[Update: FAA grounds SpaceShipTwo] Virgin Galactic responds to FAA investigation over Unity 22 flight deviation

During July’s Unity 22 spaceflight of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, The New Yorker reports that the pilots deviated off their approved course. In the report, they state the FAA has begun an investigation; Virgin Galactic replies.

Nicholas Schmidle with The New Yorker reported that during flight, Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, named Unity, flew outside its designated flight path and is being investigated by the FAA.

On the July 11th flight, with Branson on board, it was a trajectory problem, or what’s known as the “entry glide cone.” This method, mimicking water circling a drain, enables a controlled descent. But the ship must begin its descent within a specified, imaginary “cone” to have enough glide energy to reach its destination. The pilots basically weren’t flying steeply enough.

An F.A.A. spokesperson confirmed that Virgin Galactic “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance” and that an “investigation is ongoing.” A Virgin Galactic spokesperson acknowledged that the company did not initially notify the F.A.A. and that the craft flew outside its designated airspace for a minute and forty-one seconds—flights generally last about fifteen minutes—but said that the company was working with the F.A.A. to update procedures for alerting the agency.

Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker
Richard Branson flying inside VSS Unity during July’s flight. Credit: Unity

Flying out of designated airspace could mean big trouble for Virgin Galactic if the FAA wants to punish the company for the mistake. Virgin Galactic responded Thursday to The New Yorker’s claims.

Virgin Galactic’s statement on mishap

Unity 22 was a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols. When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they have been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.

Statement on FAA:

Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, the Unity 22 flight did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the protected airspace. As a result of the trajectory adjustment, the flight did drop below the altitude of the airspace that is protected for Virgin Galactic missions for a short distance and time (1 minute and 41 seconds) before re-entering restricted airspace that is protected all the way to the ground for Virgin Galactic missions. At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs. We are working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.

Virgin Galactic

Whether or not Virgin Galactic broke any rules during their flight will be determined when the FAA finishes its investigation. Hopefully, this will not affect any flight preparations for Virgin Galactic’s upcoming Unity 23 launch. Which will fly the first commercial research flight for the company.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactric’s SpaceShipTwo

In a statement Thursday the FAA announced that Virgin Galactic cannot return to flying SpaceShipTwo until they have determined the cause of Unity 22’s mishap. This most likly means we will see a slip in Virgin Galactic’s Unity 23 mission until the FAA gives their ok.

The FAA is responsible for protecting the publc during commerical space transportation launch and reentry operations. The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11th SpaceShipTwo mishap that occured over Spaceport America, New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety.

Federal Aviation Administration

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