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A Great Loss in Aerospace — Brian Binnie has Flown West

Sept. 14, 2022, was a sad day in aerospace with the loss of a great test pilot and friend to many in this community.

These words were posted on his Facebook page: “With overwhelming grief, sadness, and sorrow we announce the passing of our beloved Brian. Arrangements are being made at this time for Brian’s final resting ceremony to take place at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. We kindly ask for privacy during this time for our family to grieve the loss of our husband, father, brother, and friend. More information will be announced as we prepare to celebrate Brian with full military honors and his life as an American hero”

From left: Brian Binnie, Paul G. Allen and Burt Rutan. (Courtesy photograph)

On Oct. 4, 2004, Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne for the second Ansari X Prize flight. He soared to a record height of 367,442 feet, exceeding Mach 3 and broke the altitude record set in 1963 by the North American X-15. Binnie became the world’s second Commercial Astronaut, as well as the first Scotsman, to reach space.

Binnie flew two “firsts” in SpaceShipOne: the first supersonic flight, and the flight that won the $10-million Ansari X Prize. These flights were the first and last powered flights of SS1. The first powered flight was on the 100th anniversary of powered flight, Dec. 17, 2003. The rocket engine was lit for just 15 seconds and Binnie was propelled to a speed of Mach 1.2 and a height of 67,800 feet.

We have the opportunity to relive these flights from Brian’s point of view in his book — “The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne.” Binnie recently completed the book about SpaceShipOne — that marvelous program, under the helm of Burt Rutan, from 2001-2004. It is colorful and humorous, with an entirely different perspective from anything previously written.

Binnie was born in West Lafayette, Ind., in 1953. His Scottish father was a professor of physics at Purdue University. When Binnie was five, the family returned to Scotland and his father taught at Aberdeen University. His formative years were in a country very different from America. When he was a teenager, the family moved back to America and settled in Boston.

He gave one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever heard at a Veterans Day Ceremony at Mojave Airport in 2006. He is a true patriot and loves America.

He said, “When this great nation is called to arms, as the saying goes, we fight to protect our way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In a word we fight for FREEDOM And Veteran’s Day remembers those who have fought.”

In some parts of Scotland at the time, Protestants and Catholics are segregated and went to separate schools. Binnie was surprised when he started high school in America and everyone attended the same schools. He was surprised to see that nobody cared about that difference.

He said, “I learned that immigrants came here from the world over and were embraced by the bright shining beacon that was the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. What made this nation strong and unique in the world was that of all these different cultures were willing to buy into the core belief that all men are created equal and that individualism and a free market would trump over anything any government could manage or direct.

I believe that this great melting pot is often misrepresented today as our obligation to “celebrate diversity.” It was or is nothing of the kind. They choose instead to overlook their differences because they had a more important need to satisfy, Freedom.”

He stated, “But here in Mojave, the irrepressible nature of the American spirit shines brightly. Our agenda may not be as fundamental as life, death and war but we are very much involved in our version of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“I can think of few activities as liberating or rewarding as flying. And our more recent extension of this pursuit to rockets, space ships and suborbital flight has put little old Mojave, front and center on the global map of pioneers.”

Binnie refers to Burt Rutan, Founder of Scaled Composites and designer of SS1 as the King of Dreams. “It has been the freedom that Mojave has afforded those that came here to tinker, test, try and fail that has made it so special. Yankee ingenuity, unfettered by rules, regulations and red tape. It’s a winning combination every time it’s tried.”

At an event for the Experimental Aircraft Association, Binnie said, “Nothing could compare to piloting the little spaceship Burt built.”

Binnie was interested in flying from an early age. He has a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering; Master of Science in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics from Brown University; Master of Science in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University; he served 21 years in the U.S. Navy as a naval aviator; graduate of the U.S. Navy’s Test Pilot School (Class 93, June 1987-May 1988) at Patuxent River, Md. In the Navy, he flew the A-7 Corsair, A-6 Intruder, F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier.

Brian Binnie (Courtesy photograph)

Binnie co-piloted the Rotary Rocket Roton in 1999. Flying the Roton was extremely challenging, to say the least as visibility in the cockpit was so restricted that the pilots nicknamed it the Bat-cave. They couldn’t see the ground at all and had to rely on a sonar altimeter to guess where the ground was. The entire Roton wanted to spin due to the torque of the spinning rotor blades, so they had to counteract the yaw thrust in the opposite direction, and at the same time keep it moving down the runway.

First flight was early in the morning on July 28, 1999, with three short hops rising above the runway only eight feet. The second flight, on Sept. 16, lasted 2-minutes and 30-seconds reaching an altitude of 20-feet. More powerful rotor tip thrusters had been installed which made the sustained flight possible.

The third and final flight was on Oct. 12 and the ATV reached a speed of 53 miles per hour, at 75-feet above the ground and flew almost half way down Runway 30. It flew close to one mile, at 4,300-feet.

During his time in the Navy, Binnie logged more than 4,300 flight hours, served five operational carrier tours that included 490 carrier landings, as well as combat operations associated with all of Desert Shield, Desert Storm and subsequently Operation Southern Watch. He had 13 years of experience in flight-test at each of the Navy’s three principal RDT&E sites, which has involved performance, software and weapon systems testing. He had flown 37 different aircraft and was a licensed Airline Transport Pilot.

Binnie was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a published member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“We will always treasure the times shared with this talented and compassionate man. He was a wonderful friend to many in the aerospace community and will be deeply missed. Praying God’s blessings of peace on his wife, children and family.”

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