A remote desert airfield grants aviation’s iconoclasts the headroom to make history.
Two technicians in overalls stoop to push a gleaming white plane through open hangar doors into the bright sunshine of southern alifornia’s Mojave Desert. The tailless aircraft is about 5,5 m long with a rounded fuselage and sweptback wings, tips bent upward in pronounced winglets.
A pair of canards stretches 4 m across the cone-shaped nose. A two-seat cockpit is slung beneath gullwing doors that look like they belong on a 1954 Benz coup. Basically, the aircraft is a rocket with wings.
The techs remove the cowling that covers the plane’s engine, exposing slender helium tanks and intricate connections of frosted liquid oxygen fuel lines. Two engineers in jeans and sneakers emerge from the hangar. Brandon Woodworth, 26, clipboard in hand, begins a brisk 100-item plus diagnostic rundown.
“Check switch number 9 to check thermocouples on the LOX tank,” Woodworth says. “Any gripes?” In tandem, the techs answer “no”- the temperature sensors on the liquid oxygen tank are functioning. Woodworth nods. “Check switch number 10.”
And so it goes through six pages of procedures. Then the crew tests the igniter, which emits a throaty burp, calibrates the fuel flows and tops off the tank with liquid oxygen cooled to -183 degrees. White mist curls from the nozzle as the gas boils off in the hot sun.
Meanwhile, an interloper on a Harley Davidson pulls up on the road that parallels the chain-link fence along the airport perimeter. Standing on tiptoe, he holds a digital camera above the fence and begins squeezing off shots of the exotic rocket plane 15 m away. The crew ignores him. “He probably couldn’t recognise anything proprietary even if he could get a picture of it,” says Reuben Garcia, 34, crew chief and composite materials ace.
The shooter stows the camera, mounts his Harley and roars off. Whether tourist or aviation paparazzo, he has come to the right place to capture images from the cutting edge of aerospace. The city of Mojave – a low-rise community of 3 800 people, 160 km north of Los -Angeles doesn’t look like much. The dusty main drag has two traffic lights, a cluster of fast-food franchises and one decent roadhouse, Mike’s, where a mix of miners, bikers and pilots drink, shoot pool and watch motorsports on ESPN. The desert winds blow tirelessly.
But on the northern edge of town, that chain-link fence marks the boundary of the Mojave Air and Space Port, which sprawls across 1 335 ha of desert. A control tower stands sentinel over three runways, the longest of which extends more than 3 km out into the scrubby flats. Weathered hangars, some dating back to World War II, line the main runway.
What goes on inside – and above – these nondescript hangars makes Mojave the growing hub of global aerospace research and development. Bizarre aircraft,secret Pentagon programmes and private spaceships take shape in these aluminium-sided buildings. Most hangar doors are shut tight. The few that are cracked open offer glimpses of pressurised tanks, technicians and mechanics in oil-smeared overalls, and smooth white fuselages emblazoned with black tattoos mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration: Experimental.
The tenant in the faded blue hangar housing the rocket plane is XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based outfit that in 2003 invented a helium-powered rocket-fuel pump for a Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project. Most rockets require pressurised tanks to drive propellant to the engine. In XCOR’s system, helium generates the pressure that drives the pump that pulls kerosene from unpressurised wing tanks and LOX from a fuselage tank.
The design has complicated plumbing, but it frees engineers to dream up a wide range of weight-conscious flying machines with unusual aerodynamics. The nascent Rocket Racing League (which plans to field flying teams that will scream around courses at 480 km/h) hired XCOR to design its fleet.
The contract pays the rent, but XCOR has its sights on a bigger prize. The company will incorporate lessons learned from the project into the design of a suborbital spacecraft scheduled to launch in 2010 with a pilot and a paying passenger on board.
