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson said Monday his space tourism project will continue and he still plans to be the first passenger. "We will finish building the next spaceship. We will learn from what happened to the first spaceship. We will test it many, many times," Branson said in an interview with CNN to discuss Friday's fatal crash.  "If I didn't feel it was safe enough for myself, I would not ask other people to take a flight." Branson said pilot Peter Siebold, who was injured in Friday's crash, is "doing remarkably well" and should be released from the hospital soon. "No major injuries that can't be fixed," Branson said. NTSB investigative teams remain on site in Mojave and a news conference update is expected later today.

Branson also said the 800 future customers who have placed deposits on future Virgin Galactic flights remain supportive. Two more customers signed up for trips on Friday as a show of support for the effort, he said. "If test pilots hadn't taken risks, we wouldn't have the 747," he said. "We've got to go through the difficult testing stage of creating a space line, in order to make it safe."

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A sale is a sale but Textron Airland probably didn't expect its first customer-owned Scorpion military jets to hit the airshow circuit. DefenseNews is quoting unnamed sources as saying the United Arab Emirates is in "serious discussions" to buy Scorpions for its air demonstration team, Al Fursan. The team currently flies six (with a seventh spare) Aermacchi MB-339 jets made in Italy and has only been flying since 2010. It performs at air events throughout the Middle East. In English, Al Fursan translates to The Knights.

While Textron Airland has been billing the Scorpion as a relatively low-cost light attack and ISR platform, those attributes will likely make it a good airshow performer, too. "That's probably looking at it as an entry point to get in there with the aircraft," the industry source told DefenseNews. UAE was going to buy 48 of the newer Aermacchi MB-346 as trainers but the deal was tied up with a UAV purchase that was cancelled because of technology transfer conflicts. The Scorpion is seen as a potential replacement for that trainer deal.

Embraer recently rolled out is largest military aircraft to date and is apparently taking aim at the venerable C-130 with the KC-390. Embraer hopes to fly the high-wing twin turbofan by the end of the year and certify it by the end of 2015 with the first operational aircraft delivered in 2016. The KC-390 has so far been ordered only by the Brazilian air force but the late-October rollout was attended by representatives of 32 countries, according to IHS Jane's 360. Brazil has ordered a total of 30 aircraft, including the two prototypes, and other countries have signed letters of intent for another 32 aircraft.

The KC-390 is the same basic configuration as a C-130 with the high wing and a rear ramp loading door. It will carry a perfectly balanced load of 30 tons but is more realistically capable of carrying about 26 tons. The C-130 carries about 22 tons. The jet engines give it a speed advantage over the Herc with the KC-390 projected to cruise at about Mach .8. The KC-390, in its basic configuration, can carry about 80 troops, 64 paratroops, three trucks or a single Blackhawk helicopter. It can also be configured for aerial refueling, search and rescue and recon missions.

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image: US Navy

An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter has completed an arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time, the U.S. Navy announced this week. The landing took place aboard USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego on Monday, shortly after noon. Navy Cmdr. Tony Wilson was the pilot. "Today is a landmark event in the development of the F-35C," said Cmdr. Wilson. "It is the culmination of many years of hard work by a talented team of thousands. I'm very excited to see America's newest aircraft on the flight deck of her oldest aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz."

The carrier landing is part of the first at-sea test phase for the F-35C. The test regime will be completed with two F-35C test aircraft from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Patuxent River, Maryland. The crews will perform operational maneuvers, including catapult takeoffs and arrested landings. The test operations also will encompass general maintenance and fit tests for the aircraft and support equipment, as well as simulated maintenance operations. The goal, the Navy said, is to collect data to measure the F-35C's integration to flight-deck operations and to further define the F-35C's operating parameters aboard the aircraft carrier. The test team will analyze the data obtained during flight test operations, conduct a thorough assessment of how well the F-35C operated in the shipboard environment, and advise the Navy regarding any adjustments necessary to ensure that the fifth-generation fighter is fully capable and ready to deploy to the fleet in 2018.

file photo: Wikimedia

When FAA officials agreed to ban flights above Ferguson, Missouri, for 12 days in August, they knew the purpose was not for safety but to restrict media coverage of local street protests, The Associated Press reported on Monday. "They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager, referring to a conversation with the St. Louis County Police, in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by the AP. A manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR all day long. They didn't want media in there. ... There is really ... no option for a TFR that says, you know, 'OK, everybody but the media is OK.'"

The recordings contradict claims by the St. Louis County Police Department that the restriction was solely for safety and had nothing to do with preventing media from witnessing the violence or the police response, the AP said. The street protests followed the death of Michael Brown, 18, who was shot during an encounter with local police. The AP obtained the tapes of the conversations via a Freedom of Information Act request. "They [the tapes] raise serious questions about whether police were trying to suppress aerial images of the demonstrations and the police response by violating the constitutional rights of journalists with tacit assistance by federal [FAA] officials," said reporters Jack Gillum and Joan Lowy in the AP story.

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Losing people in a flight program is gut-wrenchingly hard and today I feel for all of the folks at Scaled Composites. None of them set out to lose a friend and injure another when they prepared to launch SpaceShipTwo last Friday. Their goal was the same as every person or team that has ever taken a new flying machine aloft--to test it and return with good data to prove its worth, make it better and move the program forward. Then everyone goes home and has a nice dinner at home with their family.

I have seen that happen countless times. I have also seen the dreadful cases when it does not. Something bad happens, the team is in shock, and the grief can be paralyzing as we think of the family of those lost. We honor their memory by continuing on, but each time we lose a little of ourselves in the process. It is painful. It leaves scars. Eventually, you begin to ask yourself if any of it is worth it.

