back to article RAF pilot seconded to Virgin Orbit for three years of launching rockets from a 747

An RAF Typhoon pilot has been posted to Virgin Orbit as part of the UK government's previously declared plan to grow Blighty's space industry. Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard, formerly of 41 Sqn RAF, will join the Beardy Branson-branded outfit later this year. Stannard will spend three years with the new rocket launch …

  1. Mike Richards

    Newquay airport

    Where it will soon be possible to get a direct flight to orbit, but not a direct bus to Truro.

  2. 2+2=5 Silver badge

    Cornwall?

    While it's nice that Newquay airport has an extra wide runway, the piggy-back launch plane is only a 747 so a normal runway would be fine.

    What would surely make more sense would be to use an airport rather nearer to Sutherland (in Scotland) where our lovely new spaceport is planned, in order to help build a critical mass of jobs and skilled workers?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cornwall?

      >Sutherland (in Scotland) where our lovely new spaceport is planned, in order to help build a critical mass of jobs and skilled workers?

      I don't know why they don't use Prestwick because no bugger else is.

      1. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

        Re: Cornwall?

        Or, say, RAF Scampton, which has a nice long runway, and lots of buildings and infrastructure, and will be available soon,... and this holds for a few more RAF bases.

        I'm kinda peeved about Newquay Airport getting a 747 stationed there,.... as I frequent a very local campsite when I trot down to Cornwall for the annual surfing pilgrimage. It used to be kinda sleepy and quiet despite the airport, but the last twenty years has seen more and more aircraft, and even Jamie frikking Oliver opening a restaurant and ruining what used to be a nice casual beach bar that I used to be able to go in wearing a wetsuit, and take my dog with me.

        1. TipsyTigger

          Re: Cornwall?

          The 747 won't be here that much - Virgin Orbit's plan is to have spaceports (runways) around the world so that they can deliver small satellites into any Low Earth Orbit the customer desires, so Cosmic Girl will be getting about a bit.

          The maximum launches from Cornwall are predicted to be 8 a year, so not really a bother.

        2. Ken 16 Silver badge

          Re: Cornwall?

          Jamie Oliver is being launched into orbit?

          1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: Cornwall?

            We can but hope!

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Cornwall?

            >Jamie Oliver is being launched into orbit?

            Currently there is no rocket powerful enough to launch Mr Oliver into space.

        3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
          Happy

          Re: Cornwall?

          GruntyMcPugh,

          You take your dog into bars wearing a wetsuit? How do you get the dog to put it on?

          Also, what's this thing with the size of the runway. Do you get problems, like in the swimming pool, where the faster plane can't land because little planes are doing widths?

          1. AdamT
            Joke

            Re: Cornwall?

            Can be easily solved with a circular runway....

            https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/circular-airport-runways-experts-henk-hesselink-netherlands-eu-funding-a7667656.html

          2. GruntyMcPugh Silver badge

            Re: Cornwall?

            @I ain't Spartacus

            The dog wera a life jacket : -) One of my old dogs would get on the board with me and surf, his bro just used to stand on the board and look out to sea.

      2. macjules Silver badge

        Re: Cornwall?

        Isn't Prestwick as good as owned by Trump now? Might be something of a nono for Mr Branson.

    2. TipsyTigger

      Re: Cornwall?

      The problem is that when you horizontal launch you have to fly west of Ireland and point it at the North Pole (can't overfly too many countries on the way up).

      If you're going to fly west of Ireland then Cornwall is not a bad place to start from.

      1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Cornwall?

        There is even less distance to fly if you started at say... Prestwick. Hop over Argyle and a couple of the Hebrides and you are in position to press 'Go'.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cornwall?

        Where will it clear customs?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Cornwall?

          I believe they're going to use "technology" for that.

    3. macjules Silver badge

      Re: Cornwall?

      Ah, but not many opportunities in the RAF to go straight to BA with 4-engine qualifications.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Cornwall?

        "Ah, but not many opportunities in the RAF to go straight to BA with 4-engine qualifications."

