How to choose a test pilot

The October 4, 2004 New Yorker magazine carries an interesting article by Ian Parker about Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne, which won the X-Prize.  Rutan discusses his concern during the first flight that his friend Mike Melvill, 63, might have been killed.

“I’d have lost a friend.  You could say, ‘I should pick a pilot who I’m less friendly with, a guy who’s a stranger to me and just working for me, so if he gets killed…'”  [Rutan] smiled.  “You could say, ‘Let’s have a lawyer fly it'”–a pause–“‘or a liberal.'”

Rutan is quite expansive on the uselessness of the federal government, especially as evidenced by the spectacle of NASA’s inefficiency.  Ian Parker inserts some balance by noting that Rutan operates from the Mojave airport, a recent recipient of $3.9 million from the FAA to improve taxiways.

15 thoughts on “How to choose a test pilot

  1. Rutan’s planes mostly suck. Spaceship One seems kind of cool, but it’s one of the few designs that doesn’t feature one of those stupid canards.

  2. It is kinda funny that Rutan says the fed gov is useless. In this quote (below) he gives the air force credit for training him to become an expert in his field. I wonder how much of this cost the government has recouped from Rutan?

    In an interview conducted by Joe Godfrey and copyrighted by the The AVweb Group, Rutan talked about the training he had received in working for the U.S. Air Force. “I do consider myself an expert in flying qualities, and the development of flying qualities through flight tests and so on, and the reason is in the first seven years out of college that’s all I did, flying qualities flight test. I never did any performance flight test. I was a specialist on flying qualities for about 13 different programs and so I came out of that a recognized expert. When I say ‘recognized expert,’ I wrote MIL 83-691, which was the Air Force’s spec for testing stall and spin in all types of airplanes. I still think today, even though I don’t do a lot of flying, I can get in an airplane and have a good feel for what it needs to improve it and how to do it. I’m not an expert in hardly anything but that, that one thing I would claim.”

  3. I went to the Scaled Composites “Family Day” last summer. Awesome. We could touch the White Knight and SpaceShip-1. Upon hearing the 20-minute Rutan motivation speech, “brilliant” I thought. The design methodology was superb (like the entire front end of White Knight, including the cockpit, is an exact copy of the SpaceShip and the White Knight has a special control mode that lets it fly *exactly* like the SpaceShip so “built-in trainer”). Just one example of dozens.

    Rutan’s ripping-up the gov’t was masterful (his point being “the gov’t never takes a program to a logical conclusion, preferring endless ‘new start’ programs to actual completion-of-missions”. So true (I now work on USAF satellite development ugh “every bird a clean-slate design”. Why?).

    Rutan’s test pilots are all home-grown (he made a bid deal of this). “We do it our way” says he. This is of course an incredible motivator as quality people are very hard to come by in Mojave (I was exiled by my employer –Northrop– to Palmdale for the last two years before retirement. The work was great –B-2 Bomber– but Palmdale sucked and Mojave is worse).

    Regarding “canards suck”. Well, maybe. But Rutan’s point was to make as safe a plane as possible for Joe Blow, which he accomplished.

  4. This is typical libertarian crap. Almost as bad as Western ranchers bitching about not getting their right to use government lands or drug companies crying about not being about collect profits on “their” patents, most of which were created by government research and money. Fucking idiots.

  5. Is that article available online anywhere? I can’t find it either with Google or in the New Yorker’s website.

  6. Brian Binnie (one of four Rutan test pilots) apparently spent 20 years as a Navy pilot, making him perhaps less than completely home-grown.

    His company bio gives him about twice the flight hours of any of the other three pilots. This, combined with his military service, clearly made him totally unsuitable for the SS1 record flights.

  7. Re: Binnie. My irony meter is working just fine, but Binnie *did* fly the final SS1 flight, the one that went to 367,442 feet (or so) on Oct. 4 and broke the longstanding altitude record for aircraft (354,300, set in 1963).

