WhiteKnightTwo Flies, Branson Welcomes New Partner

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Sir Richard Branson suited up on Tuesday for his first flight aboard WhiteKnightTwo, but before climbing aboard the big ship in Aeroshell Square -- and climbing is the right word -- he sat down to sign an agreement with Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi. Under the deal, Aabar will invest $280 million and take about a one-third stake in Virgin Galactic. Will Wheaton, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said the new investment will help to develop a satellite launch system for WhiteKnightTwo. Branson added that there are now plans to build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi. After a quick signing ceremony, Branson boarded WhiteKnightTwo -- which entails grabbing the sides of a round hatch on the side of the fuselage of the starboard hull, about four feet off the ground, and jumping -- and strapped into the lone passenger seat, about 10 feet or so behind the two pilots, right next to a window. The one-of-a-kind ship was towed out to the end of Runway 27 at Oshkosh, where the crew spent close to an hour in preflight prep, then took off into the blue sky for its first public demo flight, before a packed Oshkosh gallery. Aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who hasn't yet flown aboard WK2, narrated the flight from the announcer's booth.

He said WK2 has the wingspan of a B-29 bomber, and SpaceShipTwo will just about fill the space between the two hulls. The big airplane was remarkably quiet and graceful in flight. Branson was ecstatic when he returned. "It flies just beautifully," he told EAA. "The feel and handling is fantastic. You would be surprised an aircraft shaped like that can fly so beautifully It's wonderful!"