Dave Mackay: How I became a spaceship pilot

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There’s more than a few “out of this world” roles at Virgin Galactic.
From those who’ll train future astronauts to float in zero G, to engineers building commercial vehicles that can fly faster than the speed of sound. But it’s safe to say that Dave Mackay’s 9-5 is the one which is most unlikely to appear on any CV!

Here we find out the steps Dave took from growing up in the Scottish Highlands, to becoming Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot and the first Scot to travel in space.
 

(Courtesy photo)

I wanted to be a pilot ever since . . .
… I was a young boy. I grew up in a little village in the north of Scotland which was also part of an area used for low flying, military aircraft. From the age of five I would see Buccaneers from the Royal Naval Air Station flying over the sea, across my village and up the valley. This valley has a sharp turn, so it was incredibly exciting to watch these aircraft flying low to the ground at high speed, making a huge amount of noise and then turn an almost hairpin corner into the valley. I remember one day being at a friend’s house, who lived high up in the valley and seeing an aircraft flying below us, which shows how low they would be flying. It was spectacular and from as early as I can remember, I wanted to be a pilot.

I became interested in space . . .
… thanks to my Mother. I had a perfect attendance at Sunday school when I was a child and was given a book about space as a prize. It had a Mercury Capsule on the front cover and inside were drawings of rockets. A few of these rockets had the British Union Jack flag on the side. Then there was the incredible Apollo program happening in the U.S which inspired millions. I vividly remember the 1968 Apollo 8 Mission which flew around the moon; it happened close to Christmas and the astronauts on board took the ‘Earth Rise’ photo which showed how small the Earth was in the context of our Solar System. It enthralled me and when I looked into the backgrounds of the Astronauts who were flying these missions and discovered that many were test-pilots, I became even more determined to get my wings.
 
I first thought I could become an astronaut . . .
… when watching the Apollo astronauts flying through space — it was awe inspiring, but I didn’t tell anyone at the time that I wanted to become an astronaut. Being a young lad living in the Scottish Highlands, I was afraid people might tell me I was being ridiculous, but I always had this inner confidence that if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could do it, why couldn’t I? Someone had to do it after all.

I decided that I would copy those astronauts by becoming a pilot, then a test pilot and would then apply to be an astronaut. Everything I did from that moment was with that plan in mind. I wrote a letter to Duncan Simpson, who was the Chief Test Pilot at Hawker Siddeley Aviation asking how I could become a Test Pilot. He replied and said the only way to do it would be to join the RAF, so that became my ambition. Duncan also came from the North of Scotland which gave me more belief too.

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To give me the best chance of achieving my dream I decided . . .
… to gain a degree in a related study first and then apply to the RAF. I went to the University of Glasgow and studied Aeronautical Engineering. My degree has certainly helped in my career, especially once I became a test pilot, as it meant I was able to talk the same language as the engineers. I think any of the sciences or engineering subjects are helpful to study if you’re planning for a career as a pilot. However, I wouldn’t say  a specialist degree is vital to becoming a pilot, it’s more about gaining experience in the air.

It was while at Glasgow that I learnt to fly, through membership of the University Air Squadron, which was run by the RAF. As a student I managed to clock up 132 hours of flying which was a fantastic start to life as a pilot. I then joined the RAF immediately after I left university.
 
In the RAF . . .
… I wanted to fly fast aeroplanes at low altitude. The basic training in the RAF takes about three years and once I completed that I then did further training so that I could learn to fly the Harrier. Before SpaceShipTwo came along, I believe the Harrier was probably the most exciting vehicle to fly, not least because its uniquely successful ability to take-off and land vertically, really set it apart.

The ultimate aim of joining the RAF was to become a test-pilot and as soon as I had the minimum experience I applied for test-pilot school. Fortunately, I had studied French while at school and was sent to France to complete my test-pilot training. Once I had passed I was stationed back in the UK where I joined the Fixed Wing Test Squadron, eventually becoming the Commanding Officer of Fast Jet Flight Test.  The RAF is renowned for its extremely high standard of flying and training. I consider myself to be a cautious flyer, because it’s been instilled in me from day one, to respect the machine.

