March 27, 2009: White Knight Two Completed Its Third Successful Test Flight

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  • Air Force Flight Test Center

White Knight Two—the world’s largest composite aircraft—had completed its third successful test flight, according to an announcement on this day by Virgin Galactic. The flight was the longest and fastest do date, lasting more than 2-1/2 hours and attaining a maximum speed of 140 knots and an altitude of over 18,000 feet. The flight by Scaled Composites took place at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Scaled Composites was under contract to Virgin Galactic to develop and built this first “mother ship” for SpaceShipTwo. Galactic had sold more than 280 tickets to bring passengers to the edge of space. The rate of testing was scheduled to increase in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, SS2 was about 80 percent complete at the Scaled Composites Mojave fabrication facility.

The Scaled Composites Model 348 White Knight Two (WK2) is a quadjet cargo aircraft that is used to lift the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft to release altitude. It was developed by Scaled Composites from 2007 to 2010 as the first stage of Tier 1b, a two-stage to suborbital-space crewed launch system. WK2 is based on the successful mothership to SpaceShipOne, White Knight, which itself is based on Proteus.  With an open architecture design and explicit plans for multi-purpose use, the aircraft could also operate as a zero-g aircraft for passenger training or microgravity science flights, handle missions in high-altitude testing more generally, or be used to launch payloads other than SpaceShipTwo. A study of use of the aircraft as a forest fire water bomber has also been mentioned, one that would utilize a large carbon composite water tank that could be quickly replenished to make repeat runs over fires.  The first White Knight Two is named VMS Eve after Richard Branson's mother Eve Branson; it was officially unveiled on July 28, 2008, and flew for the first time on December 21, 2008. The second is expected to be named VMS Spirit of Steve Fossett after Branson's close friend Steve Fossett, who died in an aircraft accident in 2007.  As of 2015, it is not clear how many SS2 and WK2 vehicles will actually be built.

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