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Originally published Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 6:12 AM

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Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot: a very highflying Scotsman

David Mackay, 57, chief pilot of the world’s first airline to space, had planned to become an astronaut and go to the moon and Mars. That didn’t work out, but now it looks as if he’ll pilot the inaugural commercial flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

The New York Times


When Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight accelerates to space carrying Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of the company, and his family, David Mackay is likely to be at the controls.

Mackay, 57, is the chief pilot of the world’s first airline to space, and company officials are increasingly confident that the inaugural flight will lift off from Spaceport America in New Mexico this year. More than 700 people have bought flight tickets, which now sell for $250,000 each.

“It looks like everything is coming together,” said Mac­kay, in a mellow Scottish brogue.

Mackay is a fitting aviator for a new era of space travel. He has flown some of the oldest and slowest planes, including a 1909 Blériot, the type that made the first flight across the English Channel. He’s also flown 747s and British Harrier jets.

With Virgin Galactic, he will be going much faster and higher.

Growing up in Scotland in the 1960s, Mackay was captivated by NASA’s push to put astronauts on the moon. Royal Air Force jets regularly roared above Helmsdale, the village on the east coast of Scotland where he lived.

When he learned that NASA’s astronauts were mostly former military test pilots, Mackay plotted a career path: He would fly fighter jets, become a test pilot, then an astronaut to go to the moon and Mars.

That Britain did not have a space program did not deter him.

“In the naiveté of youth, I didn’t know that,” he said. “I thought by the time I was in my 20s or early 30s, this was something that would be routine.”

Mackay did join the RAF and become a test pilot. But NASA astronauts stopped going to the moon after 1972, and Mackay could not follow in their footsteps.

When he reached his mid-30s, he, like most test pilots, moved to a managerial position behind a desk, which was not where he wanted to be.

He left the RAF in 1995 and became a pilot for Virgin Atlantic, the British airline founded by Branson.

Virgin sponsored the successful effort by the billionaire and adventurer Steve Fossett to become the first person to fly solo and nonstop around the world without refueling.

Mackay traveled to Mojave, Calif., in 2004 to meet with Burt Rutan, the designer of Fossett’s airplane, the GlobalFlyer, and to review the technical documentation. (Fossett died in a plane crash in California in 2007.)

While he was there, Mac­kay tried out the flight simulator for another of Rutan’s creations, a stubby rocket-driven craft that looks something like a tropical fish with two tails, launched into space from a companion aircraft. It was called SpaceShipOne, and Mackay was enthralled. “I quickly became convinced of the potential,” he said.

Later that year, SpaceShipOne crossed the 62-mile altitude that marks the border of outer space, becoming the first privately built spacecraft to do so.

Branson and Rutan announced a collaboration to build a larger version, SpaceShip­Two, which would hurl paying passengers, six at a time, on suborbital jaunts, which are essentially like big roller-coaster rides — up and then back down. The spacecraft is not powerful enough to reach orbit.

Mackay joined Virgin Galactic in 2009 and two years later moved to Mojave, where the test flights are being conducted. He was one of two pilots on the most recent test in January, when the 60-foot-long SpaceShipTwo was ferried by its companion plane to 46,000 feet and then dropped.

“It’s not quite a fall — it’s just a lightness as you separate,” Mackay said. “For a couple of seconds, it’s really quiet.”

A few seconds later, the rocket motor ignited, burning for 20 seconds. The acceleration was “unrelenting,” Mackay said, but the rocket was not as loud as he expected. “It sounded like a very loud vacuum cleaner behind us,” he said.

Overall, SpaceShipTwo is “nothing really new” compared with other aircraft he has flown, he said. To make it to space, the rocket motor will have to fire for one minute instead of 20 seconds. Engineers have had to come up with a way to dampen vibrations in the motor as the fuel depleted.

“We think we’ve now gotten our head around it,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic.

The test flights will resume this summer. Virgin Galactic has just finished modifications to the spacecraft, including a new landing gear. The interior is being spruced up, and the seats for the six passengers will soon be added.

Mackay said the major remaining milestone was to see how the ship behaved as it re-entered the atmosphere at supersonic speed.

Whitesides estimated that there would be three or more flights to finish the objectives of the test program, then a few more to work out the details of operating a spaceflight company. Then Virgin Galactic could be open for business.

Mackay’s career is taking him to space, after all. But now he has other goals.

“I want to get to the moon,” he said. “I want to go to Mars.”

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