    From listening to Rutan and reading about him, I think his position vis a vis the federal government is a little more nuanced than “it sucks.” I’m sure there’s a strong streak of libertarian, big-government-is-bad thinking there. But regarding what he’s done with the SS1 program, he’s reserved most of his fire for NASA *and* the bloated private space establishment that’s grown up around the manned space program. And even when he’s bashing NASA, he’s selective; he’s gone out of his way to praise the science and interplanetary stuff done out of JPL, for instance.

    Anyway, the surprising thing is that no one here commented on his Egyptian pyramid mural or his speculations that the pyramids were built by a race of ETs as a monument to their stay on Earth shortly before they were forced (by environmental change, perhaps) to leave. See also Carl Hoffman’s profile on Rutan in Wired magazine last year.

  8. Re Re Binney: I apologise for the low quality of my research–I just saw the ‘home-grown’ line and recalled that somebody had been a military test pilot.

    As for Rutan, I have always admired him and his exploits, and will therefore not try to find out more about his weird wired beliefs.

  9. Gary: “I wonder how much of this cost the government has recouped from Rutan.”

    The answer is in the quote you give: “I wrote MIL 83-691, which was the Air Force’s spec for testing stall and spin in all types of airplanes”

    Sounds like Rutan served his time, took loads of risks and made military flying safer. Sound to me the goverment got its money worth to me! 🙂

  10. Bas,
    I am not trying to belittle any of Rutan’s acheivements. As a civilian working for the airforce, he more than earned his pay.

    My beef is the tone that he takes, which I interpret as ‘biting the hand that feeds you’. Without the training, support, equipment, etc.. that the airforce (and nasa by way of technological development that supports the airforce) I do not believe that he would be in the position that he is in now.

    Besides, if you really want to find a self-made entreprenuer in the space marketplace you would be better off looking at David W. Thompson, of orbital sciences. Oops, guess he worked at nasa also (an mit alum too)

  11. I see what you mean, but I think a little criticism is justified here. He has a point that NASA hasn’t done much to bring spaceflight to the masses or even make it cheaper and safer, which would mean not wasting tax payers’ money.

    The good thing about people biting the hand that feeds them is that you can rest assured they know the hand in question rather well and wouldn’t bite unless they had a good reason.

  12. I do not think that the us government is overjoyed by the idea of having a geat(er) number of entities capable of spaceflight.

    This would greatly increase the possibility of ballistic delivery of, well, somethng bad…

    An unfortunate side-effect of extra-planetary society may be that the importance of earth’s governments may go the way of the british empire.

  13. All I can say to that is, why go to space to drop something nasty back down when you can simply truck, ship or fly it in?

    But then again many of the measures to increase “national security” seem a little out of touch with reality and mostly designed to give the general public the idea the goverment is doing something as really making things safer would be all but invisible.

    By the way, that last paragraph is not just directed at the US goverment. Most western countries are guilty of that in one way or another…

  14. I’ve heard Burt speak many times at Oshkosh over the years, and he is pretty hard on the goverment in general and “Nay-Say” in particular.

    So I was very surprised to see the text of a recent speech where he said he would peruse FAA certification for Space Ship Two. His words were to the effect that it only adds 8 to 10 percent to the cost of a program to accomplish FAA certification over the work he would do anyway just based on his personal ethics.

    The question I had is “does the FAA certify space ships?”.

  15. It’s funny how Gary criticizes Rutan for the fact that he got government-funded training, as if that makes him a hypocrite for saying anything negative about the government. If anything, it just proves his point that the government’s training was useless. The training didn’t benefit society, only Rutan himself.

    Nobody has a choice about paying taxes. If I’m forced to pay for these government services why should I not take advantage of them?! Am I not allowed to criticize the Canadian government because they “paid” for my schooling with my parents’ tax money?

    That’s the beauty of big government: they have their fingers in everything, so anyone who dares criticize them can be labelled a hypocrite unless they’ve lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the arctic tundra for their entire lives. *Everyone* who’s lived in civilzation has taken advantage of some kind of government benefit, even if it’s only the roads they walk on. They had no choice! It’s ridiculous to dramatically note how much of a benefit someone’s derived from the government. All those benefits were paid for with someone’s tax money, for fuck’s sake. It’s not like they were a gift from some generous uncle.

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