I thought I’d missed my chance to become an astronaut . . .
Not long after I finished test pilot school, the Project Juno was announced. This was a privately funded mission to put the first Briton in space, using a Soyuz rocket and the Mir Space Station  It was miraculous timing, I’d just became a test pilot, I could speak two languages and I thought I was the perfect candidate. However, so did 13,000 other people and all I received was a generic letter back to let me know that I didn’t make the cut. Although I didn’t completely give up, I did feel I had missed what, as a Brit, might well be my only chance and that was a little frustrating!  It would have been hard to imagine that twenty years later, I would get a second, this time successful opportunity, to realise my lifelong dream and that the opportunity would come about largely by the right choice of airline!
 
After 16 years of service in the RAF . . .
….I left and joined Virgin Atlantic, at the time still a relatively small company and it was exciting to be part of the brand as it expanded rapidly. I was a captain on the 747 fleet which was hugely different from flying the Harrier. I was used to flying on my own, very low, occasionally upside down, and landing vertically.  Now I had this huge aircraft with another pilot next to me, a flight engineer, sixteen cabin crew, hundreds of passengers and tons of cargo, always the right way up and always landing on a runway! But I loved every minute of flying for Virgin Atlantic, and thoroughly enjoyed looking after our customers and the teamwork that goes into each and every flight. I was also very pleased to see the standard of flying and safety was as high as we expected in the RAF.

I first became aware of Virgin Galactic . . .
…in 2003, when a pilot and great adventurer named Steve Fosset was attempting to fly non-stop around the world in an aircraft called the Global Flyer. It was sponsored by Virgin Atlantic and I was invited to visit the Scaled Composites manufacturing site in Mojave, California. While I was there, we saw another vehicle Scaled was working on — SpaceShipOne! I managed to talk my way into getting a ride in the simulator and was completely mesmerised — it was an epiphany. I saw that it was possible for a commercial company to design a reusable, winged vehicle which could take non-professionals safely into space and back. Conversations between Scaled and Virgin developed and eventually Virgin Galactic was born. With my experience as a test pilot and my connections to Virgin through Atlantic, I was in the right place at the right time and crucially, with the right experience.

I remember coming back home to tell my wife that Virgin was going to space; she rolled her eyes and told me the grass needed cutting! At the time it did seem almost unbelievable and with hindsight it was an incredibly bold ambition … but we made it and are now on the verge of providing the experience to many thousands of people.

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Flying Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo is like . . .
… nothing else in the world. The thrust to weight ratio is extremely high so you get this incredible acceleration which is eye-watering and exhilarating but smooth and controlled. We launch from the carrier aircraft at very slow speeds and go supersonic in a matter of seconds before continuing to accelerate and climb right out of the atmosphere. We experience a beautiful contrast as the rocket motor shuts down and we coast upwards through the black sky, in the silence of space and in zero gravity. We then deploy the feathering mechanism, effectively folding the spaceship in half for a remarkably controlled and stable atmospheric re-entry before lowering the feather for a high altitude, dynamic glide right down to a smooth runway landing. SpaceShipTwo is truly a unique, astonishing, beautiful vehicle; without a doubt the most remarkable machine I’ve ever flown.

The part of the flight I’m most excited to share with our future astronauts . . .
…is the view. I’m still unable to find the words to describe it adequately. You’re sitting there in space with no forces on your body. The vehicle is completely still, no motion, no sound and you’re staring down on this incredible vista, taking in the curvature of the Earth and the thin blue line of the atmosphere.

Don’t get me wrong, the acceleration on the way up is jaw dropping – it is something that nobody will have experienced before and it is truly thrilling. But the view from space is beyond your wildest imagination. It is a transformative experience and if our astronaut customers of the future are anything like me, they will be reliving it in their dreams for the rest of their lives.

One day I’d like to . . .
… be a passenger on a Virgin Galactic flight. There’s a saying in aviation that the pilots have the best seats in the house due to the windows up front. But on a Virgin Galactic flight, that privilege definitely belongs to our astronaut passengers. Not only can they see forward through the pilots’ windows but each have a big window to their side and overhead. Once we are in space, we rotate the spaceship onto her back giving the best possible view of our beautiful Earth below to those in the cabin, who will be out of their seats and floating freely. As a pilot, I still get a pretty fabulous view, but I of course have other things to focus on and remain firmly strapped to my seat.
 
My advice for someone who wants to become a Spaceship Pilot is . . .
…to pursue it in every way you can. It’s a big ambition but you have to give yourself the best chance of achieving it. I thought my chance had gone, but thankfully when my opportunity arrived I held all the qualifications I needed. So work hard, but always remember to have fun along the way and enjoy the process.
 
 
 

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