XCOR is not the only company at Mojave hoping to turn spaceflight into a private business. Just 50 m from the company’s headquarters stands a row of hangars leased by Scaled Composites, the firm founded by legendary aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan. Scaled’s long line of radical aircraft includes Voyager, which in 1986 became the first plane to fly around the world non-stop and unrefuelled. Rutan’s biggest coup: the $10 million Ansari X Prize he won in 2004 when SpaceShipOne became the first private craft to take a pilot into space, blasting 102 000 m above Mojave twice in six days. Behind closed hangar doors and blacked-out windows, Scaled is building new space tourism vehicles for its partner, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
The new Area 51
Aerospace history is often made in isolated places where risky designs and radical procedures can be tested beyond the inhibiting scrutiny of patrons and public officials. Places where mistakes won’t crash into houses or shopping malls.
The most famous test ground was the US Air Force base at Groom Lake, Nevada, a secret facility that inspired iconic nicknames – the Ranch, Dreamland, Area 51 or, simply, “the remote location”. For all the mystery and alien-conspiracy hype, Groom Lake legitimately secured its place in history as the birthplace of revolutionary aircraft such as the high-flying U-2 spy plane, the supersonic SR-71 Blackbird and the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk.
At its apogee during the Cold War, Groom Lake was a top-secret site where huge defence contractors worked on classified military planes. Mojave has inherited a whiff of that Dreamland secrecy. Airport officials admit cryptically that some tenants work on “black” government projects.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on I don’t want to know about,” says Jim Balentine, president of the airport district’s board of directors. “We have tenants who don’t even want to disclose who they are.”
Mojave qualifies as the new Area 51 not because of large military contractors – there’s only one here – but because it has lured a critical mass of small, entrepreneurial private-sector players to a freewheeling test bed that’s open to anyone with the funding, brainpower and ambition to devise a new way to fly, within the atmosphere or above it.
No homeowners encroach on the deliciously long runways. Tenants can access otherwise reserved military airspace and a supersonic flight corridor, thanks to an agreement with Edwards Air Force Base, 32 km to the east. The world-renowned, civilian-run National Test Pilot School provides a steady stream of cockpit jockeys.
All this helps to make Mojave the place to go for designers with experimental aircraft to test. Long-time Mojave residents become almost jaded about seeing exotic, one-off flying machines overhead. “We look at this place as the best-kept secret in the business,” says Marie Walker, a longtime resident, owner of a small composite parts-manufacturing firm and another member of the airport’s board. “We can see the future from here.”
The spaceport that Dan built
Mojave’s earliest airport was scraped into the desert in 1935 to serve the surrounding gold and silver mines. The government appropriated it during World War II as a Marine auxiliary air station, where Corps pilots received gunnery training. When the Marines pulled out in 1961, the airfield might have slowly reverted to sagebrush if not for an aviation-obsessed rancher.
Dan Sabovich, who liked to fly his V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza from his own strip on his farm near Bakersfield, California, had a vision for the under-utilised facility. He imagined Mojave as a civilian test-flight centre that would cater to experimental aviation and be run by its own elected officials who could shiel
d the airfield from political interference and protect its spirit of adventure.
Sabovich had the political savvy to match his outsize vision; in 1972, after enduring several years of his intense lobbying, the state created Mojave’s special airport district. Sabovich ran the airport until 2002; he died in 2005. But the marriage he envisioned between public spirit and private enterprise lives on. Today, most of the airport district’s board of directors are tenants, pilots or both.
Two years after the airport district was founded, Burt Rutan, a young aeronautical engineer from California Polytechnic, arrived to set up the Rutan Aircraft Factory. “Trouble was, I could not afford a hangar,” Rutan once told a reporter. “Dan let me have a hangar at no charge. If he had not, I doubt that Voyager would have been built.”
Other aviation companies followed in Rutan’s slipstream – aircraft rehab artists, kit-plane makers, plane storage specialists, flight-test gurus and composite parts manufacturers. Then, in the mid 1990s, rocketeers began to arrive. One of the first was Rotary Rocket, a company founded by Gary Hudson to develop a low-cost, manned, reusable spacecraft, Roton.
Hudson hired Rutan’s outfit to help build a 19 m-high prototype that was designed to be launched like a conventional rocket, boosted by a novel rotary engine that burned paraffin and liquid oxygen. After re-entry, pilots were supposed to make helicopter-style landings using nosemounted rotors. The ungainly, bulletshaped craft made a few short hops, but the company itself never really got off the ground, finally folding in 2001 when contracts failed to materialise.
