The FAA will not permit another Virgin Galactic flight, until they investigate a mishap in Richard Branson’s landmark spaceflight, in July.
As we saw, the flight took place on the 11th of July. Virgin Galactic had the FAA’s permission to fly with a full compliment of company personnel, for the first time. SpaceShipTwo had previously flown only with two pilots and on one occasion, an engineer. So in July, the flight included the two pilots and four ‘specialists’, including Sir Richard Branson.
Virgin Galactic still doesn’t have permission from the FAA to fly paying customers on its aircraft. But many saw the July flight as a dress rehearsal for commercial flights. Such flights are there to reveal issues or potential problems. And as it turns out, this flight may have found one.
Virgin Galactic Under The FAA Microscope?
Officially, the FAA is investigating a deviation of the Virgin Galactic flight from its ATC clearance during descent. The agency stated:
“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.”
In response to this action from the FAA, Virgin Galactic stated that the flight had remained under their pilots’ control throughout. They followed “a controlled and intentional flight path”, keeping the aircraft and its passengers safe. However, Virgin Galactic had previously stated that the flight deviated from its allotted airspace for 1 minute and 41 seconds.
Other media reports suggest that the flight’s problem began during the ascent. An article in the New Yorker suggests that the pilots got a warning that their ascent was too shallow. Some argued that the warning was severe enough to warrant aborting the flight. Virgin Galactic has disputed this interpretation of events, but the FAA grounding came soon after this news.
Flight Schedules, Alterations And New Aircraft
In July, Virgin Galactic aimed to have two more test flights, before commencing commercial operations. Now it seems they may have revised this schedule. The company wants to fly once, in late September or early October. This test flight, named “Unity 23”, will include personnel from the Italian Air Force and the Italian National Research Council.
Later in October, Virgin Galactic now intend to stop operations, in order to conduct work on White Knight Two, the mothership. They will also introduce another SpaceShipTwo vehicle in their fleet. In all, the process will take eight months. It is not clear if “Unity 23” will be followed by “Unity 24”, before this self-imposed grounding.
Virgin Galactic maintains that its previous flight remained safe throughout, and “is working closely with the FAA to support a thorough review and timely resolution of this issue”. So far, we have not heard of any suggestions on how long the FAA’s review will take.