        If the RAF were to second a pilot to re-train as a 747 pilot, why send a fast jet jockey? The RAF have pilots whose job it is to fly big slow lumbering beasts already. I'd have thought one of them would be able to complete the re-training far more easily.

    4. Korev Silver badge

      Re: Cornwall?

      >What would surely make more sense would be to use an airport rather nearer to Sutherland (in Scotland) where our lovely new spaceport is planned, in order to help build a critical mass of jobs and skilled workers?

      Cornwall is desperate for decent, skilled jobs too. It's one of the poorest regions in Europe, to the point that it qualifies for Objective One funding from the EU.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I hope this is at Sir Dick's expense and not the taxpayer, Sir Dick not even being one of the latter.

  4. vtcodger Silver badge

    It'll be interesting

    ... to see how this all works out. About 60 years ago, some friends worked on a project to determine the feasibility of launching satellites from aircraft. Difficult as it may be to believe, it was perfectly possible back then to design an aircraft not dissimilar to the 747. The B-52 -- still the American standard long range bomber -- dates to that timeframe.

    As I recall, their conclusion was something along the line of. Yes, you can (probably) build it. Yes, it will (probably) work. BUT There's no particular benefit to doing so. The aircraft's velocity does subtract from the roughly 17000/24500 mph/kph necessary to stay in low Earth orbit. But you still need one big mutha rocket to get the rest of the way to LEO.

    And launching from say 30000/10000 ft/m does eliminate some atmospheric drag. But rockets don't travel that fast in the lower atmosphere where drag is greatest. They are still accelerating at low altitudes.

    A flying launch vehicle is going to be complicated and expensive. Where are you going to mount the launch vehicle? If you sling it below the aircraft, how will you take off? If you mount it above, how do you get it clear of the rudder assembly when the aircraft and launch vehicle separate? How will you make sure that the second stage doesn't damage your flying first stage when it is released and ignited? All (probably) tractable problems. But problems non-the less.

    Time will presumably tell.

    1. TipsyTigger

      Re: It'll be interesting

      But satellite technology is much smaller now, hence commercial small satellite launch is becoming a viable market. The launcher is under the wing, and is small enough that it's not a problem. Virgin Orbit are saying they will use half the fuel of a traditional vertical launch, which again cuts down on weight and therefore required thrust. They are pitching for a £10M per launch compared with older horizontal (Pegasus) launch costs of about £60M per launch.

      Vertical launch is still the go-to for heavy lift, though (see Elon Musk).

    2. Pete 2

      Re: It'll be interesting

      > And launching from say 30000/10000 ft/m does eliminate some atmospheric drag

      It's not the drag so much as the atmospheric pressure. The shape of the nozzle (where the exhaust comes out) plays a large part in the efficiency of the engine. And that shape is determined by the surrounding air pressure. What is best at ground level is different from what work at higher altitudes.

      And since most of the travel will be through low-pressure air, higher up, the benefits of a more efflicient nozzle become significant.

      In addition the amount of fuel that is burned just to get the rest of the stack up to 30,000 ft. is a saving too.

    3. Daedalus Silver badge

      Re: It'll be interesting

      The big savings, apparently, are in ground infrastructure. You need a lot of concrete to direct the rocket blast sideways, as well as water to damp down thermal shocks, and your rocket has to be built to withstand buffeting while it clears the pad. That all adds weight.

      Orbital Sciences did small payload air launches years ago, before being pulled back into NASA's er, orbit. I tend to think the thought of private rocket launches from anywhere in the world gave certain parties the heebie jeebies. If you can get to orbit, you can get to anywhere on the planet. And a 500kg payload is a lot of weaponry....

    4. x 7

      Re: It'll be interesting

      Simple answer

      Gerry Anderson showed us how to do it with the Zero-X

  5. Starace Silver badge
    Devil

    Not a promotion is it

    Rotating out to some other job is a pretty normal thing for his career, and at least he gets to do some flying (other than a desk), but I can't think of many fast jet pilots who'd see playing with an antique 747 as a great pastime even if they might get to shoot fireworks off it occasionally.