The truth is, for those who choose to set foot in the arena, it really is. We believed that going in and we have to continue to believe it in order to progress. The history of humanity's  progress in exploration is written in the blood of those who have gone before. Whether that progress was made on the ground, on the sea or in the air. There is a great deal of risk in doing something for the first time and yet more risk in doing something that exposes the human body to forces far beyond what it can tolerate and survive. Aviation is truly risky because of that exposure. Upping the ante to supersonic flight near the edge of space simply makes it exponentially worse. And such are the lessons learned from the space programs, both governmental and commercial and from the SpaceShipTwo accident.

The best we can do is to look realistically at risks and try to come up with ways to protect ourselves from failures. In my years at NASA, I was at the pointy end of space flight operations. We learned the hard way that there was never any question too small nor any problem too insignificant that didn't merit addressing.

I have spent hours—days, really--sitting in meetings listening to presentations and discussions over something as seemingly trivial as a shallow scratch on the inside bore of a Space Shuttle fuel line. If that line feeds a monstrous turbo pump feeding fuel to a massive rocket engine, we can't simply accept the scratch.  We have to ask if the fuel line has sufficient strength to hold the required pressure even with the scratch present. We have to ask that because the wall of the line was deliberately designed to be as thin as possible to save weight. But not too thin.

So we ask what caused the scratch in the first place. Did a particle come from upstream? If so, what came apart? Where did the particle go? Is it still in the engine? Could it get into a bearing? Disrupt a seal? Repairing the scratch is an issue because the edges might cause localized flow disruption or heating. Can we be sure that it won't get worse? That it won't turn into a crack?

NASA solved problems like this by creating a huge organization that was, at times, mind-numbingly difficult to deal with. We often wished for our own hangar--just us, our airplane and the total responsibility for deciding if a flight was safe or not. No bureaucracy, no review boards, no piles of paperwork or safety reviews.

But the truth is, those very things are what kept us asking questions of one another, kept us probing for answers. We had a saying for this process: We called it pounding everything flat to within a nanometer. We had a process that allowed the most junior guy in the back row to listen to all the arguments and then stand up and object. While those of us at the table might secretly sigh and wish the room had stayed quiet when we asked for objections, we knew that this was how we stayed safe, by continuously questioning ourselves. It was maddening. It was frustrating. And it was necessary.

And this frames the challenge faced by the commercial space industry. "Commercial" connotes the need to eventually make a profit and therefore, efficiency is important. They don't have thousands of people to probe and question; they have only a few. No matter how big they get or how successful, the number will still be a few. When you have no one to look over your shoulder, no peer to review your work, you are frighteningly exposed. You have no back-up, no second set of eyes.  

An old friend of mine used to say that if you weren't at least a little afraid when taking a new flying machine aloft, you clearly didn't understand what it was that you were about to do. And it's true. You need always to have that edge of doubt, that nagging guy on your shoulder asking if you have thought of everything. Because a small organization doesn't have the little guy in the back row to raise his (or her) hand.

Flying spacecraft is an extremely high-energy game. While we don't yet know--and may not for some time—what precisely happened to SpaceShipTwo, we do know that at the speeds and altitudes at which it was flying, there is little forgiveness of error. The energy is too high, the aerodynamic loads too large. Even the X-15, built like a stove pipe and hell-for-stout, had an inflight break-up when it got sideways and into a spin at extreme speed and altitude.

Flying into or near the edge of space is very, very hard. It is maddeningly hard. If you haven't tried it, it has almost nothing to do with the level of difficulty of atmospheric flight, which is itself difficult enough. Failures in spaceflight usually come down to an engineering explanation for the root cause. For the loss of Challenger, it was an O-Ring that got too cold for the design of the joint. For the loss of Columbia, it was a piece of foam that didn't stay attached to the tank and, when it flew free, knocked a hole in the fragile high-temperature leading edge of the wing. But in truth, both of these were really  "failures of imagination," as was so eloquently stated by a friend and colleague who took over the Space Shuttle program after the loss of Columbia. "We simply never imagined that this failure could happen," he said.  

And that is the reason that we have to accept a certain level of risk as we try to fly in space. We can't imagine everything that can happen. If we could somehow travel back in time and advise our forebears of problems they would encounter, they might say, "thanks, we never would have thought of that ourselves." Or, they might look at us strangely and say "go away…we think we have this figured out, and we'll never go if we don't accept some risk."

We have to let people take risks, just as we have to let our kids fall off their bikes and skin their knees. Without taking some risk, we will never rise above the level of where we are now. But we have to take measured risks. We have to think about back-ups. We have to understand that if we accept a potentially fatal risk without a back-up when a back-up was available, we might be hurting the future just as we are hurting ourselves in the present. For the public is neither tolerant of failure nor of taking risks. At some point, with regard to public access to space, accidents may instigate a hue and cry, demanding regulations that prohibit the taking of any risk at all.

At that point, the game is over. Exploration dies. The race stagnates. It is a huge responsibility, sitting at the junction of risk and reward. It affects more than ourselves, but also future generations and the dreams of humanity. Apart from the technical challenges, that's why spaceflight is so very, very hard. So maddeningly hard.

Paul F. Dye is editor of AVweb's sister publication, KITPLANES. He is a retired NASA lead flight director and oversaw many Space Shuttle missions and International Space Station operations. He is deeply involved in experimental aircraft and aviation.

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Picture of the Week

Jim Coleman of Middleton, ID treats us to color and drama in our latest "PotW." Click through for more images from AVweb readers.