In November 2006, the Roton prototype was moved from the outskirts of the airport to a small park near the port’s entrance. Some might see the awkward-looking rocket’s prominent position as a kind of joke – a monument to failure. But Mojave’s veteran rocketeers are more likely to see it as a tribute to audacity.
“When the Roton was relegated to an obscure corner of the airfield, I used to feel like I had wasted three years of my life,” says Hudson, who still operates rocket companies at Mojave. “Now that it’s been moved, I feel pride when I see it. Prior to Rotary, few people spoke about commercial human spacefl ight only satellite launching. Now everyone does.”
In 2004, the FAA certified Mojave as a spaceport, which means private firms there can launch craft into orbit. Stuart Witt, the current general manager of the airport, is trying to preserve Sabovich’s mission. Like his predecessor, Witt offers cut-rate rents to start-up companies, allowing them to grow. Most tenants today are subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, living off corporate patrons like Middle Ages guildsmen. “We need places like Mojave to be the kindling ground where it’s okay to take risks,” Witt says. “That was Dan Sabovich’s genius. He saw that.”
Risk is always in the air at Mojave. And in this business, the word means more than a failed public relations campaign or burst market bubble. In July 2007, at the rocket test range in a remote corner of the airfield, Scaled conducted a cold-flow test – one that does not include igniting a rocket – on a new engine component for SpaceShipTwo. Three seconds into the test, a pressurised tank of nitrous oxide exploded, killing three people and injuring three others. The FAA and California work safety regulators descended on Mojave.
“It was one inspection after another,” says Bob Rice, the port’s operations director. After a six-month investigation, federal and state inspectors were unable to determine the exact cause of the accident. “We all learned something,” Witt says. “It was an eye-opener to see government in action and, in many ways, overreaction.”
In late 2007, the FAA briefly threatened to rescind Mojave’s spaceport licence. Instead, after inspecting the facilities, the agency instituted safety-related amendments to the licence. In January 2008, the state levied R200 000 in fines on Scaled Composites. “We had done a lot of these tests with SpaceShipOne,” Rutan later said. “We felt it was completely safe.”
Phantoms and legends
Fortunately, the average work day at Mojave is far less dramatic. Amid the futuristic space planes and experimental prototypes, it’s not uncommon to see a Vietnam-era warplane wheeled on to a runway. In a large hangar on the outskirts of the airfield, BAE Flight Systems rewires F-4 Phantoms to serve as remotely operated targets for live-fire air-to-air missile training in Florida. Essentially, the Phantoms are being prepared for suicide missions.
Inside a small hangar at the opposite end of the flight line from BAE, Jon and Patricia Sharp store their carbon-fibre kit plane, the Nemesis NXT. Patricia, who makes handcrafted composite parts, impales tennis balls on the super-sharp wingtips of the prop-driven prototype to prevent workshop bloodletting. The Sharps’ previous racer broke so many speed records that the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum mounted it as an exhibit.
A few hangars away, JoAnn Painter and her husband Wen are trying to fix the radio in their fixed-wing Pietenpol Air Camper before an afternoon flight. Wen is a legend at Nasa’s Dryden Research Centre, one of a cadre that revolutionised wingless flight. JoAnn, who sits in the cockpit wearing vintage aviator goggles and helmet, is the vice-president of the airport’s board of directors and the retired owner of a flight instruction school.
Above their heads, a bright white aircraft circles in the azure Mojave sky. It’s an experimental warplane called Ares, designed by Scaled Composites in the 1980s to replace the Air Force’s tankbusting A-10 Warthog. One side of the airplane has an air intake; the other, a similar-size gap to house a 25 mm cannon. The military passed on the plane, but here it is flying again, for reasons known only to secretive Scaled.
A place to launch
At the rocket test range, not far from where the Scaled explosion occurred, a half-dozen 20-something engineers and technicians from Protoflight, a Mojave headquartered company that designs rocket engines, scramble over a 10
Birds of Mojave
Four reasons why visitors to the airfield always look up.
Jon and Patricia Sharp’s 260 kW sport class aircraft, available to customers, can cruise at 523 km/h and climb at 900 m per minute. The air