    1. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: Not a promotion is it

      I can't think of many fast jet pilots who'd see playing with an antique 747 as a great pastime

      Not sure about that. At some point he will leave the RAF and having experience of a multi - engined aircraft currently used in a civil role will stand him in good stead if he wants to become a commercial pilot.

      1. FensMan

        Re: Not a promotion is it

        Do we know that the RAF type will actually be flying the 747? Why would they need an RAF pilot to do that? Surely his knowledge of rocketry would be more relevant, no?

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Not a promotion is it

          I'd have thought the average fighter pilots knowledge of rocketry was fairly limited to knowing things like range and speed of outgoing or incoming missiles and knowing which is the flamey end and which is the pointy end.

    2. AdamT
      Joke

      Re: Not a promotion is it

      Pah! You can shoot fireworks off a helicopter - you don't need a 747 for that!

      Looks totally safe to me: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-dorset-49544471/helicopter-fireworks-at-bournemouth-air-festival

    3. BazNav

      Re: Not a promotion is it

      Seems like the equivalent of a Ferrari F1 test driver being seconded to be a DHL driver to help them improve how they deliver packages

  6. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    Don't watch this one, Mathew

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blgfIyX2F6I

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Trollface

      Re: Don't watch this one, Mathew

      I thought some of the space scenes were unrealistic in Moonraker - and then I saw Ad Astra...

      Although I totally believed the repairing broken space suits with gaffer tape bit. Gaffer tape will fix anything.

      1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        Re: Don't watch this one, Mathew

        It's clear that the region of space used for filming is blessed with a perfectly functional atmosphere.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Don't watch this one, Mathew

          It's called The Smoke Ring and is populated with Integral Trees

  7. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

    Ahh, space

    Our government, ever planning ahead. Is there nowhere they won't look for a post-brexit trade-deal?

    1. Daedalus Silver badge

      Re: Ahh, space

      Ah Godwin's Law v2.0. Any online discussion will sooner or later mention Brexit. Or in Murica, Trump.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  8. Pete 2

    Breaking the habit

    > I've flown Tornado and Typhoon fighter jets in the RAF

    So long as he can resist the urge to buzz the tower while inverted, it should work out well.

  9. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    'we've already orbited your house'

    How soon before we start getting these mailshots?

    https://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/10/31/virgin_media_asa_decision_upheld/

  10. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Linux

    Cue the jokes about a 747 being about as useful a ground attack platform as a 747....

    Its a pity the RN doesn't fly Typhoons, or we could work some (lack of) catapult jokes into this as well!

    (Tux, who is also about as good a ground attack platform as a Typhoon.)

  11. 2Fat2Bald

    I don't recall the details. But there was a plan back in the day to launch rockets under huge balloons. The plan was they would float up (like giant weather balloons) to high altitude without using any fuel and then the rocket engine would ignite and blast the rocket through the balloon into space from 60,000 feet - climbing the first 60k without fuel was supposed to save a lot of fuel. I don't think much came of it. Possibly because the complexities of doing so far outweighed any savings in fuel.

    1. Daedalus Silver badge

      One word: LOHAN

  12. Korev Silver badge
    Mushroom

    The UK is dead keen to lure Virgin Orbit and its converted Boeing 747 spacecraft launcher, Cosmic Girl, from their current US base to Newquay Airport in Cornwall (formerly RAF St Mawgan and proud owners of one of the widest runways in Britain).

    RAF St Mawgan is still there, it's just not a flying base anymore. It's probably quite a sneaky move for the RAF to pass on the costs of running the runways etc. to the civilian world and keep using it. If they ever need to rebuild the RAF then presumably they could reoccupy the base.

    It's been a while since the RAF / US Navy had some of these at St Mawgan -->

    1. Oh Matron!

      Used to enjoy my holibobs in Porth, Newquay, watching the Nimrods flying overhead.

  13. toffer99

    Its all a bit sad, really. RAF pilot gets to drive outdated plane to not very high, then launches little rocket from it. This, ladies and gents is the British Space Programme.

  14. Grooke

    "This programme is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space"

    A nice way of saying "re-defining where space starts to make your achievements look better"?

  15. Kerisun

    It's interesting.

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