by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Mike Melvill, America’s first commercial astronaut, is the only test pilot I know of that rode on top of an airplane as a test pilot.
In April 1993, Mike Melvill climbed on top of a makeshift seat mounted to the Raptor UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) and took flight. Initially this aircraft was not built to be an optionally manned UAV.
According to Scaled Composites’ website, Raptor was a very early high-altitude UAV meant as a platform for testing the technology to detect short-range ballistic missiles and neutralize them.
In 1992, UAV technology was still being vetted, so having a safety pilot ride onboard was a way to protect the customer’s investment. Recognizing this risk early on, the budget allowed for two vehicle builds, so when the first demonstrator crashed during an unmanned flight, the second demonstrator took its first flight within six months of the loss.
Raptor ultimately met the goals of the program and was transferred to NASA under the ERAST program, where it functioned as a high-altitude test bed. Upon completion of that research, Raptor was donated to the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
This high altitude, long endurance UAV program began with a contract award from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on June 5, 1992.
Melvill is most famous for his flight test work at Scaled Composites with SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan.
Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne on its first flight past the edge of space, flight 15P on June 21, 2004, thus becoming the first commercial astronaut and the 435th person to go into space. He was also the pilot on SpaceShipOne’s flight 16P, the first competitive flight in the Ansari X Prize $10-million competition.
Immigration from South Africa
Melvill moved from South Africa to England in 1960 and married his wife, Sally, in Scotland in 1961. Sally was 17 and Mike was 19 when they eloped. They immigrated to the United States in 1967 and settled in Indiana.
In 1969, Mike earned his pilot’s license and in 1974 he purchased a set of VariViggen plans.
This unique plane was designed by a man named Burt Rutan. Mike said that he had no idea who Burt Rutan was when he bought this set of aircraft plans, but he was the first individual to complete one of these aircraft, with help from his wife Sally and both of his boys. Sally got her pilot’s license in 1977, and they both hopped into their newly completed homemade aircraft, and flew it from Anderson, Ind., to Mojave, Calif., where Burt Rutan had a small company, called The Rutan Aircraft Factory.
Burt had built his own prototype VariViggen, but had not seen another like it until he saw Mike and Sally’s. Burt asked to fly it, and after he had done so, offered both Sally and Mike a job at his company, nearly 2,000 miles from where they lived.
They accepted his offer, sold their home in Indiana, and set off in two cars to drive to the High Desert in California. Mojave is located only 15 miles from Edwards Air Force Base, which was and is the flight testing hub in the United States for the U.S. Air Force.
Mike then returned to Indiana with his youngest son Keith, and together they flew the VariViggen across the country to Mojave.
Mike and Sally worked for Burt Rutan for 32 years and Mike became the test pilot for all of the different aircraft Burt designed over the years. He was vice president/general manager of Scaled Composites and chief test pilot before his retirement in 2007.
Some of Melvill’s test flight experience
• First flight of the Model 72 Grizzly prototype, a short take-off and landing bush plane on Jan. 22, 1982.
• First flight of the Model 77 Solitaire prototype, a self-launching single place sailplane.
• First flight of the Model 81 Catbird prototype, a high performance 5 place general aviation aircraft.
• First flight of the Model 120 Predator prototype, a high performance crop duster.
• First flight of the Model 144 prototype, ultimately flown as a UAV.
• First in flight firing of the GAU-12/U25mm cannon in the Model 151 ARES jet fighter.
• First flight of the Model 202 Boomerang, Burt’s unconventional high performance twin.
• First flight of the Model 226 Raptor, later flown as an RPV, April 1993.
• First flight of the Model 281 Proteus, a high altitude research twin engine jet. July 26, 1998.
• First flight of the Model 316 SpaceShipOne.
Other notable programs and accomplishments
• Beech Starship prototype (NGBA)
• Fairchild’s Next Generation Trainer for the U.S. Air Force (NGT)
• ARES, a single engine, ground support jet fighter.
• Pond Racer, a twin engine racing plane, designed to break the unlimited piston powered world speed record.
• He is the only person to have flown in the Voyager Aircraft besides Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager.
• Total flight time: 6,950 hours in 127 fixed-wing and 11 helicopters
• Holds FAA Commercial certificate, ASEL, AMEL, instrument airplane, Rotorcraft-helicopter and Glider.
Personally built and flight tested:
• Model 27 Variviggen
• Model 61 Long-EZ
• Flew his Long-EZ around the world — Dick Rutan flew his Long EZ along with Melvill in the Experimental Aircraft Association Friendship Tour in 1997.
Mike Melvill is one of the most accomplished civilian test pilots around. He still owns and flies his Long EZ and a Pitts bi-plane. Mike and Sally are still active and enjoying life.