Scaled Composites test pilot Brian Binnie passes

MOJAVE, Calif. — Brian Binnie, the Scaled Composites test pilot who won civilian astronaut wings and focused world attention on Mojave Air and Space Port, died Sept. 15, 2022. He was 69 years old.

Binnie won fame and the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites when Binnie flew SpaceShipOne rocket plane into space on Oct. 4, 2004. The 24-minute flight reached 69.6 miles, breaking a record for winged vehicles set by the X-15 rocket plane in 1963. Test pilot Mike Melville flew the first of the two SpaceShipOne suborbital flights, making Binnie the second civilian to fly into space.

Aerotech News was present the night of May 19, 2022, when the Antelope Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA), the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP), the Society of Flight Test Engineers, (SFTE) and the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPEÆ) put together an informal get-together with Binnie in the banquet room of Medrano’s Mexican Restaurant in Lancaster.

Every seat at every table was occupied. Binnie’s former colleagues at Scaled (now Northrop Grumman) along with men and women in aerospace. And an even younger international contingent of test pilot school students from Switzerland, Australia and Italy, among others were in the audience.

Reflecting on an unexpected outcome he brought to light in his critically acclaimed first-person book, The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne, published in 2019, Binnie told his audience a high-level demand from Washington that SpaceShipOne be quickly handed over for enshrinement in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum came as a blow to hopes for future research flights by that model.

Brian Binnie’s wife, Bub, upon completion of his historic flight in October 2004. (Courtesy photograph)

Months after SpaceShipOne won the prize, Sir Richard Branson announced a joint venture between his Virgin Gallactic and Scaled. The new entity, named TheSpaceShip Company, built SpaceShipTwo, and Branson took his spaceport to New Mexico.

Speaking for more than an hour, without notes while showing slides, Binnie delivered with exactitude, wit and humor his personal experiences at Mojave with other vehicles that didn’t make the cut, notably the Roton Rotary Rocket, which had what he called “an adversarial relationship with Mojave.”

SpaceShipTwo, he said, failed to build on lessons from the original winged SpaceShip. And the conversations he sparked in his remarks, such as, “Unfortunately, it IS rocket science,” went on long after AIAA AV Section officer James Sergeant thanked the audience, presented an AIAA Challenge Coin to Binnie and adjourned.

Before embarking on his civilian journey to space, Binnie served 21 years as a U.S. Naval Aviator, retiring as a commander. He was a graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School. During his naval career he flew the A-7 Corsair, the A-6 Intruder, the F/A-18 Hornet and the AV-8B Harrier.

He retired from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1998, having logged more than 4,300 flight hours.

Binnie is survived by his wife, Bub, and their three children, Justin, Jonathan and Jennifer.

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